A Conversation With Freddie Gruber
A Conversation With Freddie Gruber<Ed. Note: Following the death of renowned drum teacher Freddie Gruber yesterday, our publisher Phil Hood penned this remembrance of Freddie and some of his teaching techniques.
He hopped, he bopped, he danced, and he taught. Most of all he stayed outside the mainstream.
I first met Freddie Gruber 20 years ago, but I didn’t get to really know him until about 2004. That was when I dropped in on Freddie during a visit to Los Angeles to see some advertisers. After that I would try to come by once or twice a year and spend the evening with him, usually just talking about long-ago people and events he experienced as a young drummer in New York during the height of the jazz age in the late '40s and early '50s. They were some of the best evenings I've ever spent.
They had to be evenings because until very late in life the idea of getting up before noon was anathema to Freddie. He kept jazz musician hours all his life. Get to bed by 5:00 A.M., get up by noon.
Freddie was one of the most complex people I've ever met. He was extremely proud of what he’d accomplished. After all, he had counseled several generations of great drummers such as Mitch Mitchell, John Guerin, Neil Peart, and Dave Weckl. Walk around his house and you'd see little mementos, like signed thank-you notes from Mitch Mitchell or pics of Freddie with pals like Ray Mosca, Terry Gibbs, Buddy Rich, and Roy Haynes. But it wasn’t because Freddie got an ego boost from being known as a great drum teacher to the stars or Buddy Rich’s great friend in life.
What the accolades meant to Freddie was not that he was important, but that he had passed on something valuable from where he came: the knowledge of the naturally unflappable coolness and groove that lies at the heart of great jazz. Where other teachers taught grip, meter, and technique, Freddie taught drummers to breathe, to relax, to tap dance across the set. He tried to take aggressive, forceful, ergonomically challenged drummers like the young Weckl or Peart and turn them into more flexible, spontaneous, and natural versions of themselves. He helped drummers channel their inner Roy Haynes, finding a power spot of perfect spontaneous facility and groove.
Whenever I think of Freddie I often think of Norman Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro: Reflections On The Hipster.” Writing in 1959, Mailer described white people who wanted to be black. He didn’t mean white kids who rapped or break-danced, or Midwest football players who speak Ebonics. The white Negro was a Caucasian who lived outside the stricter social and political boundaries that defined middle class life in the middle half of the 20th century. The white negro was a person who voluntarily dropped out of that culture and into the culture of the street, and adopted aspects of a disenfranchised black underworld. That was Freddie. As a young drummer he was a misfit, a prodigious talent who became a drug addict; a free spirit who was better at getting high and making time with the ladies than at keeping gigs or staying out of jail. Once he found his calling as a drum teacher, he cleaned up, but he was still the same rebellious spirit. He steered clear of "the straight life" of day jobs, wives, kids, and obligations. When it would get late at night, and I had to head to the airport to fly home to northern California, he'd say. "Why don't you stay over, sleep on the couch?" And, then he'd look at me, knowing I wanted to get home to my family and say "Oh, yeah, I forgot. Straight life."
I recorded a couple of our conversations. I wish I'd recorded more because people are interested in what Freddie had to say. He's the mysterious drum teacher to the stars that few people have actually seen play. But I've put down a few things I heard him say about teaching over the years. Keep in mind as you read that Freddie had his own language, a private argot that was a relic of the Beat era, jazz, heroin, and music. A good thing or a good time was a "picnic." Over the top was "out the window" To go crazy was to "nut out." And to any crazy, irrational thing or person or idea that was in our world and not going to change, Freddie always had a weary but unbeaten summation: "It is what it is."
(Left) Freddie Gruber with Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones
DRUMmagazine.com: The students who have worked with you go all around the world singing your praises. Whether it’s David Weckl , Peter Erskine, Clayton Cameron or whoever. So people know of you, but they don’t know what you do. What’s a lesson like with Freddie Gruber? What is it that drummers like David Weckl and Neil Peart and Ian Wallace and so many others come to you to learn?
Gruber: Well I surely ain’t going to go on for page after page … RLRR LRLL. The thing with a drummer is first, “Don't make him something he’s not. Make him a better him.” You know? Give him the rifle and let him pick the target.
Once you give someone the tools, he’ll say, “I never felt that before. It’s like it’s playing by itself." And I say, “Then don't get in the fuckin' way of it.” I try to take them to the place where they can experience it emotionally. They get the feeling of the time and the space and letting go and they say, “This is a great place.” That's what it is about. Where they are playing and they're free flowing.
DRUMmagazine.com: But still, when you sit down with a student at the drum set, you have to teach some concrete things.
Gruber: It’s true. To learn to play naturally and freely you might have to nail some of it down intellectually, with exercises, but music is trick shit. Playing exercises is not to lead you to the technique but to feeling certain things, feeling the music. Once you do that you don’t work so hard. You allow music to happen, you let it breathe. Most musicians are too busy killing it all the time to relax and let it happen.
I got a CD here from Jimmy Chapin. It was sitting around and I didn’t even know it was here and my student pointed it out. It says, “Freddie, you started more than you know. To an innovator, thanks, Jimmy.” Isn't that great?
With some people you have to do that. Like with David [Weckl], I watched him play and thought, “By the time he’s 51 he'll be paraplegic.” So many people play correctly, as the music was taught and as it’s notated, but that's not really it. When they don't have the feel right it's like 1 2 3 4 [speaks mechanically] and underneath it all you can tell it’s like tubas and bass drums, 1 2, 1 2, They are superimposing the invisible 2/4. Speed it up, mix it up, but it’s still all the old European horseshit. That is not the thing that is underneath African music.
With that real rhythmic music you can ask if it’s four, or is it twelve, or is it really three? Until you understand how it works or what it is, that it’s all there all the time. You define what aspect of the time and space is important for you and that’s your style or your expression. Einstein was right – “Without space you don’t have time.” I can take any student and show them in an elementary way this. The audible sound is the end result of what you are doing as you hurtle through space. If you try to legislate time, like a metronome does – “tick tock, tick tock, or else” — well that’s the music industry today. But that is not the magic. The magic is when you let it all go and it happens effortlessly.