At age nine, Gadd’s father took him to meet one of his drumming heroes, Gene Krupa, who was appearing at the Ridgecrest Inn in Rochester. This may have inspired the youngster to bear down even harder on his drumming lessons, because he continued to show remarkable progress from this point.
After winning a local talent contest in 1956, at age 11, Steve was flown to Hollywood to make a national TV appearance on Walt Disney’s popular variety show, The Mickey Mouse Club. His segment featured him playing drums and also tap dancing while Mousketeer Cubby O’Brien supported him on the kit. He continued studying drums with William and Stanley Street and by 1959 began lessons with John H. Beck, principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic.
While still in his early teens, Gadd’s parents began bringing him around to local clubs to observe the visiting jazz musicians who came through Rochester. “I got to see people like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Kai Winding, Carmen McCrae, Ray Bryant, and many others,” he recalls. “On Sunday afternoons they’d have matinees, and sometimes the musicians would let us sit in. So I was sitting in with some of these jazz greats when I was just a kid, and so was Chuck and Gap Mangione.” On one memorable matinee, Gadd sat in with jazz trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, and on various other occasions he got to showcase his shuffle groove with Hammond B-3 masters Groove Holmes, Hank Marr, and Jack McDuff.
All through elementary and high school, Gadd played in drum corps, later drawing on that invaluable experience to help forge his groundbreaking style. As he says of those formative years in the Rochester Crusaders drum corps, “I loved it. My best friends were also in the drum corps, so it was a lot of fun. But we were also serious about the drumline. We weren’t screwing around. We wrote our own parts — some really hip four-part things — and we practiced hard. We really listened to each other and really tried to play like one person. And the thing that made it inviting to me was the power of the team together.” That aesthetic ingrained into him at such an early age would help make Gadd the consummate team player on New York’s lucrative session scene years later.
In 1961, as a member of the School Band Of America, Gadd participated in a European tour. After graduating from Eastridge High School, he enrolled in the Manhattan School Of Music and later transferred to the Eastman School Of Music. In early 1965, Gadd was hired by Rochester-based trumpeter Chuck Mangione to play in his quintet, which also featured a young unknown pianist from Boston named Chick Corea. During their tenure with Mangione, Corea and Gadd would get together after gigs for late-night record-listening sessions. As Corea recalls, “Steve was already a great player but his style was coming more out of the old school. So I had him check out more closely what Tony [Williams] was doing with Miles [Davis], and I think that really affected him. It opened up his concept a bit and gave him a looser approach to the kit.”
During the mid-’60s, while still attending Eastman, Gadd also played frequently in a trio with Mangione’s pianist brother, Gap, and an upright bassist from Brookline, Massachusetts named Tony Levin (who would go on to fame as an electric bassist playing with the likes of John Lennon, Paul Simon, King Crimson, and Peter Gabriel). Gap’s trio had a steady five-nights-a-week gig at The Other Side Of The Tracks supper club in Rochester — a laboratory of sorts for Gadd to develop new ideas and work on creating an indelible chemistry with the rest of the band.
Gadd graduated from Eastman in early 1968 and by August of that year found himself on his first-ever New York City recording session, playing on Gap Mangione’s Diana In The Autumn Wind, a collection of compositions by his brother Chuck, arranged for Gap’s trio and a 15-piece ensemble that included such veteran New York session players as trumpeters Snooky Young, Clark Terry, and Marvin Stamm, saxophonists Jerome Richardson, Frank Wess, and Joe Farrell, trombonist Wayne Andre, guitarist Sam Brown, and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, an alumni of the Buddy Rich big band who would later form White Elephant, L’Image, and Steps (later known as Steps Ahead). Mainieri remembers the positive impression 23-year-old Gadd made on that Gap Mangione session.
“That was a very busy time for session players in New York. If you were an A player or even a B player, you could work 24/7, as they say. It was the kind of thing where you’d get a call for a date and you didn’t know whether it was for an album or a jingle, but you’d show up and play the gig no matter what it was. And one day I got a call from Manny Albam, who was one of my producers. And Manny says to me, ’We got a session for you from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. Bring mallets. You’re playing vibes and a little timpani.’ So I show up and it turns out to be a big band session. All the usual A players were there — all the cats. And this guy was conducting. What’s his name? Chuck Mangione. Never heard of him. And who’s the artist? His brother, Gap Mangione, a piano player from Rochester. Gap brought his own trio down for the session. It was Tony Levin playing an upright electric bass and this kid with a G.I. haircut on drums named Steve Gadd. And all of us guys on the session were looking at each other wondering, ’Who are these guys?’ And we’re thinking, ’This is going to be a long day.’ In any case, all I remember about the session was that the charts were nice, well written. The piano player was okay. I don’t remember too much about the bass player. But everybody walked away from that session saying, ’Who the fuck was that drummer?’”
Shortly after that Gap Mangione recording, Gadd enlisted in the military and wound up playing in the U.S. Army’s Stage Band based in Washington DC, a gig he held for the next three years. “At that time, the draft was on,” Gadd explains. “And if you went in that way they could send you anywhere. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I enlisted before I could be drafted. That was my plan. I auditioned during my last year at Eastman and got accepted into the army band. Then, right after I graduated from college that June, I got my draft notice. But since I had already enlisted in the band before I had to show up for the draft, I didn’t have to go to Vietnam. Instead, I was based just outside of Washington DC, and I stayed there for three years.”
After being discharged in late 1971, Gadd returned to Rochester and began playing in big bands while also gigging around town and occasionally in New York City in a trio with bassist Levin and pianist Mike Holmes. As Mainieri recalls, “Tony invited me down to check out their trio and sure enough it was Gadd on drums. That was the second time I met Steve. I was playing a few nights later with White Elephant, but it was actually called Red Eye then. We had a gig at the Village Gate and Steve came down to hear the band. I talked to him afterwards and said, ’Man, you belong in New York.’ And he said, ’Tony’s trying to get me down here, but my father, my family ... it’s difficult.’ He was a family guy with a wife and two kids and was hesitant about leaving that scene up in Rochester.”