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Freddie Gruber: None of a Kind

Freddie Gruber and Buddy Rich are driving along at 3 a.m. in Palm Springs, heading to a 7-Eleven near Rich’s pad to get a late night nosh. They’re kibitzing back and forth, as old-school New Yorkers tend to do, when all of a sudden Rich blurts out, “Jesus Christ, Gruber! You’re one of a kind, man!” One year later, Rich and Gruber are driving along that same stretch of road in Palm Springs, heading to the same 7-Eleven at three in the morning when out of nowhere Buddy blurts out, “I changed my mind. You’re none of a kind!”

This is one of many classic Freddie Gruber stories-apocryphal or not-that many of his students like to tell.

But Rich was right.

Anyone who has ever gigged with, studied with or even encountered the colorfully cantankerous Freddie Gruber-as I did in a marathon late-night interview session at his midtown Manhattan pad-understands that he is indeed none of a kind. And though he may be regarded largely as irascible and enigmatic, Freddie remains one of the most widely revered figures in the drumming world.

Active on New York’s 52nd Street scene during the late ’40s, Gruber has for nearly 50 years been primarily behind the scenes as a world-renowned drum teacher. Dispensing the Zen-like wisdom of Yoda with the caustic delivery of Don Rickles, Freddie has enlightened and altered the playing habits of countless students, including Bill Goodwin, John Guerin, Jim Keltner, Peter Erskine, Adam Nussbaum, Ian Wallace, Anton Fig, Rod Morgenstein, Kenny Aronoff, Neil Peart, Clayton Cameron, Dave Weckl and Steve Smith. As drummer Nussbaum notes: “Freddie has helped me become more physically aware of what’s happening with my body and the instrument. He’s really opened me up.”

Vital Information bandleader Steve Smith adds, “Freddie was able to help me play with a much more graceful and natural approach, which translates to a more relaxed and swinging time feel and the ability to easily play my ideas. When he comes to my gigs and I’m getting in the way of the music or trying to force something, he’ll nail me on it, and he’ll always be right.”

Or as Jim Keltner puts it, “Freddie is a veritable walking book of musical history and one of the few remaining links to the most innovative era in drumming.”

Born on May 27, 1927, Gruber grew up in an East Bronx tenement. Living in that ethnically mixed neighborhood, Freddie quickly soaked up the clave feel until he had the Afro-Cuban rhythm in his bones. “I picked up the Latin thing from playing in the backyards on soup cans and from hearing it every day on the way to school. That was the language of the neighborhood and I understood that language. It helped keep me from getting beat up.”

Starting out as a tap dancer gave Gruber a strongly ingrained sense of swing, which he applied to his drums. Along the way he studied with some great teachers, including Henry Adler, Freddie Albright and Mo Goldenberg, while apprenticing with pianist Joe Springer, who was also Billie Holiday’s accompanist at the time. Gruber would later put in nine months of roadwork with Rudy Vallee and debut on 52nd Street with Harry “The Hipster” Gibson at the Three Deuces. Meanwhile, his penchant for subdivisions and polyrhythms behind the kit began drawing favorable notice from members of the jazz press.

“The Shape of Drums to Come,” a 1947 Metronome article by Barry Ulanov, raves about the hotshot 19-year-old drummer from the Bronx: “This kid is the end, or anyway the beginning…something like a cross between a Belgian percussionist and Buddy Rich, with overtones of the music of Edgard Varese, that astonishing composer for the drums. It’s a handsome amalgam of all the great schools of percussion-primitive, sophisticated, old, modern; and it jumps!”

Two years later, when he was playing in a quartet led by clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and also featuring guitarist Tal Farlow, Gruber was included in a 1949 Down Beat roundup, “Listing Top Drummers,” that stated: “His ability to play multiple rhythms, his constant playing behind the band and what seemed like his impeccable taste in his choice of what to play, mark him as a musician to watch closely.”

The legendary drum teacher Jim Chapin and jazz writer Ira Gitler confirm that Gruber was indeed way ahead of his time with his freewheeling approach to the kit. As Chapin said in a recent instructional DVD: “Forty-five years have gone by, and nobody has caught up to Freddie’s solo style yet. He was the first one, to my knowledge, to play in a polyrhythmic way.”

Although Gruber’s years in New York during the golden years of the 52nd Street scene are filled with rich tales of innumerable gigs, sessions, rehearsals and loft jams-a veritable bebop highlight reel-one of his more memorable musical situations was an all-star big band that came together briefly in 1949. The group was comprised of such heavyweights as Charlie Parker, Zoot Sims, Red Rodney, Frank Rosolino, Al Cohn and Al Porcino. “That was basically a rehearsal band, but the problem was you couldn’t control these guys because everybody was a star and everybody was stoned out of their minds. The best moments happened when everybody went to the bathroom to get high, leaving just the rhythm section and Bird to play. That’s when it really took off.” (Today, only bootleg recordings exist of this mythical rehearsal group.)

Around this same time, Gruber also played several private parties at the home of New York photographer Milton Greene (famed for his iconic shots of a young Marilyn Monroe, among other celebrity subjects). Some of the other participants at those bop-fueled jams included Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Sims, Cohn, Rodney and Allen Eager. A few of those 1949 jams at Greene’s place were documented and some are on a two-CD Allen Eager compilation, In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee (Uptown, 2003).

From 1952 to 1955, Gruber maintained a special friendship with drummer Philly Joe Jones. He was living in Greenwich Village during that period and gigging regularly at the nearby Riviera restaurant, where he played strictly brushes in a piano trio with Roger “Ram” Ramirez (composer of “Lover Man”). The subsequent pianists on that Riviera gig were George Handy and then Gil Evans, a close friend from their Claude Thornhill big-band days. Gruber also played briefly at Snooky’s with bassist Oscar Pettiford while jamming and gigging informally with a host of “under the table guys” including saxophonists Brew Moore, Dave Schildkraut and Eddie Shu (who also worked as a ventriloquist when he wasn’t playing in the Gene Krupa Trio) and cult-figure trumpeter Tony Fruscella, whom Gruber calls “the heart and soul of what lyricism is all about.”

But by 1955, Gruber’s long-standing heroin habit had gotten the best of him. “By that time I was down to 92 pounds and I couldn’t get further than the corner to see my connection,” he says. “Every day it was the same horseshit, and at some point I just realized, ‘Man, I’m gonna die!’ Fuck this! I’m outta here!'”

He remembers seeing Charlie Parker three days before his death on March 12, 1955, and by May he left town with the intention of reclaiming his life and his career in Los Angeles.

And although he got sidetracked in Las Vegas for about a year and a half (“That was a fun time-staying up all night, having breakfast with crazy comics like Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene”), Gruber did eventually make it to Los Angeles in 1957. One of the first people he ran into there was fellow drummer Shelly Manne, who encountered him on Sunset Boulevard one day and stated, “I thought you were dead!”

Manne had known Gruber from back in New York and promptly set him up with a musicians’ union card and a job playing at the Beverly Wilshire. But Gruber rebelled against the conservative nature of that gig and he soon gravitated to a wide-open after-hours scene outside the city limits where he mixed it up with such potent players as pianists Hampton Hawes, Elmo Hope and Joe Albany, saxophonists Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards and Harold Land, bassist George Morrow and vibist Bobby Hutcherson, among many others. A young bass player named Charlie Haden had just come to town and he also participated in that free scene. It was there that Haden met such similarly forward-thinking players as Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, whom Gruber refers to as “the Nijinsky of drums” for his ability to hang in the air and defy gravity on the kit. “After that lame hotel gig, I was in my element again,” Gruber says. “We’d finish playing at sunrise, go have breakfast, then go across town and play some more until 3 p.m. We weren’t making any money but we were having a ball.”

But by 1965, Gruber reverted to his old ways with heroin. “I went back to the New York City of my mind and took it out again,” he says. “I was having a picnic, periodically going into hiding, not being seriously career-oriented.”

Around that time that he received a helping hand from another transplanted New Yorker living in Los Angeles, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. “He was getting involved with The Tonight Show and he asked me to start teaching at his music store in Los Angeles,” Gruber recalls. “Next thing I knew I was doing what I said I’d never do-teaching.”

Drum students began seeking him out at Gibbs’ music store strictly by word of mouth and Gruber generously shared his wisdom, experience and abrasive charm with every one of them. By the early 1970s, as he began to formalize his intuitive teaching methods somewhat, his students began getting jobs in small groups, big bands, TV, movies, jazz and pop. Another result of this teaching phase was that Gruber himself started to get healthy. “I was swimming every day in the reservoir, which was technically illegal, and banging everything that moved,” he recalls with a tone of swagger. “I was as strong as a bull then. And every night around midnight all these drummers were hanging at my house-Buddy, Irv Cottler [Frank Sinatra’s longtime drummer], Mitch Mitchell [Jimi Hendrix’s drummer], Jim Keltner and others. I was having a ball.”

Gruber would return to New York in the mid-’70s and begin a lengthy period of bonding and just hanging out with his old pal Buddy Rich. “I ended up at Buddy’s with the keys,” Gruber says. “We just spent a lot of time together-walking around, shopping, just sitting in Central Park talking, watching the pickpockets do their thing, observing and commenting on life going by. And I think back and realize now that whenever I was out of my mind or in a bad place for whatever reason, Buddy was always there for me. He was the best friend I ever had. I miss that guy a lot.”

Through the ’80s and ’90s, Gruber’s ideas about drum ergonomics-a means of achieving fluidity and alleviating tension while playing the drums-aided countless more players. “Freddie can watch a drummer play and be able to deeply understand where they are coming from,” says Steve Smith. “He’ll be able to understand their conceptual approach and technical approach, and he can zero in on exactly what they need in order to take their playing to the next level. He’ll break a technique down, demonstrate the motions slowly and help you really get it.”

Peter Erskine recounts one enlightening lesson with Gruber when he really “got it”: “After a couple of false starts-lessons where we seemed to get to know each other over several cups of coffee, trading stories, but not much else-and my insisting that he show me something concrete, Freddie suddenly began to tap dance. So he’s dancing away and he finally looks up at me with a big smile, and says, ‘Do you see? Do you get it?’ as he continued tapping away. I told him, ‘Help me out here, I’m not getting it,’ and he explained, still dancing, ‘Don’t you see, baby? I’m not trying to dance beneath the surface of the floor, I’m dancing on top of the floor.’ A light bulb started to go off in my head and I asked him to show me this same idea on the drums: ‘Sure,’ he replied, and he danced over to the drums and proceeded to play his kit and produce a full and beautiful tone that was, at the same time, light and filled with velocity. At that point, I got it, and I thanked him. And his lesson has stayed with me.

“Freddie has shown me one other thing,” he continues, “and that is about the beauty and importance of expressing our love and enthusiasm for each other and what we do. Freddie has been up and down during his storied lifetime, but he has always been a true believer in music and a true giver to other people. I’m grateful for his wisdom-street wisdom, drumming mechanics wisdom, jazz wisdom, human/life wisdom-that he imparts to our community. For drummers, Freddie is a national treasure.”

While visiting New York last June, during which time he met up with one old friend, Roy Haynes, and attended a memorial for another, Elvin Jones, Gruber got caught up in the nostalgia of being back in his hometown. “I tramped all over this town in the ’40s, from the Bowery to Sugar Hill, and every street along the way has memories,” he says. “Man, if my footprints could light up, this city wouldn’t need Con Edison.”

Though still energized and excited about the music, Gruber is far less frantic than he was during his fabled tenure on 52nd Street. “When I was young I was hopping and zipping and coming and going like somebody jabbed me in the ass with a hot fork,” he laughs. “Now it’s time to take a swing, take a breath, be around the people I love and say thanks.”

“I’ve come to a period in my life where you begin to look back and wonder, ‘What was it all about?'” he adds. “But I really had some fun in my life, man. And if I could do it all over again-all the good and the bad, the ups and the downs-I would do it exactly the same and not change a thing. I really am aware, man, of the magical thing that happened here in New York. It was a helluva ride.”

Originally Published