Chronology: A Statesman with Sticks

Charli Persip's 1960 debut as a leader blends big-band flash and hard-bop heart

Charli Persip

From this vantage point it may be hard to remember just how influential Dizzy Gillespie was in 1960. Not only did he help connect the dots to Afro-Cuban and world music, but the nightly repertoire of Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, and so many others borrowed from the book of his big band. From 1954 to 1958 his main drummer in that band was Charli Persip, and the two would keep working together until about 1962.

Every jazz fan has heard some small-group Gillespie/Persip, at the very least “The Eternal Triangle” with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. The Verve big-band LPs might be less instantly familiar today, but World Statesmen, Dizzy in Greece, Birk’s Works, and At Newport were studied carefully by an interested community, and thanks to the State Department, Dizzy’s big band played all over the world. Persip was integral to that band’s sound, always setting up the hits in personal fashion and keeping the breakneck bebop tempos in just the right place. Indeed, some argue that Persip and Mel Lewis were the two greatest big-band drummers of the postwar, postbop era. 

Persip’s groovy and propulsive beat goes back to Africa and assorted places in the diaspora, but many of his snare drum sentences are from the military rudiment tradition. Paradiddles and press rolls surge out from his hands, blanketing the kit with swinging virtuosity. His fast hands and big nightly live feature “The Champ” made him a natural choice for a high-profile Gretsch sponsorship. Beginning in the late ’50s, Persip regularly appeared in full-page magazine ads, eventually participating in a two-volume LP release, Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland, in the none-too-shabby company of Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Philly Joe Jones. 

The same month that album was recorded—April 1960—Persip also cut his leader debut. Charles Persip and the Jazz Statesmen (Bethlehem) smoothly links his work with the Gillespie band to the more recent hard-bop quintet tradition of Blakey and Horace Silver. According to Ernie Wilkins’ liner notes, lesser-known tenor man Roland Alexander did most of the arranging. Alexander obviously listened to Coltrane and Hank Mobley, but he also has something of Booker Ervin’s lonely cry. This is pianist Ronnie Mathews’ first date, and it’s also one of the first of 2000+ record dates for bassist Ron Carter, who would hire Persip to play on his first record as a leader, Where?, the following year. However, the star soloist is unquestionably trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, a week away from turning 22, playing with breathtaking fluency and confidence. 

Alexander’s 14-bar “Sevens” has parallel dominants like Thelonious Monk, and the trading with Persip is in unusual seven-bar phrases. A blazing “The Song Is You” offers a miraculous syncopated unison line in the second chorus. Soulful Marcus Belgrave sits in for Hubbard on the blues waltz “Right Down Front” by Sara Cassey, a Detroit composer whose pieces were also recorded by Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Johnny Griffin, and others.

Turning the LP over, Alexander’s “Soul March” is more big blues and perhaps the highlight of the date overall. Carter’s bass lines are wildly idiosyncratic; every soloist gets off some perfect phrases. To close, Persip places his kit front and center for a reworking of “The Champ (A Suite in Six Movements).” A long series of parade salutations is interspersed with written interludes and dynamic solos: Hubbard’s quicksilver bit is frankly astonishing. 

In the early ’60s, Persip was in demand as a studio musician while also participating in many more classic small-group recordings. There was a stint with Billy Eckstine, and in the ’80s he started a Superband, partly to mentor young players and become more visible as an educator. He just turned 90 in July and—like far too many of our greatest American musicians—has a GoFundMe page to help with medical bills. Thank you, Mr. Persip, for your invaluable contribution to the profound story of jazz drumming. 

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FURTHER LISTENING

To keep the Ron Carter theme going, two important avant-garde dates with Don Ellis, How Time Passes (Candid, 1960) and New Ideas (New Jazz, 1961), contrast smoothly with the superb down-the-middle LP Cecil Payne Performing Charlie Parker Music (Charlie Parker, 1961).

From the Superband years, In Case You Missed It (Soul Note, 1985) is a fun listen, with a happy Bobby Watson title tune and AACM member Frank Gordon’s experimental “Plutonian Images.”

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.