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Chronology: Steve Swallow Remembers Pete La Roca

The veteran bassist opens up about his friendship with the drummer

Pete La Roca during the recording session for Basra, May 19, 1965. (Photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLCFrancis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)
Pete La Roca during the recording session for Basra, May 19, 1965. (Photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLCFrancis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

My assignment for this month’s column was to write about Basra, the classic 1965 Blue Note album by drummer Pete “La Roca” Sims (1938-2012), so I called one of the other musicians who played on it, bassist Steve Swallow, for a quote or two. His commentary, which follows, was so valuable that I felt nothing more needed to be said.

“I met Pete La Roca on a Don Ellis gig in Queens. Jaki Byard was the pianist, and afterwards, Jaki would always tease me, ‘I was there the night you fell in love.’ The very first beat, it was love at first hit. After that, Pete and I were inseparable. We had a solemn pact to recommend each other for gigs; we also shared a room on tour, did drugs together, and studied the world. Pete was a fierce autodidact; at the time, he was obsessed with Finnegans Wake, so I also bought not just Finnegans Wake but the companion text by Joseph Campbell [A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake] that explained the sources of James Joyce’s incredibly arcane references.

“The sticks Pete used were Pro-Mark Pee Wees. They had plastic tips, which made the attack of his cymbal sound very specific. Before Pete, I never tuned into a drummer’s right hand as clearly. His right hand was insistent. It had a beautiful, graceful motion. He played way back at the end of the stick and there was a wide arc to his stroke. I was getting lessons, visually as well as aurally, watching that wrist and long stick floating through the air and hitting that cymbal. 

“The rest of his drums were tuned very musically and in the low-mid register: resonant and singing, with an 18-inch bass drum and a certain beater to give a very specific attack. He had such a beautiful groove. Pete said that he was playing as on top of the beat as reasonable, but I did not hear it that way. To my ears he was putting it in the perfect place, neither on top nor below, exactly where I wanted. When we put our quarter notes together it was a marriage made in heaven. 

“Alfred Lion [Blue Note Records founder] clashed with Pete. They were both willful people. Pete could have done much more for Alfred as a leader, but he thought Alfred was too controlling. He would not negotiate with Alfred, and in the end they fell out. But there was one Blue Note Pete La Roca album, Basra.

“Steve Kuhn [the pianist on Basra] is a wonderful pianist who played with Pete in John Coltrane’s tremendous band with Steve Davis on bass. I saw that quartet often at the Jazz Gallery. Eventually Steve, Pete and I played a lot together and made a few records. Three Waves was Kuhn’s trio date, while Art Farmer’s Sing Me Softly of the Blues has a wonderful rendition of the Carla Bley title track. But the record most people know today is Basra.

“Pete [also] wanted Alfred to hire a shadowy legend of jazz, Rocky Boyd. Rocky was a wonderful tenor player but at that point he was close to being homeless. Alfred was unwilling to go for Rocky and brought in his latest protégé, Joe Henderson. Pete had been on Joe’s first album, Page One, but Kuhn and I barely knew of him. Of course, Joe was utterly remarkable and aced the recording. 

“Pete and I were acid pioneers within the jazz community, and had dropped acid before going to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey. I remember being transfixed in Rudy’s bathroom. Rudy had blue water in his toilet! He was a germaphobe who wore gloves when he moved microphones, and he was also the first guy I knew who put a package of disinfectant in his toilet tank to turn the water blue. After I had taken acid, the blue water in Rudy’s toilet was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen.

“One of the tunes on Basra was ‘Lazy Afternoon,’ a tender ballad. We were in full flight, mid-take, with our eyes closed, when Kuhn reached inside the piano to pluck a chord. There were immediate loud and abrupt noises over the P.A. Rudy came running out to the room in the middle of the take and angrily told Kuhn, ‘If you touch those strings again, this date is over.’ We were all sitting there pinned to our seats with our eyes bugged out.

“Another song on the date is my piece, ‘Eiderdown,’ which is actually the first recording of one of my compositions. It’s also the only tune of mine that I don’t own. Alfred Lion snatched it right out of my hands. After the date had been done, I got a phone call from Alfred and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, “Eiderdown,” who is publishing that?’ I had no idea what he was talking about. I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know.’ Alfred said, ‘No problem.’ He then proceeded to offer me this ‘wonderful’ deal. He would publish it for me and take care of everything and I wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. I was so grateful. ‘Gee, Alfred. Thank you so much.’ I haven’t been able to get that tune back after all these years. Blue Note sold it, it’s gone around, and some big conglomerate owns it now. I keep trying to buy it back because it has been recorded fairly often. 

“That’s another kind of Blue Note story. It is a great blessing to jazz that Blue Note existed, but on the business side they were also sort of gangsters.

Basra has great soloing and a great groove, but what is behind all of that is Pete’s insistence on detail. Like a good performance by a Shakespearean actor, the effort behind that record is unseen. It’s extremely artful. It’s very much Pete’s album. Pete was insistent on countless details within that music. Rehearsals were grueling and lengthy. We seldom made it through a tune without him stopping and correcting us, to the point that the rest of us were on the verge of fleeing the room. It was terrible to rehearse with him, but the results were worth it. 

“He took the name ‘La Roca’ because he was a black timbale player and he needed to integrate into the Latin community to get work. By all accounts he was a very good timbale player. He knew straight eighth-note music from the ground up and played it masterfully. In fact, those non-swing grooves on Basra or Page One might be one of the most influential parts of his legacy. I loved playing straight-eighth grooves with him. 

“But eventually he renounced straight-eighth music entirely. He would not play it under any circumstances whatsoever, and his later bands and an album were called SwingTime. By then we had moved apart—not because of any differences between us, but life took us to separate corners of the ring. I’m so glad to talk about Pete today. At the time of Basra, he was my best friend, and a true mentor.” 

Learn more about Basra on Amazon!

Further Listening

Paul Bley, Footloose! (Savoy, 1963)— “Paul and I had been playing that repertoire extensively as a duo for several months. I got Pete on the date and ended up being the musical interlocutor between Paul and Pete. Pete was upholding the value of swing, while Paul was straining at those boundaries, even though he could get a merciless groove going if so inclined. There was wonderful electricity in the air; I love that record.” Learn more about Footloose on Amazon!

Pete La Roca, Turkish Women at the Bath (Douglas, 1967)— “I’m not on this record because I was on tour, but [bassist] Walter Booker was a lovely guy, I just loved his spirit. John Gilmore is another vastly undervalued player, and this LP is one of the few places to hear him away from of Sun Ra. One week Pete’s band worked at the Pythodd Hall, a club in Rochester that burned down in a late-’60s demonstration. The band included Steve Kuhn, [trumpeter] Vincent McEwan, and John Gilmore. I seldom have heard better improvising than what Gilmore played that week. Gilmore is one of the very best players I ever played with.” Learn more about Turkish Women at the Bath on Amazon!

Sonny Rollins Remembers Pete La Roca Sims

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.