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The Gig: Remembering Pete La Roca Sims

School of La Roca

Pete LaRoca

I have just one personal recollection of drummer Pete La Roca Sims, but the moment springs crisply to mind. It was November 1998, a couple of months after I had moved to New York City, and Blue Note Records was throwing itself a gala 60th anniversary party at Birdland. I spotted Sims almost as soon as I walked in the door and, acting on impulse, told him that Basra, his 1965 album on the label, was one of my favorites. He looked taken aback for a second—I was fresh out of college, and surely looked the part—but then he positively beamed. “Man, c’mere,” he said, pulling me into a hug.

Sims, who died of lung cancer on Nov. 20, enjoyed just one prolific decade in jazz, but it was righteous. The bulk of his recording career runs from 1957—when he made his auspicious debut on Sonny Rollins’ stone classic A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)—to 1967, the year of his second date as a leader. The time between those bookends was well spent: Sims appeared on significant albums by tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and pianists Paul Bley and Steve Kuhn, among others. In 1960 he was in a prototype of the John Coltrane Quartet, working steadily for several months at the Jazz Gallery, and though the music made by that band never saw official release, bootlegs confirm that Sims was well up to the task, slashing hard at his ride cymbal and throwing mean combinations with kick and snare.

“Peter listened; he knew the forms of the songs that we were playing, and back then a lot of drummers didn’t,” said Kuhn when I reached him by phone shortly after Sims’ death. “We worked together with different bass players: mostly Steve Swallow, but I also worked with him and Jimmy Garrison, and that was like floating on a cloud, it was so special.” Kuhn, who with Swallow and Henderson rounded out the lithe quartet on Basra, emphasized the sheer ease of playing with Sims, the way he shaped the time.

That’s a quality I took to heart myself when I first knowingly heard Sims, on a Blue Note reissue of Page One, Henderson’s 1963 debut. I was 14 or 15. The album’s timeless opener, “Blue Bossa,” by Kenny Dorham, putters along in a sinewy, regimented cadence, not airy enough to suggest a true bossa nova but clearly making that play by choice. The drumming throughout the album, often swinging, is concise and yet full of tactile suggestion: a perfect fit for Henderson’s staccato but soulful phraseology.

What I didn’t know as a younger Sims fan was much of anything about him: not the youth he spent playing timpani in school orchestras, nor the hours he logged on timbales with Latin dance bands, which is what led him to take “La Roca” as a stage name. All I knew was the evidence of his skill, even if he was overshadowed by Elvin Jones on A Night at the Village Vanguard, an indignity I reckoned almost anyone would have suffered at the time. (If only I’d had access to footage of Pete on tour with Rollins and bassist Henry Grimes in 1959, briskly swinging before a nonplussed European crowd.)

Given that Jones also succeeded Sims in the Coltrane Quartet, it’s tempting to compare the two drummers. “Pete had a different feel than Elvin,” said saxophonist Dave Liebman, a former sideman to both. “Elvin had that broad, triplet-based, deep-sounding tone color. And Pete had the timbales in his playing. He had a buoyancy. He was sort of the opposite of Elvin in a way: Pete was an ‘up’ feeling.” Liebman also noted Sims’ influence on Tony Williams, a detail that Kuhn confirmed.

Certainly it’s not hard to hear that connection on Basra. Recorded and released in 1965, it’s an album of evocative cool, supremely of its moment but hardly out of step today. Its title track, which Sims named after the Iraqi city, unfolds as a deep meditation, with Henderson’s tenor incanting a sinuous melody. Sims mobilizes the track with mystique, managing an inexorable pull that’s also bravely open-ended. (No surprise that the 1963 Paul Bley album Footloose, with Sims and Swallow, was a touchstone for pianist Keith Jarrett. Sims is also sometimes credited with the first freeform drum solo, on the 1959 Jackie McLean album New Soil, a distinction he likely disavowed.)

On the whole, what Basra confirms more than anything is Sims’ balanced insight as a bandleader, which begs the question of why he didn’t make more of a mark as one. By most accounts, he was an obstinate character, resolute in his convictions. “He said, ‘You know, I’m tired of making other people’s bands sound good,'” Kuhn recalled. “‘I want to do my own thing, and if I can’t do my own thing I’ll do something else.'”

Turkish Women at the Bath, Sims’ second album, was recorded in 1967 with a quartet that included tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and pianist Chick Corea, who then had just one album to his name. What’s striking about the project now is its conceptual rigor: Sims designed it as a suite in response to the 19th-century Ingres painting of the same name, depicting a harem scene. But the album met with limited success, and given Sims’ disapproval of free jazz and fusion, work became scarce. So he did do something else, driving a taxi for five years and then becoming a contract lawyer.

Sims did resurface every now and again with his own band, which included Liebman. His third and final album as a leader, Swingtime, was released on Blue Note in 1997, the title telegraphing his adamant stance on how eighth notes should be played, despite his own history of beautifully non-swinging tunes. For all my admiration, I never saw Sims play; as far as I know, I never had the chance. But I continue to savor his work on record, a limited vintage that has aged extravagantly well.

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).