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Ralph Peterson Jr. 1962–2021

Cancer claims a beloved musician and educator who was a Messenger in many more ways than one

Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson (photo: Howard Pitkow)

Ralph Peterson Jr., a drummer, composer, bandleader, educator, and entrepreneur who was among the most acclaimed and influential artists in current-day jazz, died early on the morning of March 1 in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He was 58.

His death was announced by his publicist, Lydia Liebman, who said that Peterson had died as a result of complications from cancer.

One of only two drummers ever to serve under Art Blakey in his legendary Jazz Messengers ensemble, Peterson was also one of the foremost bearers of the Blakey torch. “If I were king of the world, everybody would celebrate Art Blakey, all the time, every day, all year long,” he said in a 2018 interview.

But while his thunderous polyrhythmic style was derived from Blakey, what came off of Peterson’s kit was all his own—a smart postbop rhythm with a profound Latin influence, a distinct resonance on the cymbals, and deep, raw swing. It was a style that made Peterson at ease in a broad variety of contexts; at one point, he held down the drum chair in both the Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison Quintet and the David Murray Quartet. (He also played trumpet and piano.)

More to the point, Peterson was committed to Blakey’s mission of shaping young talents and preparing them for the jazz life. He accomplished it through his band leadership—mentoring such artists as George Colligan, Orrin Evans, Jeremy Pelt, and Zaccai and Luques Curtis—and through his work as an educator, particularly at Berklee College of Music, where he had taught since 2002. (He previously taught at Rutgers University and at the University of the Arts.) His students, Peterson said, were Jazz Messengers too, and he made a point of organizing live performances and recordings with the best of them. Many of these recordings were issued on Onyx Productions, the label that Peterson founded in 2010.

Peterson faced down adversity several times. He battled an addiction to crack cocaine for much of the 1980s and ’90s, though he had been sober since 1996. In the 2000s he developed diabetes and Bell’s palsy; he also previously survived two bouts with cancer, including four surgeries.

His struggles instilled in Peterson an ever-more-rigorous sense of discipline. He became a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and worked out regularly, often broadcasting his routines on Facebook Live. Because he believed in honesty and openness, he also frequently broadcast his chemotherapy treatments while fighting cancer.

“Even if the treatment knocks me down to 70 percent, I’m confident that 70 percent of Ralph Peterson is equivalent to 150 percent of most people,” he said in 2018. “That’s not me patting myself on the back. It’s just the truth, and it’ll be the truth till I ain’t here no more. But I’m not worrying about that: The music is my path to immortality.”

Ralph Peterson Jr. was born May 20, 1962 in Pleasantville, New Jersey to Ralph Sr., a police officer who would become Pleasantville’s first African-American chief of police (and eventually its first African-American mayor), and Shirley Peterson. Ralph Sr. also played drums, as did his father and four of Ralph Jr.’s uncles. Peterson began drumming at the age of three; he switched to trumpet a few years later and stuck with it into his teens, playing in the band at Pleasantville High School and working in local funk bands. Enrolling at Rutgers University in the fall of 1980, he had hoped to major in drums, but failed his audition with Michael Carvin; instead, he studied trumpet under Paul Jeffries, though he eventually made his way to Carvin’s tutelage as well.

In 1983, Art Blakey invited Peterson to become a member of the Jazz Messengers—making Peterson his second drummer. It was among Peterson’s proudest accomplishments. “I was sitting at the right hand of Art Blakey,” he noted. “In the biblical sense—sitting at the right hand of the father, who art Blakey.” He worked with the Messengers off and on until Blakey’s death in 1991.

Through the Messengers, Peterson met trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison, and would go on to play with their quintet. This gig helped establish Peterson as a member of the “Young Lions,” the generation of bebop-reared musicians that helped revive jazz’s commercial profile in the 1980s. (He would also be a prominent member of Out of the Blue, a band that Blue Note Records assembled as an exponent of the Young Lions sound.)

However, the label could not contain Peterson, who was soon working with Murray, experimental trombonist Craig Harris, and cutting-edge pianist Geri Allen. With the latter, Peterson created both a quintet and trio (which featured, respectively, on his first two albums as a leader, V and Triangular). A few years later he founded his “Fo’tet,” an ensemble that freely crossed between “in” and “out” jazz; for a time, the group featured both clarinetist Don Byron and saxophonist Steve Wilson.

Peterson would continue venturing back and forth from style to style for nearly 40 years. He maintained a healthy freelancing schedule, and took his teaching career, which began in the early 1990s, very seriously. “It’s not something that I do because I wanna hawk my wares enough to become flavor of the month,” he told JazzTimes in 2014. “I’ve been flavor of the month.” He envisioned one day starting a facility that would be a music school on one side and a martial-arts studio on the other.

However, his own music never took a back seat to these occupations. He often merged his educational and artistic pursuits, proudly forming his NextGEN big band out of current and former students. His creation of Onyx Productions allowed him to be increasingly prolific. His 25th album as a leader, Onward and Upward (to which—full disclosure—this writer contributed the liner notes), was released in September 2020. A new trio album, Raise Up Off Me, will be released posthumously later in 2021.

Peterson is survived by his wife, the former Linea McQuay (a prior marriage, to Melissa Slocum, ended in divorce); his daughter, Sonora Slocum; two stepdaughters, Saydee and Haylee McQuay; and his spiritual daughter, Jazz Robertson.

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.