Drummer Mickey Roker Dies at 84

Tireless performer worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Milt Jackson and many others

dizzy-roker

"Dizzy Gillespie's Big 4" (Joe Pass, Ray Brown, Mickey Roker, Dizzy Gillespie)

Granville William “Mickey” Roker, a bop-influenced drummer with an unerring sense of time who played and recorded with jazz luminaries including Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Bobby Hutcherson, Stanley Turrentine and many others, died on Monday, May 22 according to WBGO. He was 84.

Roker was an active freelance and session player for over 50 years, and was best known for his long association with Gillespie starting in the early 1970s.

Born Sept. 3, 1932 in Miami, Fla. into an impoverished single-parent household, Roker lived with his mother and uncle until age 10, when his grandmother brought the remaining family to Philadelphia after the passing of his mother. In his new home, young Roker developed an interest in jazz thanks to his uncle, who bought him record albums and his first drum kit, and introduced him to the city’s vibrant jazz scene—first on the radio, then at various jazz clubs. “Philly Joe” Jones became Roker’s drum hero and an early template for a steady swinging style that became personalized through the use of dynamics and a feathery touch on the bass drum.

After a stint in the army ending in 1955, Roker began his jazz career in earnest, with 1957 a pivotal year—a six-night engagement as Gloria Lynne’s drummer (the band also contained Jimmy Heath) put his steady yet dynamic time on display; and he became friends with bassist Bob Cranshaw, the duo forming an in-demand rhythm section for Milt Jackson, Junior Mance, Joe Williams, Horace Silver and others, and playing on many session dates for Blue Note in the ’60s and ’70s.

By the late ’50s, Roker was gigging regularly in the Philly scene and honing his chops jamming with locals Kenny Barron, Lee Morgan and McCoy Tyner, and by ’59 was spending more and more time in New York, seeking even greater opportunities. There, he found work early and often, connecting with Gigi Gryce for a series of quintet recordings, and hitting the road with numerous acts including a stint with the Duke Pearson big band in the mid-’60s and with Nancy Wilson, the latter opening the door to working with big bands (Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington) who featured singers; his tom and cymbal dynamics were simply simpatico with vocalists.

Starting in the early ’70s, Roker manned the drum chair for Gillespie for several years (and held down the fort during the trumpeter’s conga-playing interludes) while also keeping a demanding recording schedule—with Gillespie and others—on the Pablo label.

In the early 1990s, having worked previously with Milt Jackson, he began playing occasionally with the re-formed Modern Jazz Quartet, ultimately replacing original MJQ drummer Connie Kay after his retirement in 1992. (MJQ ended shortly thereafter, with Roker performing on its final album, MJQ & Friends: A 40th Anniversary Celebration in 1993.)

For the last few decades of his life Roker lived in his hometown of Philadelphia where he performed regularly with Shirley Scott and other notable locals at spots like Ortlieb’s. Generations of local musicians, including Randy Brecker, Johnathan Blake and Orrin Evans, considered him a generous (and often colorful) mentor. In a note sent to JazzTimes, Evans said:

“Some of my first ‘professional’ gigs were with Mickey Roker and although around that time I decided to leave Rutgers University my education continued. It continued on the bandstand with Mickey Roker at Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus while performing as a part of Johnny Coles Quartet. What to wear? Where to place a ballad in the set? How to use the microphone? After Ortlieb’s closed I didn’t see Mr. Roker that much but the lessons he and the rest of the elders laid on me will be with me forever. The trio of Shirley Scott, Arthur Harper and Mickey Roker became my university with no student loans to pay back. All the love and information was given freely with the hopes that we’d continue to share the good news.”