A Conversation With Freddie Gruber

Freddie Gruber photo

He hopped, he bopped, he danced. Most of all he stayed outside the mainstream.

I first met Freddie Gruber 20 years ago, but I didn’t get to really know him until about 2003. I dropped in on Freddie one time on a trip to Los Angeles to visit advertisers – after that I would drop in two or three times a year and spend the evening with him. They were some of the best evenings I’ve ever spent.

It had to be evening because until very late in life the idea of getting up before noon was anathema to Freddy. He became a jazz drummer in New York in the ’40s and he kept those hours the rest of his life. Get to bed by 5:00 a.m., get up by noon.

Freddie was one of the most complex people I’ve ever met. He was extremely proud of what he’d accomplished. After all, he had counseled several generations of great drummers such as Dave Weckl and Neil Peart. Walk around his house and you’d see little mementos, like signed thank you notes from Mitch Mitchell or pics of Freddie with pals like Ray Mosca, Terry Gibbs, Buddy Rich, and Roy Haynes. But it wasn’t because Freddie got an ego boost from being known as a great drum teacher to the stars or Buddy Rich’s great friend in life.

What the accolades meant to Freddie was not that he was important, but that he had passed on something valuable from where he came; the knowledge of the naturally unflappable coolness and groove that lies at the heart of jazz. Where other teachers taught grip, meter, and technique, Freddy taught drummers to breathe, to relax, to tap dance across the set. He tried to take aggressive, forceful, somewhat mechanical drummers like the young Weckl or Peart and turn them into more flexible, spontaneous, and natural versions of themselves. He helped drummers channel their inner Roy Haynes, finding a power spot of perfect spontaneous facility and groove.

Whenever I think of Freddie I often think of Norman Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro: Reflections On The Hipster.” Writing in 1959, Mailer described white people who wanted to be black. He didn’t mean white kids who rapped or break-danced, or Midwest football players who speak in Ebonics. The white Negro was a Caucasian who lived outside the stricter social and political boundaries that defined middle class life in the middle half of the 20th century.

In many ways, that was the essence of Freddie, or at least the young Freddie. He was a drummer, a misfit, a drug addict, a free spirit, who was better at getting high and making time with the ladies than at keeping gigs or staying out of jail.

I recorded many of our conversations. Here are a few of the things we talked about over the years.

Freddie Gruber friends

(Left) Freddie Gruber with Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones

DRUMmagazine.com: The students who have worked with you go all around the world singing your praises. Whether it’s David Weckl or Clayton Cameron or whoever. So people know of you, but they don’t know what you do. What’s a lesson like with Freddy Gruber? What is it that drummers like David Weckl and Neil Peart and Ian Wallace and so many others come to you to learn?

Gruber: Well I surely ain’t going to go on for page after page … RLRR LRLL. The thing with a drummer is first, “Don’t make him something he’s not. Make him a better him.” You know? Give him the rifle and let him pick the target.

Once you give someone the tools, he’ll say, “I never felt that before. It’s like it’s playing by itself.” And I say, “Then don’t get in the fuckin’ way of it.” I try to take them to the place where they can experience it emotionally. They get the feeling of the time and the space and letting go and they say, “This is a great place.” That’s what it is about. Where they are playing and they’re free flowing.

But still, when you sit down with a student at the drum set, you have to teach some concrete things.

It’s true. To learn to play naturally and freely you might have to nail some of it down intellectually, with exercises, but music is trick shit. Playing exercises is not to lead you to the technique but to feeling certain things, feeling the music. Once you do that you don’t work so hard. You allow music to happen, you let it breathe. Most musicians are too busy killing it all the time to relax and let it happen.

I got a CD here from Jimmy Chapin. It was sitting around and I didn’t even know it was here and my student pointed it out. It says, “Freddy, you started more than you know. To an innovator, thanks, Jimmy.” Isn’t that great?

Freddie Gruber on drums

With some people you have to do that. Like with David [Weckl], I watched him play and thought, “By the time he’s 51 he’ll be paraplegic.” So many people play correctly, as the music was taught and as it’s notated, but that’s not really it. When they don’t have the feel right it’s like 1 2 3 4 [speaks mechanically] and underneath it all you can tell it’s like tubas and bass drums, 1 2 1 2, They are superimposing the invisible 2/4. Speed it up, mix it up, but it’s still all the old European horseshit. That is not the thing that is underneath African music.

With that real rhythmic music you can ask if it’s four, or is it twelve, or is it really three? Until you understand how it works or what it is, that it’s all there all the time. You define what aspect of the time and space is important for you and that’s your style or your expression. Einstein was right – “Without space you don’t have time.” I can take any student and show them in an elementary way this. The audible sound is the end result of what you are doing as you hurtle through space. If you try to legislate time, like a metronome does – “tick tock, tick tock, or else” — well that’s the music industry today. But that is not the magic. The magic is when you let it all go and it happens effortlessly.

A guy who arranged for James Brown once said that he could transcribe the music, but if he played what he transcribed it wasn’t right. He finally decided that James Brown was never exactly 4/4 or anything else. He was just pure rhythm.

Let me tell you something. Paul Lopez called me. He used to write for Machito. You know all those musicians he played with were the best in the world. And, he played at clubs like the Palladium. And, let me tell you, all those dancers, if one person in the band screwed up a millimeter, the entire dance floor would beat the shit out of him. In those days the people knew intuitively where the 1 was. You can’t really teach that, you can only lead people to it. They have to feel it. Or as the madam once said, it’s not how she does what she does, it’s the way she does it.

So you talk to me about James Brown. It was not what James Brown did, it was the way he did it.

Freddie on drums

(Left) Buddy Rich demonstrates a lick for a young Freddie Gruber

Do you remember the first drum clinic you ever performed?

My student told me the other night, he said, “Freddie, you have a picture of you and Max at Sam Ulano’s at the Bronx. That was your first clinic.” I wasn’t much past 20. He told me that I’ve also got the notes attached to the back about a show a week later when I played the International. That was before PAS, they had an event called the International. It was at Town Hall. They raved about my clinic in a write-up: “Now last but not least, the youngest member of the International was called up to play, and did he play, with all kinds of polyrhythms and a machine gun left hand.” That had to be 1948 or maybe 1949 in New York. I played everything I knew that day even though I couldn’t spell “polyrhythms” if I had to. Really, I didn’t know what I was doing. Not a clue. I was just having a fucking picnic. Somebody put a set of drums in front of me and I forgot everyone was there.

The last clinic I really played was up in Seattle. So I do my thing, where I’m talking and talking and getting all educational at this clinic, which is at a major college. And, as I’m walking off I pass a custom set of drums that had been made by Jerry Garcia, who owns a drum shop in Seattle. As we walked by the wind made the snare drum go “bberrrrrrrrr.” How great was that? So I sat down with the kit and I just could not believe the sound of those drums.

I completely netted out. I just played those drums over and over. And, you know at that kind of thing there are all these hotshot drummers around. But I just played and the crowd loved it. Later on, I meet Bernard Purdue – I had never met him before – and he says to me. “I don’t mind that you ran 40 minutes into my clinic time. But the fact that you did what you did on that drum set means I’m taking you to dinner.” And he did. So after that we became friends.

Jerry Garcia made that set, and he gave me the snare drum afterwards. Beautiful. Out the window.