By John Ephland | From the Spring 2008 issue of Traps
You can’t start much younger. Drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. can honestly state that his life with sticks (and not the kind kids hit each other with) began at the ripe old age of … two. Today, at age 25, he’s busy working with George Duke, Suicidal Tendencies, and most notably, is the driving percussive force behind Stanley Clarke’s newest album, The Toys Of Men.
“I had a knack for drums,” says Bruner, who was nursing a cold, having just returned from London’s Drummer Live 2007, where he performed with, among others, Gerald Heyward, Cindy Blackman, Walfredro Reyes, and Thomas Lang. “My father really saw the potential. Every weekend he would play something new for me. He was into a whole lot of stuff—Tears For Fears, The Beatles, Mötley Crüe, John Coltrane, The Ramones, Run DMC, Wang Chung, John Scofield.”
Check out this 2008 video of brothers Ronald Bruner Jr. and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner at famed L.A. jazz club The Baked Potato:
His father, Ronald Bruner Sr., remains a noted professional drummer, having worked with such stars as Diana Ross, The Temptations, and Gladys Knight. In fact, Ronald Jr. is quick to point out that his dad still has a busy career as an L.A. session player and as a leader in his own right.
But back to those weekends growing up. “Every Saturday,” Bruner says, “he’d take me to the Professional Drum Shop in Hollywood.” His dad had the music ready to go in the car both ways, all of it devoted to one artist or band. “When we got there, I’d just hang out at the store, beat on their various drums. This started when I was two. My father was doing some ‘soft programming.’ What it eventually did was help me play different styles, and with conviction.”
Then, as if making a joke, he says he came to realize, “at an older age,” that jazz—fusion, in particular—was the most appealing music for him as a drummer. How old was he? “I was eight. I didn’t really know until later,” he says, “because I just listened to everything. It was ten different things. Jazz was like a key, and with greater understanding, a musical door. It had to do with chops, learning jazz fusion, drummers like Billy Cobham.”
Officially, Bruner began his professional career at the age of 15, performing at the Thelonious Monk Institute. This provided opportunities for him to play with such big names as Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves, and Ron Carter. It was just a short hop to becoming a regular member of Kenny Garrett’s band. Since then, he’s played punk rock with Suicidal Tendencies, and backed up Roy Hargrove, Tribal Tech, Larry Carlton, Marcus Miller, Kirk Whalum, Robben Ford, Patrice Rushen, Clark Terry, Johnny Hodges, and Gerald Albright.
Here’s Bruner Jr. and Stanley Clarke jamming at a music store in 2007:
It was also during this time that he met Stanley Clarke. “I was auditioning for a TV movie,” says Bruner. Clarke, whose career since the mid 1980s has also included film and television scoring, was intrigued by the young drummer. “Stanley saw the potential,” he continues, “but instead of hiring me, he decided to watch me over the years. Then, when I was with Kenny Garrett, I was 23, he caught up with me. Stanley was just waiting for me to get older.
“I went from being all over the place stylistically, to learning how to display my musical thoughts effectively. With Stanley I learned it was not about smashing and hitting but about different ideas on how I was playing—nothing about drum technique. I was overplaying, not choosing where to play, just trying to do what I thought would make everybody smile. But now I have insights, and I try to use placements as opposed to running from them.”
When asked what that means, Bruner says, “When you are young you want to play and prove you can play anything. I am not fully out of that, but I realize that’s not the point. I don’t have to prove anything anymore. Now, I go into every situation with a clear mind, no hang-ups, not with a clouded vision, nothing holding me back from reaching a musical goal.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Traps, a special quarterly publication from the publishers of Drum! magazine.