Roy McCurdy: drumming royalty /1

    The name might be unfamiliar but his work with the Adderleys, Rollins, Golson and Farmer says that he should be on that list of top drummers

    Roy McCurdy (left) and Sonny Rollins

    Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin and Philly Joe Jones, Louis Hayes, Roy Haynes, Mel Lewis and Shelly Manne all have one thing in common. They are referenced as being among the greats of modern jazz drummers. Not so Roy McCurdy. Among those who count that an oversight is Mr. McCurdy himself who told Scott K. Fisk, former editor of Modern Drummer magazine, in a private message: “I always wondered why I was not on the list with the top jazz drummers.”

    An idle boast? Hardly. Fisk had first raised the issue himself in a message to McCurdy in which he had expressed awe over Roy’s “profound” drumming on the Nat Adderley record, Live At Memory Lane (Atlantic, 1966). Based on that amazing album and other recorded evidence – and the regal company he has kept – this versatile percussionist deserves at least a princedom in the realm of drumming royalty. Whether supplying articulate accents and fills required by the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet in the early 60s, finding the various percussive beats an unpredictable Sonny Rollins searched for in the 60s or providing the punch, panache and edge that drove Cannonball Adderley’s final groups of his celebrated career, McCurdy has sparked the engine rooms of some of the most vital and innovative bands in modern jazz of the past 60 years.

    The association with the Adderleys lasted from 1964 until Julian’s untimely passing in 1975. This placed McCurdy at the centre of Cannon’s forays into funk and his pioneering of electronic sounds that would lead to the emergence of fusion in the 70s. The drummer was very much a part of helping to shape the late 60s and early 70s jazz soundscape.

    Roy hasn’t just appeared in high-profile instrumental settings. His sensitivity as accompanist has made him a drummer of choice for such singers as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson, the last of which he spent 31 years with. And when jazz gigs have been hard to come by, he has found work with the likes of singer-songwriter Kenny Rankin, or jazz-rockers Blood, Sweat and Tears, among others.

    Wanting to talk to Mr. McCurdy about his life in jazz, I phoned him at home in Altadena, near Pasadena (approximately 25 minutes from LA), in December of 2019. I called again in early September of this year (2022) to confirm a few details. Highlights of our conversations follow.

    Roy was born 28 November 1936 in Rochester, New York. His only formal training consisted of private lessons in the basics of percussion while in high school. Jazz, he recalls, was learned “on the street”: “We had to learn by listening, and . . . by imitating, and really studying our instrument. You know, today kids can go into college and they can learn from the guys who are actually on the records . . . these guys are teaching in the colleges as well as playing. We didn’t have that.”

    Much of a young musician’s education in those days took place on the bandstand, in front of a live audience. The precocious McCurdy was playing professionally while in his mid-to-late teens with established masters such as Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Roy Eldridge, who hired the youngster when they came through Rochester as singles. Says McCurdy of these experiences: “They [older musicians] would have comments and things. Or I would ask about playing time, about feeling, things like that . . . If you were doing something that they thought was kind of funny, they would let you know about it. So you learn on the gig, you learn a lot of different things about what to do and what not to do.”

    By 1960 he had finished a stint in the service and was ready to participate in his first recording session in Rochester with the Mangione brothers, Chuck and Gap. Not long after, he got a call that he thought was an invitation to join the Jazztet of Art Farmer and Benny Golson. “I was under the impression that it was the gig that they were calling me for,” explains the drummer, “but once I got to New York, I found out that it was an audition. I was supposed to meet them at Birdland, and when I went across the street to Birdland it was a whole bunch of people out there, and they were all there for the audition for the Jazztet. Everyone went in and played a little bit and they called us back at the end of the audition, each one in the room, and . . . they told me I had the gig.” That lasted two years and produced several memorable recordings on which McCurdy took part, both with the Jazztet and with Farmer alone.

    Additional early 60s associations included working and recording with pianist Bobby Timmons, and with jazz singer Betty Carter. McCurdy appeared on the classic Inside Betty Carter (1964), enlivened by a quicksilver My Favorite Things that seems to end as soon as it starts, and a languid, definitive treatment of a signature Carter tune, Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.

    But the two years he spent with Sonny Rollins in 1962-63 rank as the high point of this period. It was an exciting time as well for Rollins: the tenor titan had recently ended a three-year hiatus during which he had famously retreated to the Williamsburg Bridge in New York to woodshed, hoping to reinvent his sound.

    McCurdy played on two of Sonny’s RCA record dates of this period, including the classic Sonny Meets Hawk with Coleman Hawkins. While one might expect to hear two stylists as distinctive as Rollins and Hawkins lock horns in a gladiatorial embrace, the drummer didn’t see it that way. As he recalls it, “I just think that they played their styles, and I don’t think it was a competition [laughs]. They were just going in there and trying to play some great music. That was one of the albums that took us a couple of days to do.”

    Roy supplies solid and sensitive support throughout on what may have been the most modern setting of the older sax man’s career, particularly with avant-garde pianist Paul Bley on board. Hawk sails through it all with his usual aplomb.

    See part two of Roy McCurdy: drumming royalty