FREDDIE teaching at a Northern California weekend drum clinic- CIRCA EARLY 1990's
"THE APPROACH"BREAKING IT ALL DOWN WITH MUSICIAN AND AUTHORNEIL PEART
PHOTOS COURTESY OF JOHN GOODWIN
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"THE WHOLE BOOK"FREDDIE REFLECTS ON HIS TEACHING CAREER
"THE BABY GRAND"JOIN STAN KIAWAH. MIKE BAIRD, AND CHAD SMITHFOR A GLIMPSE INTO FREDDIE'S AFTER-HOUR LIFEDURING NEW YORK'S 1950's JAZZ ERA.
NEIL PEART .NET
Born in the Bronx in 1927, Freddie Gruber grew up in the gritty exuberance of New York City in the 1930s and ’40s. As a young man, he was inspired by the creative ferment of that era’s jazz music, and by the late ’40s he was emerging as an exciting and important new drummer.
A story about him in Downbeat magazine in 1947 bore the headline,
“The Shape of Drums to Come", and the writer praised Freddie’s innovative polyrhythmic approach to jazz drumming. One notable highlight of those years was being the drummer in the only big band that would ever feature the revolutionary alto sax virtuoso, Charlie Parker.
In those vibrant times in New York City, the postwar boom in both commerce and artistic exploration, from abstract expressionism to be-bop, Freddie’s life intersected with many important characters in music and other artistic fields, like Miles Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers, and Marlon Brando. He became a close friend to the drum legend Buddy Rich, and their relationship continued right up to Buddy’s passing in 1987.
In the course of Freddie’s long and eventful life, he seemed to cross paths with “everyone who was anyone” — not only in the world of drumming and jazz music, but in the entire bohemian culture of the late twentieth century.
However, like Charlie Parker and other mid-century jazz musicians, Freddie fell into destructive habits.
Later, he would be able to tell about scoring heroin on a Harlem rooftop from a dealer called “Detroit Red” — better known to history as Malcolm X.
Narrowly avoiding the tragic fate of other victims of that addiction, in the late ’50s Freddie cleaned himself up and got out of town — heading west, in the classic American tradition.
(Freddie only briefly encountered Jack Kerouac, but would surely have understood both his madness and his methods.)
Into the early ’60s he worked and played his way through Chicago and Las Vegas, and eventually arrived in Los Angeles. Soon he was organizing and playing in what would later become known as “after-hours joints,” and
Freddie was a key player in that era’s lively jazz scene in Los Angeles.
It was then and there that, almost by accident, Freddie Gruber discovered his true calling — teaching others how to play the drums. In time, he also manifested a gift for guiding those whose playing was already accomplished, leading them into higher elevations of understanding and mastery of
an ever-evolving instrument in modern music.
Over the next forty years, Freddie’s students included a remarkable cross-section of drummers whose playing would be heard worldwide, and who profoundly influenced the music of the times, even if their names were not widely known — among them John Guerin, Ian Wallace, Steve Smith, Dave Weckl, Mike Baird, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, David Bronson, Peter Erskine,
Burleigh Drummond, and Neil Peart.
One early student, Don Lombardi, went on to found the Drum Workshop company, which offered percussion products of such innovation and quality that they almost single-handedly recaptured the drum-making industry from Asia back to America.
Each of those drummers, as well as many less-prominent students for whom music and drumming were equally important in their lives, came from different backgrounds and had varying musical ambitions. Many ended up playing widely diverse styles of music, yet each of them would attest that Freddie was the right teacher for them. It was in Freddie’s nature to understand intuitively the qualities of each player’s gift, and he could hear what each of them could be. Thus he was able to nurture the musical potential that
existed in many different drummers.
As an educator, Freddie’s unique gift combined that individual insight with something even greater — he had an unparalleled understanding of the physical “dance” involved in playing the instrument, the ergonomic relationship of the drummer to the drums. That relation was as essential for masters as it was for beginners, and without ever trying to disrupt a particular drummer’s “character", he helped each student to discover, express, and refine his own individual voice. His guidance always aimed at a graceful and natural approach to the instrument that was truly musical.
During that same time, in half a century of living in Los Angeles, Freddie was immersed in the city’s artistic and social life, high and low. Once again, his meandering path intersected with notable characters and celebrities, and his inexhaustible (yet verifiably true) stories ranged far and wide. All of his students would testify that a drum lesson with Freddie would always be illustrated by colorful anecdotes from his entertaining memories — from the magical time of the late ’40s in New York City, or that equally fascinating period in Los Angeles. By then he could include cameo appearances by characters ranging from musicians as various as Terry Gibbs, Johnny Mandel, Mitch Mitchell, and Jim Keltner, to cultural icons like Jack Nicholson, Larry Gelbart, and Stanley Kubrick.
Through all of those amazing times, places, and characters, Freddie Gruber’s life was fully lived, his idiosyncratic ways following his own unique and inimitable path. The meaning of “authentic” is “self-authored,” and throughout Freddie’s eventful 84 years, he was nothing if not both of those. That kind of rebellious integrity is the mark of many an admirable individual — also reflected in another dear friend of Freddie’s in his later years, the great drummer Joey Heredia.
Joey also lives a fiercely independent and self-authored life and career, of which
Freddie thoroughly approved.
Later in life, though, Freddie would have cause to echo the famous epitaph of ragtime pianist Eubie Blake (who lived to 96), “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Freddie was something of a miracle of nature in that regard, too — not only surviving the ravages of a period of heroin use, but reaching his ninth decade as an unrepentant cigarette smoker. Through every day and night (especially nights), Freddie Gruber sustained a completely idiosyncratic narrative arc, answering to no one but himself — yet along the way he earned love and respect from those who knew him best. He was smart, hip, warm, and funny, and although he kept himself insulated from the intrusions of what he called “straight life” — the “real world” — he was wise in its ways, always well informed, incisive, reflective, and caustic. Those qualities made a nicely faceted set of lenses through which to view humanity, and those lenses often sparkled with wry humor and deceptively profound wisdom: “Get out of your own way,
” “What’s the difference if you don’t know the difference?” and
one oft-maligned expression, “It is what it is.”
Freddie never wielded that scalpeled phrase with cynicism, but as a simple acceptance of reality — like Wittgenstein, “The world is all that is the case.” It is what it is.At the end, during his mercifully brief decline, he was looked after by longtime friends David Bronson, Neal Sausen, Pam Gore, Cindy Kucik, and Edy Bronston. Many friends and former students visited to pay their respects — reflecting what Buddy Rich once said about a party he hosted for Gene Krupa, when that other all-time drumming legend was succumbing to leukemia.
Typically, when Buddy was asked about it, he masked his generosity, compassion, and love for the man by growling, "Yeah, well — it seems to me you should give flowers to the living.”As a man, Freddie Gruber was loved and appreciated during his lifetime, and as a teacher, he was respected and revered — not least because he had guided so many of his students into finding their own voices on the drums.All of those musicians will continue to pass along that fundamental and immortal language of human life, to listeners and to younger drummers, and thus Freddie’s place in that divine continuum will continue to resonate forever.
He will be missed, but he is not gone.
It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years but October 11, 2018 marks the day of Freddie’s passing back in 2011. On this day we celebrate the LIFE of Freddie and his contributions to the art of music and drumming. Featured above are photos from Freddie’s 79th birthday party in 2006. From L-R: Steve Smith, Freddie, Adam Nussbaum, Freddie, Junior Mance, Ray Mosca, Roy Haynes and Adam Nussbaum. We invite former students and friends of Freddie to share their thoughts, stories and insights about Freddie via performance videos, pictures and the written word. Our latest guest in Freddie’s Garage features long-time student Michael Dubin, demonstrating Freddie’s approach to paradiddles and their flow around the kit. You can read Michael’s bio HERE. Also, be sure to check out Freddie student Neal Sausen's thoughts and anecdotes on Freddie, HERE. Thanks to Michael and Neal for their contribution and support.
For more information and videos, be sure to check out Neal’s YOUTUBE CHANNEL.
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"PULLING TIME"FREDDIE LAYIN' IT DOWN WITH OINGO BOINGO'sJOHNNY HERNANDEZ
"THE DINER DIARIES"JOEY HEREDIA DISCUSSES HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH FREDDIE AND THE GRANDEUR OF PIANO DRUMMING
Hello, my name is Neal $ausen. I was (am) a student of Fred’s, starting with him on April 2, 1969. I studied with Fred continuously for well over 25 years. Fred was a genius! There! I don’t know of any other way to put it!
I was paralyzed before I came to him and I had been playing (drums) for almost 4 years. He literally “untied“ my hands and feet. He gave me a good rock solid approach to playing the drums, not only as far as technique was concerned, but musically as well! Very important! He had the uncanny ability to “size up” a student and give that student exactly what he or she needed! He built drummers who are musicians—not just drummers!
He certainly made a musician out of me, and for that I can never repay him or replace him!
God bless FREDDIE GRUBER!
Freddie, to you I say, ”WELL PLAYED, WELL LIVED, WELL DONE”!
Your student forever.
B A C K
Then we start the process over again. This is perpetual elliptical motion. Freddie would teach the hand motion first. Then design a series of rudimental flow drills around the drums and cymbals moving in and out of different time signatures for me to do, so that I could get the repetitions. Sensitivity was always paramount. As well as slow deliberate hand motion. Breathe he would say. We started on paper with hand written exercises then quickly moved to the books. The main ones being Buddy Rich, Syncopation, Colin Bailey, and Burns & Mailn. There were others like the Frank Higgins rock book which was great as well as Joe Cusatis. We covered a lot of material in both right and left hand leads. Freddie would write the motion in the margins and above or below the notation. He used a very creative language to express the movements he wanted. “Up-Tap-Down!” “Come up in a release!” Ha!
Often I consult with my senior Neal Sausen to decipher what it was Freddie meant! And every day I still see new details and different approaches to the material he gave me which is testament to an organic evolving process. Eventually he wanted me to be able to teach myself, so that any style or written material I came across I could figure out the feeling based on the hand motion. Later when I really got into playing jazz we got into a more conceptual thing about different ways to phrase the jazz ride cymbal and incorporate poly rhythms. We did extensive work on the Holy Grail, the left hand traditional grip! And playing with arcs, loops and fulcrums to create a full range of motion. Also angles, range and balance in relationship to sitting at the drum set. It’s a lot like being a boxer. Being in the right place at the right time to play off the rebound. The feet were equally as important, learning five different ways of playing the bass drum coming off the head not into it! Meaning we went through the Colin Bailey Book five times! And, five or six different ways to play the hi hat with the left foot.
Another thing we did was a lot of serious listening and studying the old-time great drummers. Fellow student Tony Stein and I would go out hunting for all these hard to find jazz CD’s. We would stay up all night listening with Freddie. It was great fun hearing his stories about the jazz life and all the drummers, especially my hero Buddy Rich who was an older brother to Freddie! I was very lucky to have a 25 year student teacher relationship with Freddie and I’m forever grateful. He was more than an instructor! It was an old-school apprenticeship that also included trips to and from the airport. Food and doctor runs. NAMM and PASIC conventions. Demonstrations for a lot of skeptical pros who later became students! And it was a relationship that also included my family.
My brother BJ used to show up at Freddie’s house at all hours to hang out or just get some peace and take a nap. They were close. We all loved Freddie! Lastly how do I know what he taught worked? Well I’m happy with my playing. I am able to express myself freely on my instrument. And I’ve gotten to play with and also be an instructor to my hero’s and in turn, earn their respect. A year after Freddie’s passing, I started my journey in the martial arts and earned my instructorship and a black belt in the Filipino Martial Arts, also known as Kali. As well as JKD, and Silat under Bruce Lee’s close friend and student, the legendary Guro Dan Inosanto who is also a drummer! When I started training Guro Dan told me, Michael you are a drummer this will be no problem for you. Huh? Really? And then Guro Dan told me Kali literally means Hand Motion and Body Motion!!! Thank you Freddie! It works and I am passing it on. I hope I’m making you proud wherever you be!
Aristotle said teaching is the highest form of understanding. Growing up the as the first grandson of PAS hall of fame member Maurie Lishon, (President of the legendary Franks Drum Shop) was was not an easy ticket. I started playing with drum sticks from day one.
The bar was set very high namely in Buddy Rich! In Chicago had a great teacher Roy Knapp’s protégée Phil Stanger for nine years. I moved with my mom and brother to Los Angeles in 1985 where I met Freddie Gruber at a PASIC convention along with his top student Neal Sausen. What’s the old saying when the student is ready the teacher wil appear? I had been summoned by the samurai himself. I was 15 years old when my mom drove me to my first lesson and waited in the car! Any illusions of greatness I had were immediately shattered that first day! Freddie told me, Michael I am showing you hand and body motion. This includes the feet. He showed me how to release the stick in the hand, then release the wrists to come up off the surface of the drum. And then how to throw the stick back down striking the head and stopping the stick to control the rebound.