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Two Beats from a Different Drum:
ROBERT BARRY

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

Robert Barry / Photograph by MICHAEL JACKSON

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008



The following unabridged interviews originally appeared in
Issue 34: Jazz. For more about this issue, click here

TWO BEATS FROM A DIFFERENT DRUM
(UNABRIDGED CONTENT)

BY JOSH ABRAMS

Avreeayl Ra and Robert Barry have spent decades holding down the drums in Chicago jazz bands. Each played with the great Sun Ra. Both musicians were kind enough to sit down and share some of their experiences with STOP SMILING.

Click here to read the interview with Avreeayl Ra


ROBERT BARRY


Stop Smiling: Do you remember your first gigs as a professional musician?

Robert Barry: At 15, I played with Tom Archer and a lot of the guys that were around the community center on King Drive in Chicago: John Gilmore, George Estridge, Clifford Jordan. When I first started I was working on 47th and 43rd Streets.

SS: Were you playing bebop at the time?

RB: Yeah, we were all into Bird. I was into Bird when I was 11 or 12 years old. Bird used to play at the dances.

SS: Did you ever get to play with Bird?

RB: Yeah, in a dope den one time. We were working for a dude. He was a promoter, you dig, but he was the dope man at the same time. Bird came by to cop. We was up there waiting for him to take us where we were going, because he’d get a big station wagon and take a bunch of guys to the gig. He didn’t work the gig, but he would collect the money and then pay us. So we were waiting for him to take us and Bird stepped up in there. He came to cop. Stepped out of the bathroom and drank a glass of whiskey. The man said, “Play us a number, Bird.” Bird said “Sure,” and took out his saxophone, put a reed on, played some blues (“Don’t Blame Me”), and then he started another number.

SS: When did you start playing drums?

RB: I was 15 when I got my first gig. But I had my first set of drums when I was 14. I had a good sense of rhythm — right off the bat, before I even learned how to read music. That’s how I started working with Tom Archer. Those guys were in their 40s when I started working with them.

SS: Was your family into music?

RB: My old man was a violinist, and my two sisters played violin as well. My old man loved the classics, and I guess if he’d kept going, he would have probably been a classical violinist. My sisters and I used to sit down on Sundays and listen to the radio. There was’ no television then. We’d listen to the classics. We had a Zenith and my dad would make us sit right in front of the Zenith. It was boring as shit. Where’s the beat, you ‘know? Ain’t nobody having no fun with this music! We’d wind up going to sleep. But I appreciated it. When I got to high school, I knew what was going on with the classics. It was some long, drawn-out sheet music, and I would be patient. [Laughs] It would have some parts that were nice. I played the classics all in high school. We played Bartók, Ravel, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

SS: Where did you go to high school?

RB: DuSable High School. We had a marching band, swing band, concert band. Captain Walter Dyett was a phenomenal teacher. He taught all the guys that wound up coming out of Chicago: Nat King Cole, Benny Green, Johnny Griffin, Wilbur Campbell, Irma Thompson, Gene Ammons, John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, Julian Priester, Richard Evans, myself. He was a positive thinker. You couldn’t mention the word can’t in his presence. He’d go into a rage and would physically throw you. [Laughs] He’d take you by your collar or by the seat of your pants — somebody open the door and boom! He’d say, “Don’t never come back here until you lose that word.” And he’d say, “You are what you eat and you are what you think you are.” He used to keep a .38 on the desk. Everybody would carry knives. He’d say, “You guys think you’re bad with your knives and your switchblades — I got something for you!” [Laughs] Walter Dyett — he was something else.

SS: Who were some of your inspirations on drums?

RB: I know I heard Max Roach early on. And Baby Dodds and Ike Day, because he lived in the neighborhood. He was a child prodigy. At the age of 12 he was working professionally. He had such a sense of timing, he wouldn’t even need no music. He played in pit bands in downtown Chicago. They would say: “And now we bring to you… Ike Day,” and the other drummer would get up and let him sit down. That was something to behold. He made a drum set sound like there were melodies coming out of it. He had all the coordination. Max would look for him, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich. Everybody knew him: Miles and Sonny Rollins. But he was strung out on heroin, and that’s what took his life. The heroin had weakened his body so much he ended up dying of tuberculosis. He started shooting all that dope and hemorrhaged. He was so weak that when they put him on the operating table, he couldn’t make it. He couldn’t survive the operation.

SS: How old was he?

RB: Twenty-eight.

SS: He and Wilbur used to play together?

RB: Wilbur Ware, yeah they were partners. That’s how they got their dope money. They used to go around and play as a duo. Shit, when they come in, the sets would stop. Wilbur used to sing, and would be playing bass, and a lot of time Ike didn’t even have no drums. He’d just play on the bar, and Wilbur would sing standards or sing the blues. Those two were a phenomenal pair. They’d come in and the band would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, in the house we’ve got the great Wilbur Ware, the great Ike Day — they’re gonna do a number for you.” But all they wanted was to get some dope money. Yeah Wilbur would pass the hat while Ike was playing, they get their money and they gone, gone to cop somewhere.
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