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Rhythm Runs In The Family: Drummers On Their Dads

Percussionist Pete Escovedo and his daughter Sheila E. perform together in Rome in 2013.
Jun Sato
Percussionist Pete Escovedo and his daughter Sheila E. perform together in Rome in 2013.

When you read enough about the early lives of jazz musicians, you begin to spot a trend. A lot of artists caught the music bug from their parents.

With instruments and musicians around the house, it's easy for kids to grow curious about playing. But that's not nearly the whole story. Sometimes parents are the first teachers. Other times, parental guidance doesn't fully kick in until much later.

With Father's Day on the horizon, I recently tracked down five drummers who not only came from musical families but also had fathers who were drummers or percussionists, too. Here's what Nasheet Waits, Sheila E., Ralph Peterson Jr., Billy Drummond and Kush Abadey had to say about what their dads taught them.

Nasheet Waits

Drummer Freddie Waits was a versatile sideman of the '60s, '70s and beyond. A former Motown house musician, he worked in New York as an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, a drummer in McCoy Tyner's trio, a member of Max Roach's percussion ensemble M'Boom and with a wide variety of other jazz artists.

His son, Nasheet Waits, is perhaps better known to contemporary audiences. He's one of today's busiest and most highly respected drummers, playing in Jason Moran's Bandwagon trio, among many other credits. Like his late father, Nasheet took a role in M'Boom and bands led by pianist Andrew Hill.

Growing up in New York City, Nasheet saw a lot of his father's performances as a kid, and sometimes even held the hi-hat cymbal in place on stage. He says he was inspired by how fun it looked and began to experiment on his father's drums. Freddie Waits never gave his son formal lessons on technique — a few pointers here and there, "some books I never looked at" — and didn't force a rigorous program on him.

"You know how sometimes people have stage mothers or fathers, having them go to Suzuki piano lessons all early, and doing stuff all early?" Nasheet said. "And then that turns music into a chore. It becomes work. And now it's definitely work. But back then, it was all about the joy of it, and he let it be that for me."

Yet at the same time, Freddie Waits did stress the importance of integrity and respect for the legacy of jazz.

"I was maybe 10 years old, at my elementary school graduation, and I was ... horsing around," Nasheet said. "After the concert, everybody thought it was great, the kids and everything like that. And he pulled me aside and said, 'You know, you can't approach the music like that. You always have to have respect for the bandstand, for that instrument.' So even as a young 10-year-old, it resonated with me."

As a teenager, Nasheet didn't pursue music seriously. He had gone south to Atlanta's Morehouse College to study history and psychology when his father died. Nasheet eventually returned to New York to look after his younger brother, and was working a summer job in investment banking — "I didn't really have any interest in that, but it paid really well," he said, laughing — when he reconnected with his childhood buddies saxophonist Abraham Burton and drummer Eric McPherson. Waits started frequenting jazz clubs and record stores, and spent time in the studio space his father owned.

"It became a cathartic kind of thing also," Nasheet said. "Because the drums were still there, I was able to heal those wounds, or whatnot, by sitting behind those drums." At the time, he still couldn't read music — "but things happened quickly from there on," he said.

Twenty-five years later, Nasheet still is inspired by his father's legacy.

"Almost every gig I do, regardless of where it is, somebody says something about him," Nasheet says. "Whether's it's a personal experience from another musician, whether it's somebody who comes to the concert, or somebody who hung out with him, or took him to the airport, or somebody who had dinner with 'your father,' or somebody who he had taught. ...

"And that always makes me feel good. Some people feel intimidated or feel slighted when compared to their fathers ... but it always puts a smile on my face. I know he had a positive effect on a lot of people's lives, not just my own."

Sheila E.

Sheila E. has worn many hats: touring musician for Prince and Santana, frontwoman pop star with Top 40 hits in the 1980s, gun for hire on percussion and drumset. She has a new album, Icon, and a memoir coming out this fall called The Beat Of My Own Drum.

The E. stands for Escovedo — among others in a musical family, her uncle is singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, and her father is Latin jazz percussionist and bandleader Pete Escovedo. That meant that while she was growing up in Northern California, legends like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri were around the house frequently. From a very young age, she gravitated toward her father's congas.

"He was self-taught as well, so there was no right or wrong way for him to play," she said. "As well as me watching him in a mirror image, there was no right or wrong for me to watch him. ... He was playing right-handed and set up as a right-handed conga player. Whatever his right hand would do, my left hand would do. When I sat down to play, I'd actually play left-handed, though his congas were set up right-handed. He didn't even know that I played like that until probably when I sat in to play with him in real life."

If you say, 'Be there at 2 o'clock,' he's always there at 1:45. And if you're not there at 1:45, you're late.

So natural was she that at age 5, her dad first brought her onstage to perform with the Escovedo Brothers Latin jazz band. She doesn't remember much about what actually happened that night, but she'd continue to perform off and on with her dad and her brothers. And 10 years later, a percussionist in her father's 18-piece band Azteca fell ill.

"My mom and I begged [my father] to let me do it because they couldn't find a replacement for that particular show," she said. "And that's when it happened, that one show. I didn't realize it at the time, but the impact of playing with a professional band at the age of 15 — and they were well-known artists in their own right, half of Santana was in that band — to be able to perform with them just brought me to a different place, spiritually and mentally and physically."

It was a pivotal moment for Sheila, as thereafter she dedicated herself to becoming a musician. To this day, after decades in the business, she still performs with Pete Escovedo — she's preparing for a tour of Japan with her dad — and keeps his lessons about professionalism in mind.

"How he speaks with people, how he treats them — very graciously, he's a very humble man, very soft-spoken," she said. "If you say, 'Be there at 2 o'clock,' he's always there at 1:45. And if you're not there at 1:45, you're late. He's always told me to be early, to learn whatever it is you need to learn to walk into a situation so you don't feel stressed about it, to feel confident and strong and secure.

"He really cares about people. He [doesn't] always want to be the front guy, loving to be a team player. And I love that about him."

Ralph Peterson Jr.

In the 1980s, Ralph Peterson Jr. joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. It's an impressive credit on any resume, but even more so when you consider that Blakey was himself a drummer and opened another drum chair for his young protege. Peterson Jr. has played with an enormous range of musicians ever since, and now teaches at the Berklee College of Music.

A scrapbook entry from Ralph Peterson Jr. shows him performing on trumpet with his father, Ralph Peterson Sr., on drums and Charles Fambrough on bass. In the top two photos, both Petersons take their turns behind the drum set.
/ Courtesy of Ralph Peterson Jr.
Courtesy of Ralph Peterson Jr.
A scrapbook entry from Ralph Peterson Jr. shows him performing on trumpet with his father, Ralph Peterson Sr., on drums and Charles Fambrough on bass. In the top two photos, both Petersons take their turns behind the drum set.

I caught Peterson Jr. at a bad time — unknown to me, the previous afternoon, his father, Ralph Peterson Sr., had died. But he was gracious enough to field my call, so I offered him some space for him to remember his dad, an extraordinary multitasker.

"He was a championship [boxer] — Golden Gloves Diamond Belt. Cauliflower ear kept him out of the Mexico Olympics," Peterson Jr. said. "He fought for the Air Force, so he was a serviceman, served his country. He was the first black everything, from patrolman to lieutenant, captain, chief of detectives, deputy chief, chief of police, and was mayor of 16 years [in Pleasantville, N.J.]. When people look at my life and the manner in which I multitask now, with music, and my education foundation, and practicing and teaching martial arts, it's in my DNA to be plugged into the community. And I learned that from him."

Like most of his brothers, Ralph Peterson Sr. was also a musician. Based out of southern New Jersey, not far from Atlantic City, Peterson Sr. had jobs backing saxophonist Sonny Stitt and singer Arthur Prysock. He was a student of local legend Crazy Chris Colombo.

His father "taught me by making me pack his drums up and put them in the car," Peterson Jr. says, laughing. "And by having hundreds upon hundreds of records, none of which I was interested in until after I got out of high school."

As a teenager, the younger Peterson was much more into funk: Parliament-Funkadelic, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire. But his uncles began to expose him to jazz, especially Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie (Peterson Jr. is also a trumpet player) and eventually he caught the bug.

"When my interest in acoustic music started to pique as I got into college, it was amazing how many of those records I had ignored in high school, they started to disappear, one by one, from his collection," Peterson Jr. says. "And with 18 records as a leader, it was nice to be able to replace those discs with ones with my name on the cover. Kind of took the sting out of — some of them, he never got back."

I commented that the elder Peterson must have been proud of those recordings.

"He was," Peterson Jr. said. "And he told people all the time. My mother reminds me of that, my sisters remind me of that. Everybody that I encounter when I come home: 'Man, your father talks about you.' And I talked about him equally. I'm going to miss him. But he left us all so much."

Billy Drummond

Like Ralph Peterson Jr., Billy Drummond is another of those drummers of a certain generation — both are in their early-to-mid 50s — who seem to have played with anyone who ever went. Both were mentored by major figures of the hard bop era, and both now teach at the university level.

As it turns out, their fathers were also both law enforcement officials who played a little drums. Both also maintained great jazz record collections full of classic recordings — "real meat-and-potatoes, cream-of-the-crop style of that music," Drummond said.

"From the time I can remember being alive, I can remember on Saturday mornings, that was his ritual," Drummond said. "He didn't work on Saturdays and Sundays. So on Saturday mornings, he would be up early, and that's how he got the family up, by playing records pretty loud."

By the time he was born, Billy Drummond's dad hadn't been performing for a few years. But Drummond started playing by age 4, and his father encouraged him along the way, showing him a few basic tips and taking him to see concerts frequently.

"He looked like a jazz guy, the way he carried himself, you know?" Drummond said. "Sometimes we would go to places, and people would think they knew him. When we went to see [drummer] Buddy Rich the first time, Buddy was backstage, and they had it roped off to where the general public couldn't get there. We saw him, and my dad kind of whistled, 'Hey Buddy!' And Buddy looked over and waved with a big smile on his face, like he knew my dad. He came right over, and realized he didn't really know him, but he was still really, really nice, and my dad introduced me to him."

Drummond would use his parents' living room to host jam sessions with his friends and even conduct lessons. He eventually went on to study at the conservatory level and moved to New York.

"My dad lived long enough to see me play with Horace Silver, and James Moody, and Sonny Rollins, and J.J. [Johnson]," Drummond said. "He was really, really happy about it, because it was the very thing that he almost wanted to do as well. He just didn't really pursue it."

Drummond described his father as a "jazz guy" on the inside, and retirement afforded some time to get back to it. He was done with the drums, though — in the last decade of his life, he learned to play the tenor sax.

Kush Abadey

Kush Abadey was 2 years old when his father started teaching him the basics of the drums: rolls, double strokes, clave patterns.

"I've always been surrounded by drums or music in some way," Abadey said. "It was never hard to introduce me to things because I was always fascinated by how things work. ... It was pretty much a sign that I had the interest in going further."

It helped that his father, Nasar Abadey, is one of the mid-Atlantic region's premier jazz drummers himself and on the faculty of the Peabody Institute. He set up his son with equipment and practice routines, and got him started on the piano so he could understand more music.

"We would listen to the radio, and a song would come on, and he'd be like, 'Who's that? Who's playing drums?'" Kush said. "Earlier, sometimes I wouldn't get it, but after 3 or 4 years of doing that, I would begin to develop my ear. ... He also taught me that if you play with someone, you always know what they sound like, in any type of situation. To this day, if I've heard them or played with them, I'm able to pretty much pick out who it is."

Nasar Abadey also introduced his son to an old protege of his: trumpeter Wallace Roney. As Kush's chops began to develop as a teenager, Kush sent Roney a demo recording. Two weeks later, Roney called up Kush and invited him to play with his band in New York. Kush has been the drummer for Wallace Roney's bands ever since.

"I always tell [Roney] that story, and what he reminds me of is that he actually didn't listen to the recording," Kush says. "He never really listens to — you know people bring him demos all the time. What he actually did was — I sat in during one of my dad's gigs at Bohemian Caverns [in Washington]. He saw me play, and he saw a lot of things he liked in my playing. That's what made him actually make the call."

Now in his early 20s, Kush Abadey has graduated from Berklee and lives in New York. He says he still calls his father — his best friend, he says — for advice on professional situations all the time. And Nasar Abadey has more than encouragement.

"Now, since I've been in New York," the son says, "he always says, 'Well, now, you've got to give me a lesson. I want you to show me some of the stuff you're learning in New York.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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