Opinion

A great teacher shares some life

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Freddie Gruber was a great drum teacher. If you have a great teacher in your life, no matter the subject taught, then Freddie Gruber won’t be a total stranger.

I was thinking yesterday of meeting Freddie Gruber in 1982. Excerpts of my interview with Freddie are posted on YouTube and my blog. The years 1980 to 1983 were fun and instructive. Through my job with Modern Drummer magazine, the staff and readers were creating new, in-depth material with familiar drummers.

We were also discovering drummers with great careers who had stayed under the music publicity radar. Some played exclusively in recording studios or in orchestra pits for theater performances. For years, most music buyers showed no interest in knowing specific musicians playing on albums. The soundtrack of “West Side Story,” for example, had composer Leonard Bernstein’s name, but not the individual musicians playing that incredible music.

In the early 1980s, the MD editors and writers were starting to find and interview those kinds of unsung musicians.

Drum teachers were another under the radar group. Often these were local teachers, highly regarded, but little known outside their hometown areas.

Freddie Gruber was a drum teacher in the Los Angeles, CA area. Born in 1927 in New York City, Freddie studied with some of the great classical percussion teachers, befriended many of the up-and-coming jazz players, and developed a reputation as an innovative drummer. Barry Ulanov, one of the finest jazz writers wrote about Freddie in a 1940s column called, “The Shape of Jazz Drums to Come.”

Too many superb musicians in the 1940s-1950s succumbed to drugs. Freddie was caught in that trap, but he didn’t die.

Starting life over, Freddie began teaching, slowly. At first he was answering drummers’ questions between sets in nightclubs. As his reputation grew, his teaching practice grew.

I met Freddie through drummer Jim Keltner. When Freddie visited New York City in 1982 we met. He was staying in Buddy Rich’s apartment, and he agreed to an interview. Having him actually sitting down for a taping session was not easy. He kicked the can up the road a few times, saying yes to a time/place, then running out the clock at that time/place without an interview.

Our last chance was in Buddy Rich’s apartment. Freddie and I were at the kitchen table. Before the interview, Freddie talked non-stop, saying all these pearls of wisdom, asking me NOT to turn on my tape recorder.

FINALLY, Freddie gave me permission to fire up the recorder.

Trying to understand Freddie Gruber’s teaching method, I asked, “Suppose I’ve just walked into your studio for my first drum lesson. What happens next?”

Freddie points to a pair of drumsticks on the table and asks me to play something, anything. I tap off a few measures of drumming on the formica. Freddie asks me to play something again, and I do.

My first drum lesson with Freddie Gruber is over. Freddie analyzes my playing with amazing accuracy. For example, he says, “You don’t have much big band drumming experience, only small groups.” “How can you tell?” I ask. “By the way you hold your arms close to your body,” Freddie says.

And miracle of miracles, Freddie corrects how I was drumming with my left hand, clearing up a challenge dogging me for years and years. In the blink of an eye Freddie showed me a simple, natural way of playing and holding the stick with my left hand. Not much different from the way I had been playing. But, Freddie’s adjustment made all the difference in the world. It was one of those plateaus musicians reach now and then after a long dry spell.

A great teacher, a one-of-a-kind man. I am grateful Freddie Gruber and I had a chance to share some life together.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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