- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

TOKYO (AP)At age 21, Eric Kamau Gravatt was McCoy Tyner’s drummer, one of the most coveted jobs a jazz musician could hope to get. After 20 years of working as a prison guard, he’s back behind the kit — again as Mr. Tyner’s drummer.

“My career started with a telephone call. McCoy called me to play,” Mr. Gravatt, now 60, said. “My career stopped just as easily when the telephone didn’t ring anymore.”

While not quite a household name, Mr. Gravatt has played with Weather Report, Freddie Hubbard, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus, Paquito D’Rivera, Sonny Fortune, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean — a list that reads like a who’s-who of jazz greats.

But Mr. Gravatt is quick to acknowledge he’s never been good at negotiating pay or handling the cutthroat business side of his profession. He also made mistakes in his youth when he was hotheaded, maybe a bit arrogant, he said during a recent trip to Tokyo with the pianist’s quartet.

Mr. Gravatt’s tale is symbolic of many musicians, who aren’t financially rewarded for their outstanding talent. The result: a day job.

As Mr. Gravatt recalls, he failed to fly to New York for a performance with Mr. Tyner in 1976 because of what he says was a misunderstanding about a missing plane ticket at an airport. The ticket was under a wrong name, but he thought it wasn’t there.

Mr. Tyner didn’t exactly struggle to find a replacement.

“He was in New York. There were plenty of drummers he could call,” Mr. Gravatt said, his voice still sad after so many years.

To support his wife and two children, he worked for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, where he was promoted to lieutenant. He retired in 2001.

Now that his daughters are grown, at 27 and 23, and he collects a pension, Mr. Gravatt feels free to pursue what his heart truly desires.

Mr. Tyner rehired him as his drummer in 2004. Playing at a concert at Tokyo’s Blue Note earlier this month, Mr. Gravatt shows he hasn’t lost a bit of his drive or technique, delivering an energetic collage of rhythms of jangling cymbals and staccato snares.

His mastery of African and Cuban styles forms the perfect complement to Mr. Tyner’s percussive and delightfully unpredictable playing.

Age has made Mr. Gravatt maybe more levelheaded and definitely more of a homebody, and the gray is showing in his beard.

But Mr. Gravatt is as curious and carefree as a youngster, disarmingly frank offstage about his appreciation of everyday Japanese items — hot udon noodles, samurai movies, the marvel of kanji characters and wooden geta clogs he plans to wear around the house.

Mr. Gravatt’s sound is part of a vibrant American jazz legacy; footage of his solos with Weather Report and Mr. Tyner are available on YouTube.

In recent years, musical icons like Wayne Shorter and the late Joe Zawinul have praised Mr. Gravatt’s drumming flair, sensitivities and precision.

Many drummers from the early days of jazz are dead — Max Roach, Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, the drummer for the John Coltrane Quartet, which catapulted Mr. Tyner to stardom.

Mr. Gravatt says he misses the bebop sound and decries the recent shift toward easy-listening, less complex “smooth jazz” he feels has lessened the intensity and innovative character of the music.

When he was too young to get in clubs, he used to stand outside listening to Mr. Coltrane for hours, he recalls.

“There used to be a lot of bands out there that played with energy, daring, a little fire,” Mr. Gravatt said. “In the original feeling of jazz, there was a certain type of urgency.”

Hozumi Nakadaira, a Tokyo club owner and photographer, who has taken pictures of Miles Davis, Mr. Coltrane and other masters, including Mr. Gravatt with Weather Report, didn’t immediately recognize Mr. Gravatt at his latest concert.

“He wasn’t young, but he was so fantastic I was wondering what this drummer could have been doing up to now,” he said, adding that Mr. Tyner’s band still sounds powerful despite their age. “The jazz giants are dying. Mr. Tyner is one of a handful who’s left.”

Mr. Gravatt also commands respect from his colleagues.

“He has made it very comfortable for me to figure out what my role is,” said bassist Gerald Cannon, who plays with Mr. Tyner. “I feel very grateful to play with a man with so much experience behind the drums.”

Mr. Tyner is also happy to have Mr. Gravatt back.

“He is a fantastic artist,” he said, adding that he delivers the “sensitivity and dynamics” he looks for in a percussionist. “He listens and responds.”

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