[JPL] Former prison guard returns with tried, true sound to jazz legend Tyner's band

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sat Dec 29 11:20:34 EST 2007

  Former prison guard returns with tried, true sound to jazz legend
  Tyner's band

TOKYO - 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 
Tyner's drummer.

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

While not quite a household name, 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 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.

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

As Gravatt recalls, he failed to fly to New York for a performance with 
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.

Tyner didn't exactly struggle to find a replacement.

"He was in New York. There were plenty of drummers he could call," 
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, Gravatt feels free to pursue what his heart truly desires.

Tyner rehired him as his drummer in 2004. Playing at a concert at 
Tokyo's Blue Note earlier this month, 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 
Tyner's percussive and delightfully unpredictable playing.

Age has made Gravatt maybe more level-headed and definitely more of a 
homebody, and the grey is showing in his beard.

But Gravatt is as curious and carefree as a youngster, disarmingly frank 
off stage 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.

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

In recent years, musical icons like Wayne Shorter and the late Joe 
Zawinul have praised 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 Tyner to stardom.

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 Coltrane for hours, he recalls.

"There used to be a lot of bands out there that played with energy, 
daring, a little fire," said Gravatt. "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, Coltrane and other masters, including Gravatt 
with Weather Report, didn't immediately recognize Gravatt at his latest 

"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 Tyner's 
band still sounds powerful despite their age. "The jazz giants are 
dying. Tyner is one of a handful who's left."

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 Tyner. "I feel very grateful 
to play with a man with so much experience behind the drums."

Tyner is also happy to have 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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