June 21, 2024

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Was Pete La Roca the first Free Jazz drummer? Video, Photos

Drummer Pete La Roca’s solo on “Minor Apprehension”, the second track on Jackie McLean’s 1959 Blue Note release New Soil, is two minutes of brilliant, unaccompanied free improvisation.

There’s no steady pulse, no reference to the 32-bar form, just an impression of the melody, using rhythm and sound to get that impression across. It might be the first recorded drum solo to take such liberties, which makes the solo, in effect, one of the earliest recorded examples of free jazz.

A two-minute drum solo on a 1959 Jackie McLean record had bold implications.

I’d long heard about the solo, thanks to writers Ken Micallef, Nate Chinen, and Stanley Crouch. I know of no other jazz drumming like this in 1959. However, La Roca’s first gigs were as a percussionist in Latin conjuntos, and it is Afro-Cuban drumming which is the main inspiration for La Roca’s solo. The intros, fills, and solos of Latin timbaleros and congueros like Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, and Mongo Santamaria paved the way for La Roca’s fantasia.

Pete La Roca on “Minor Apprehension” is using the music and rhythms of Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic to create new possibilities for jazz drumming, showing the deep African roots and common African heritage shared by ragtime, son, swing, clave, bebop, and mambo.

This is big; La Roca is playing a new way- so new that producer Alfred Lion reportedly had a fit of consternation as La Roca was playing- but using Afro-Cuban rhythms, some of the oldest and most powerful rhythms known.

Of course, two minutes of chopped and screwed Afro-Cuban rhythms played on a drumset at a late 50’s hard-bop record date is not, and cannot be, the beginning of free jazz, important though the solo is. Ideas don’t spread that way. But acknowledging La Roca’s innovative solo helps form a more complete picture of the emergence of free jazz in the mid-20th century.

Pete La Roca at the recording session for Basra, May 19, 1965, photo by Francis Wolff.

Pete La Roca was one of the most popular drummers of his era; the Lord Discography lists sixty record dates from 1957 to 1967. Once again, the intrepid Ethan Iverson did us a public service in 2021 when he discussed La Roca with one of La Roca’s closest collaborators, the great Steve Swallow.

Swallow could not have been more forthcoming with fond recollections and information about La Roca. The picture Swallow painted of a deeply serious, often contrarian musician whose deepest wish was to be a master practitioner of 4/4 swing and bebop, yet who always included rhythms and ideas from distant sources, was like a beacon flashing: more attention is due, more attention is needed. More attention should be paid to Pete La Roca.

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