Ralph Peterson Jr., jazz drummer and bandleader, dies at 58

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Ralph Peterson Jr., jazz drummer and bandleader, dies at 58
Onward and Upward by Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Ralph Peterson, a thunderously swinging drummer who began his career as Art Blakey’s last protégé and finished it as a mentor to a new generation of jazz talent, died on March 1 at his home in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He was 58.

His publicist, Lydia Liebman, said the cause was complications of cancer, which he had been fighting for six years.

Peterson came to the fore in the 1980s as a member of the so-called Young Lions, a coterie of young improvisers devoted to the core ideals of bebop: swing rhythm, acoustic instrumentation and rigorous improvisational exchange within the constraints of a standard song form. Within that context, he brought a take-no-prisoners style and a bountiful, collaborative spirit.

Peterson was probably the most prominent drummer among the Young Lions to consistently front his own groups, and over the course of more than 30 years as a bandleader he released roughly two dozen albums with an array of ensembles.

One particularly successful vehicle was the Fo’tet, an unorthodox group consisting of clarinet, vibraphone, bass and drums. It seemed to prove the joyful flexibility of the straight-ahead jazz format, so long as you defined your own way of playing within it.

In a 2011 interview with the pianist George Colligan, Peterson described his approach to tradition simply: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” When teaching, he said, he told students: “Don’t buy in lock, stock and barrel to any philosophy that is not based in your own experience. Because then you are not living your life.”

Peterson joined the Art Blakey Big Band in his early 20s as the ensemble’s second drummer. He then became only the second person besides Blakey — and the longest-serving — to play in his main band, the Jazz Messengers, on Blakey’s own instrument. As Blakey grew ill, Peterson increasingly took over drum duties.

For decades the Messengers had been the premier finishing school for straight-ahead jazz talent, as Blakey brought in an endless stream of young musicians to fill its ranks. From the drum chair, Peterson came into contact with a Who’s Who of youthful improvisers, many of whom would hire him for their ensembles or play in his own.

After Blakey died in 1990, Peterson became a guardian of his legacy. The Ralph Peterson Quintet’s 1994 album, “Art,” was devoted to the Jazz Messengers repertoire. He later founded the band Messenger Legacy, composed of former Blakey band members, and in later years he and a group of his students recorded “I Remember Bu,” a big-band tribute to Blakey (who had taken the name Buhaina when he converted to Islam in the 1940s).

In the mid-’80s, as he began to move beyond Blakey’s shadow, Peterson played drums in Out of the Blue, a sextet of young musicians assembled by Blue Note Records. In 1988 he released his own debut album for the label, “V,” featuring his quintet.

Praising that album in a feature for The New York Times, the critic Jon Pareles called it an “exception” to the trend of albums by Young Lions who seemed partly suffocated by their fealty to tradition. Peterson’s record, he wrote, “makes hard bop sound daring again.”

Ralph Peterson Jr. was born on May 20, 1962, in Pleasantville, New Jersey. His father was Pleasantville’s first Black police chief, and then its first Black mayor. His mother, Shirley (Jones) Peterson, was a manager at an aviation research center.

Ralph grew up surrounded by drummers: His grandfather had been one, as had four of his uncles. Ralph started drumming at 3, and never stopped.

He is survived by his wife, Linea; two sisters, Michelle Armstead and Jennifer Armstead; a daughter, Sonora Slocum; and two stepdaughters, Saydee and Haylee McQuay. He is also survived by Jazz Robertson, a mentee he considered his “spiritual daughter.”

Alongside drums, Ralph studied the trumpet, and he entered Rutgers University’s jazz studies program as a trumpet major. But he soon departed to join Blakey’s band, and he didn’t return to school for two decades. In the early 2000s, having overcome an addiction to drugs, he returned to Rutgers to complete his bachelor’s degree.

By then he was already teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he later became a full professor, gaining a reputation as an insightful and positive-minded educator. Toward the end of his career, fed by the energy of his pupils, Peterson assembled the GenNext Big Band, a group of Berklee students modeled after the original Art Blakey Big Band. The ensemble released two albums on Peterson’s Onyx Music label, “I Remember Bu” (2018) and “Listen Up!” (2019).

In the classroom, he shared his deep knowledge of jazz history, the lessons that had come to him by way of elders like Blakey, and his own life struggles.

“Congratulations! You guys have accomplished a lot by arriving here. You are the best in your communities, the best where you come from,” he was quoted as saying to a roomful of Black students, all newly arrived on campus, in a 2018 article for DownBeat. “My job is to fuel your hunger, create more questions in your mind. And my goal is for you to leave with a sense of empowerment.”

By then Peterson was battling Stage 4 cancer, but he framed his own resilience as a resource his students could access.

“What I serve is the music, not my ego,” he told the class. “I’ve had enough chances to be dead, but I’m grateful to be alive. And the focus and intensity and pace at which I’m now working and living is directly related to the spiritual wake-up call that tomorrow isn’t promised.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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