Drummer Martin Drew worked for piano typhoon Oscar Peterson for 30 years, one of the toughest tasks in jazz. He talks about the demanding Peterson and the easygoing Ronnie Scott to PETER VACHER.
‘RONNIE WAS A DARLING MAN who would allow you that closeness. Whereas with Oscar, you wanted to love the guy but he wouldn’t let you get close to him.’
Martin Drew is comparing two leaders who dominated much of his musical career. Drew was Ronnie Scott’s drummer for 20 years and adored the late saxophonist’s penchant for seeing the funny side of everything. ‘Ronnie was a guy you wanted to hang out with - and we did’, Drew says. But the recently-departed piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson (with whom Drew worked for three decades, off and on) kept his distance. ‘Oscar travelled first class, Niels (bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen) travelled business class. For me, it was the scumbags. That’s how we got off the plane, in that order,’ Drew says, laughing.
We’re meeting just days after Peterson’s death at the age of 82, which Drew admits has been a shock, despite being aware of the pianist’s declining health. ‘But frankly,’ Drew announces, ‘I was more upset when Niels died (in 2005). That must have been devastating for Oscar too, because Oscar could really only play with one hand after his stroke. He’d play a chord and Niels would play the “symphony”. Niels’s dexterity, his technique, was everything to Oscar. I know Oscar once gave him a blank cheque and said, “here you are, work for me”. They were very tight.’
How had this affable British drummer’s association with one of jazz music’s all-time giants first come about, I wondered?
‘I was at Ronnie’s working with Barbara Thompson, it was 1974,’ Drew recalls. ‘We were opposite Oscar, who was playing just as a duo with Niels. My drums were there, set up on the bandstand. I’m not necessarily the shrinking violet but I couldn’t find it in me to go up to say to Oscar “I want to play with you”. Anyway I copped virtually every one of his sets that week – I knew the “parts” as he would put it. On the Friday, I was just going into Ronnie’s office at the back and suddenly this voice - Oscar’s - says, “oi, you. On the stand!” I went on and we just played. It was that magical thing. It just felt right. Oscar enjoyed my playing and asked if I wanted to go to Japan. Then came the TV series, and eventually I was in the band. That was it. No contract, nothing in writing.’
Shaking his head at the miracle of it all, Drew says he would never have imagined in a million years that he’d end up playing with Peterson. But for all the manifest pleasures of the job, it’s clear that life with the great man could be fraught.
‘He liked to be in charge. So much so, he could drive you mad,’ the drummer says, recalling a time when Oscar called him to his hotel room and remonstrated with the Englishman about his weight. ‘He was justified in doing it, except that he was twice the size of me,’ Drew grins. If he was in awe of Peterson, however, others were not - notably guitarist Joe Pass. ‘Joe once said to Oscar, “to me, you’re just another piano player,” and went home, and got a rucking from Norman Granz for it. Joe was his own man, a Sicilian and a bit crazy, but a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful guy.’
When Drew was ill with food poisoning in France, Peterson took a leaf out of the Duke Ellington book of man-management. ‘We got on the bandstand and Oscar put me through all the hoops. It ended up I felt so ill, I felt good. It taught me something. You never know what you’re capable of, until someone really puts you through it.’
Martin Drew’s obvious aptitude and positive attitude resulted in Oscar Peterson pretty much leaving his drummer to get on with it. ‘He didn’t like too much left hand, though,’ Drew muses. ‘Used to call it chattering. And he didn’t like the stick across the drum, the Phillymops. He liked a sizzle cymbal and I always kept that on my left because it was right close up to him. I do that to this day.’
Drew also experimented by dampening the bass drum with a pillow, much to Niels’s approval. ‘He said, “keep that in, it doesn’t get in the way of the bass.” For me, if the bass player’s not happening, then it’s a bit of an uphill struggle. I’m lucky enough to have played with Niels, with Ray Brown and Ron Mathewson (see JazzUK 78) - who I think was one of the greatest bass players in the world, ever! Timewise, he was just magnificent.’
Oscar Peterson stopped playing for a couple of years after his stroke in the 1990s, but eventually Drew and Orsted Pedersen got the call again. ‘Niels said, “Oscar knows we can give him what he wants. It’s ingrained.”’
But Martin Drew’s association with Peterson came to an amicable end in February 2004 - after a year in which Orsted Pedersen’s drinking had worsened. There were moments on tour in Brazil and Japan, when Drew and guitarist Ulf Wakenhuis feared the great bassist had died. But Drew’s abiding memories of those years, including performances at Sydney Opera House and La Scala Milan, were overwhelmingly positive. If Oscar Peterson inevitably figures large in Martin Drew’s jazz recollections, however, it’s to Ronnie Scott that we return over and over again.
‘He was such a joy to be with,’ Drew says. He also draws a comparison with the saxophonist Zoot Sims. ‘Zoot for me was an American Ronnie,’ Drew says. ‘I was working with him in the ‘60s when they first landed on the moon and he says, “shit, man, those Motherfuckers have landed on the moon and I’m still playing “Indiana”. It’s famous. And I was there in that back office with the TV on when he said it.’
That was then: this is now. Martin Drew leads his own exciting band, and regards his partners (Mornington Lockett, Jim Hart, Steve Melling and Paul Morgan) as among the best he’s ever worked with.’
‘Me, I just want to play the drums,’ Drew says, simply. ‘I only started the band because the phone wasn’t ringing quite so much. I thought if I fix my own band, it’s got to be me on drums!’
This feature originally appeared in Jazz UK Issue 79 (February - March 2008)