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Jul 01, 2013 - Legendary Drummer Washington Rucker Featured at Jazz Hall

 

            Many years ago, Washington Rucker’s European tour with Stevie Wonder took him to Paris, where he found himself being interviewed by a local writer.

            “The first thing this guy asked me was, `Where are you from?’” Rucker recalls.

            “I said, `Tulsa, Oklahoma.’ He said, `Well, you’re too young to have played with Ernie Fields, so you must’ve played with Jimmy “Cry Cry” Hawkins’.”

            It was a moment that brought home, among other things, the fact that these two musicians and bandleaders were known beyond the confines of Tulsa, and even the United States. And, in fact,Rucker had played drums with bluesmanHawkins, during a time music historians point to as the period when the Tulsa version of rock ‘n’ roll was being invented.

            “I first played with Jimmy in 1952,’53,” he remembers. “I was in tenth grade; it was my first gig and I loved it. The first time I left the state of Oklahoma, we went to Wichita, Kansas, and played a place called Flagler’s Garden. I’ll never forget that. Then later, in’54, we went to Columbus, Georgia, and stayed for practically the whole summer.”

            Rucker would go from there to international fame with a variety of acts – including his own group, the Jazz Collection – but not before meeting a man who worked for that other big Tulsa music figure mentioned by the Parisian journalist. Clarence Dixon had been Ernie Fields’ drummer in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, when Fields had led a well-known big band. (In fact, the 1940 DownBeatmagazine poll found Dixon rated as the No. 2 drummer in the land, right behind Ray Bauduc from Bob Crosby’s hitmaking orchestra.)

            “Mr. Dixon was the greatest influence I ever had in my life,” Rucker says. “I was raised in South Haven, west Tulsa, and Mr. Dixon lived diagonally across the street from us. I didn’t know him at the time, but one day I passed by his house and I looked in and saw this gigantic set of drums. And he came up and asked, `Do you play?’ He took me inside and set me down at the most incredible set of drums I’d ever seen. And from then on, he became my everything.”

            Dixon, he adds, taught him the concept of “melody drums,” which would be of great use to Rucker in his own career.

            At the time he met Dixon, he was an 11thgrader; upon his graduation from Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School,Rucker would travel to Southern California, where he not only dipped into the Los Angeles music scene, but also enrolled at UCLA. He’d eventually earn a degree in history.

            Meanwhile, he got geography lessons from his work, as he traveled the world playing drums with the likes of Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Nancy Wilson, and Linda Hopkins. He also used his twin loves of jazz and history to create an educational program for kids called “Jazz for Wee People”.

            "My mentor, Mr. Dixon told me that my drumsticks would take me around the world and they did. I support the Oklahoma Jazz hall of Fame and believe the work they are doing in music education is vital in helping develop the self-confidence and life skills our young folks need to get ahead. When you believe in yourself you can do anything."

            “I’ve had that for 30 years,” Ruckersays. “I’ve taken it to Romania, I’ve taken it to Switzerland. In fact, my logo was made by a little Swiss kid, who was seven or eight years old. It’s my way of paying back, but it’s also just exposing them to another way. Music gives them the discipline to do better in school, it does a whole lot for their self-worth, it can open up the possibilities of their getting scholarships to go to college, and it can open up a way for them to see the world – which I have been able to do, thanks to Mr. Dixon.”

Rucker’s musical travels bring him from L.A. to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall stage Sunday, where he plans to present a show full of, he says, “hard bebop.”

            “Maybe we’ll play a blues or two, but, basically, I’m a hard-bebop player,” he explains. “I don’t put down, quote, `smooth jazz,’ but I think jazz is a word that’s thrown around a little too precariously. Anytime something doesn’t fit into the norm, they call it `jazz,’ and I think that dilutes jazz and its worth. They don’t do that with classical music, which is European in its origins. Jazz’s origins are in America, and it’s never fully appreciated.

            “Very seldom do you see a jazz musician who wants to be a classical musician,” he adds. “But you always see classical players who want to be jazz players. That ought to help people appreciate the magnetism of jazz music.”

            Washington Rucker is set to begin at 5 p.m. Sunday, July 7, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St. Tickets can be purchased at the depot, from www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-1008. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.

The event is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Summer Concert Series.

            The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.Many years ago, Washington Rucker’s European tour with Stevie Wonder took him to Paris, where he found himself being interviewed by a local writer.


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