Saturday, February 28, 2009

Roger Humphries, King of the Kit

Roger Humphries from Pittsburgh Jazz Network

Pittsburgh is one of the seminal spots for jazz in the nation, represented by many artists from players to singers. And it's especially well known as the birthplace of jazz drummers, like Joe Harris, Klook Clarke and Art Blakey. Roger Humphries was the guy they handed the torch to, and he's carried it proudly and well.

The son of Mary and Lawrence Humphries, Roger came from a big North Side family (he was one of 10 sibs), and among his relatives were uncles Frank and Hildred Humphries, a pair of professional brassmen.

His brothers Lawrence Jr. and Norman, both musicians then, helped led him along. Humphries scored his first gig at the ripe old age of four, during a Christmas program with the Mary J. Cowley Band.

The little drummer began winning prizes in amateur contests, and at four-1/2 years old, he sat in with the hard-swinging Tab Smith Big Band, who had Uncle Frank as part of the ensemble.

He was under the musical tutelage of Christine Shoda at Latimer Junior High, and she helped influence Humphries' career; after all, she directed the group he first sat in with, the Mary Cowley band, when he was a whelp. Humphries moved on to Allegheny High, where he earned, not too surprisingly, a seat on the All-City band.

He began playing for pay at the age of fourteen, and led his own group at Carnegie Music Hall when just sixteen. At age 15, he did a show with saxman Illinois Jacquet at the Crawford Grill.

In August of 1962, Humphries hooked up with the Sugar Man, Stanley Turrentine, and Philly organist Shirley Scott to form a trio that played at the Hurricane Lounge in the Hill District.

In 1964, he went to New York to join the Horace Silver Quintet. While with Silver, he toured Europe twice and appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Humphries also recorded four albums while working with Silver. The disks were "Song For My Father", "Cape Verderan Blues," "Jody Grind," and "Re-Entry Live at the Half Note."

"Song For My Father" is considered one of the timeless jazz recordings of our time, and the 1964 release still gets airplay on jazz-oriented stations today.

His time with Silver lasted from 1964 through 1967. Humphries got to play with jazz giants Joe Henderson, James Spalding, Tyrone Washington, Teddy Smith, Larry Ridley, Woody Shaw, Carmell Jones, and J.J. Johnson. He cut an album with trumpeter Jones in 1965, "Jay Hawk Talk".

But hey, quitting Silver wasn't exactly a bump in his career. Shortly after leaving him, Humphries began playing with Ray Charles. While gigging with Charles, he toured both in the US and Europe, and got his first taste of venues like the Coconut Grove in LA and the Newport Jazz Festival.

But he was homeboy at heart, and was tired of life on the road. Humphries wanted to return to his nest, wife Regina, and children Michele, Roger Jr., Denise, and Monica, (and now his grandchildren LaShawna, Adrian, and Brytney).

After playing with various groups around the country, Humphries put together his own group in 1972, RH Factor, and in 1996 he assembled Roger Humphries' Big Band. He plays with them and various configurations of musicians all across the City.

In January of 1980, Humphries took his last big road trip when he toured Europe with Richard "Groove" Holmes and Willis Jackson. During the trek, they performed in France, Spain, and Holland. Then it was back to the 'Burgh.

Humphries does more than play his music; he shares it, perhaps harking back to the days of Miss Choda.

Dr. Harry Clark, principal of the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), brought him aboard to teach aspiring teen musicians. Dr. Nathan Davis at the University of Pittsburgh gave him a teaching gig, too.

Humphries also gives clinics in venues like the Slippery Rock University Summer Jazz workshop and Mellon Jazz Masters Class and Concerts series.

It's even rubbed off on his family. Relations who frequent Pittsburgh's music scene include son Roger Humphries Jr. and nephew Gregory Humphries who are, naturally enough, drummers, along with cousin Teddy Humphries, a pianist.

The 60-something jazz giant is still influencing the musical direction of the City from beyond the bandstand. But make no mistake, he certainly hasn't abandoned the stage for academia.

RH Factor Quintet appears at the jazz club CJ's Lounge on 29th Street in the Strip District every Thursday night, and the jam sessions are incredible. He fits in shows around that set date, and plays the area regularly, sometimes gigging three times a week.

He's self-released a couple of albums, "This N That," with RH Factor in 1993, and "Don't Give Up" with his Big Band in 2003, which he dedicated to the memory of his brother Harold and sister Mary who made it a point to “Don’t Give Up” on music and in life.

And the local suits know a good man when they see one, too. On February 23, 2008, the state of Pennsylvania and the city of Pittsburgh issued a joint proclamation declaring it as Roger Humphries' Day in recognition of his performance in the fields of music and teaching.

It's been quite a career. Humphries has provided the backbeat for (take a deep breath): Ray Charles, Horace Silver, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Stanley Turrentine, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Witherspoon, Nathan Davis, Pete Henderson, Don Patterson, Bill Doggett, Billy Preston, Jack McDuff, Herbie Mann, Kenny Blake, Geri Alan, Frank Cunimondo, and Nancy Wilson. And this is just the A-List; the notables he gigged with goes on and on.

He's appeared on Oprah Winfrey's and Bryant Gumbel's TV shows. Humphries has performed at Carnegie Music Hall, the Village Gate and the Apollo Theatre in New York, the Jazz Workshop in Boston, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals, and Ronny Scott's in London, among many other clubs and venues spread across the country and Europe.

He's also sat in or starred drumming for at least eighteen albums, and his cuts are included in many jazz compilation collections.

Not bad for a little drummer boy from the North Side.

"Song For My Father" - Roger Humphries and RH Factor live at Katz Plaza in the Cultural District, with a little shilling at the end

No comments: