Drummer Roger Humphries keeps the beat in Pittsburgh


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Horace Silver and Ray Charles chose him for world tours. When musical fame and fortune called, he chose to remain in Pittsburgh. But Roger Humphries never chose to be a drummer.

"Drums chose me," he said. "I woke up one day, and I had a set of drums. I was only 3½. They just popped up, and I started playing them."

A year later, still too young for Mary J. Cowley Elementary School, he was nonetheless in its music room, posing at a drum kit for famed Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris.

A Life in Tune: Drummer Roger Humphries

Drummer Roger Humphries is profiled in this installment of "A Life in Tune." (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/16/2014)

Music surrounded the youngest of Mary E. and Lawrence G, Humphries' 10 children and filled the living room of the family home on East Jefferson Street on the North Side. Brother Lawrence played the saxophone, brother Norman the drums, and three sisters sang gospel. When he was 10 or 11 years old, jamming in his bedroom, two legends drummed him into a musical fraternity with an irresistible beat.

"I never took lessons. I listened to records," he recalled.

"I learned how to swing hard from Art Blakey. Then Max Roach came into my life. He played so melodically. On solos, it was like his drums were tuned."

The young boy also learned from listening to Philly Joe Jones, Art Taylor, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb and others. "You take all the things that they show you and put them in your own conversation."

Mr. Humphries, who turned 70 last month and plays Thursday nights at CJ's in the Strip District, demonstrated the press roll he learned from Blakey, a Pittsburgh native.

"You press on the snare drum in a certain way and bring it up dynamically," he says, his sticks seeming to vibrate an inch above the drum heads.

"Art could sneak up on a press roll in a minute, then pow! Hit the cymbal and take it to another dimension."

When he was 14, Mr. Humphries got to meet both of his idols. His cousin Donald Humphries introduced him to Roach, and he met Blakey while he was playing at the Crawford Grill in the Hill District. He has photos of him with them and other musicians in the basement music room of the house he built 13 years ago on East Jefferson, right across the street from his childhood home.

"They were very giving to me," he said, recounting Roach's advice:

"Whatever you do, son, you gotta pass it on."

Mr. Humphries, the subject of a new documentary titled "Pass it On," said he was blessed to have a series of mentors who looked out for him. Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, another Pittsburgh jazz legend, took the 18-year-old on the road with him and his wife, Shirley Scott, an organist, in the early 1960s. Playing in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago and driving across country to the It Club in Los Angeles, "I learned what the road was about," he said.

Mr. Humphries' next big break was an audition in New York for Horace Silver, a pianist and composer. He had to audition against six older and better-known drummers.

"I was thinking to myself: 'Ain't no way in the world.' " But he got the call.

"You can mold a young guy. Can you dig it?"

Mr. Humphries toured with the quintet from 1964 to '67, performing in France, Switzerland, England and all over the U.S. That's him on Mr. Silver's classic "Song for My Father," released on Blue Note in 1965. The drums he used are one of four sets in his music room.

Upon his return to Pittsburgh, Mr. Humphries married Regina, his sweetheart from Allegheny High School, and they had four children. He was on a scaffold doing construction with his brother Norman when Edgar Willis, longtime bassist with Ray Charles, asked him to come Downtown to the Roosevelt Hotel to audition. When they put music in front of Mr. Humphries, he shook his head. "I can't read music."

So Charles began to play the blues, and the drummer followed. When he broke into his signature "Georgia," Mr. Humphries' synced his downbeat to the blind pianist's swaying torso -- and nailed the job. He toured Europe and the U.S. with Charles' band in 1968.

He was in Europe with the band when his father had a heart attack. He didn't get the news till three days later. When Charles found out his youngest band member was upset that it had taken so long, he called the band together and apologized.

"He treated me with respect," Mr. Humphries said.

He left the band when they returned to the U.S. two weeks later and rarely did extended tours after that. He decided to make a living in music in Pittsburgh. He said the race riots of the '60s destroyed many of the clubs where he had learned his craft and "took some of the sweetness out of the town."

Over the past 50 years, he has beaten his own path, playing on 22 recordings and becoming a mainstay of Pittsburgh's jazz scene. He and his quintet, the RH Factor, have performed regularly at the Savoy for a year, CJ's for the past 10 years and the James Street Gastropub, formerly the James Street Tavern, for more than 20 years. Mr. Humphries also leads a 15-piece big band. He credits Mr. Silver and Charles with teaching him "why they call it the music business.

"They were business people. They knew how to take care of their money," he said, noting that Charles invested in real estate.

For 28 years, Mr. Humphries taught young musicians at the city high school for the Creative and Performing Arts. He learned to read music so he could better teach his pupils how to ride a cymbal and create sparking conversations on a high hat.

"It's the joy of keeping jazz alive, the feeling that you put into it," he said.

Across the street from his house, on an empty lot where his family home once stood, is a sign for townhouses that he and his wife plan to build. It has a postcard view of Downtown, the same one he had from his bedroom, where he first escaped to another world so many years ago.

"Music was my life. It was the happiest I could possibly be."

 


Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.

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