In Tune: The education of George Heid III

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Since he was no bigger than a bass drum, sticks flailing in tiny fists, George Heid III has been following other drummers. First it was his father, George Heid II, a recording engineer who once played locally with his brother, Bill. Then it was "Uncle" Roger Humphries, master percussionist, family friend and his teacher at the Pittsburgh School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Now the 22-year-old has to find the beat of a different drummer, within himself.

"Sean Jones says: 'Every time you play a Roger Humphries lick, play it backwards, play it inside out. Try to develop your own sound.' That's what I'm striving for right now," says Mr. Heid.

In Tune: Drummer George Heid III talks music career

Drummer George Heid III, part of a family legacy in music, talks about his career in music. (Video by Nate Guidry; 12/23/2012)

Jazz lovers who hear him play say he's well on his way. His band, Elevations, won a nationwide competition to play in September at the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. After performances New Year's Eve and Jan. 12 at the James Street Gastropub on the North Side, the full quintet will kick off a national tour Jan. 26 in Philadelphia. They'll play clubs in Detroit and New York City in addition to Pittsburgh dates Feb. 9 and March 6 and 9 (

The young drummer knew he had found something special the first time he jammed with bandmates Brett Williams (piano), Anton DeFade (bass), Benny Benack III (trumpet) and Michael Stephenson (tenor saxophone).

"It was like we had been playing together for years. It's a magical thing, the way we vibe against each other," he says.

His proud father says the young musicians are lucky to find each other so early in their careers. When he and his brother, a pianist who now lives in Bethesda, Md., were playing the Crawford Grill, Hurricane and other local clubs in the 1960s, "we never found our kindred spirits."

He offers his son this advice: "Don't take each other for granted."

Father and son obviously appreciate each other as well. "Georgie," an only child, was 31/2 years old when his parents divorced. His mother, Michele Smythe, lives in Columbus, Ohio, and sometimes comes to hear her son perform. She didn't object when he got his first drum set at age 3; she knew music runs through his veins, a backbeat in his pulse. The first George Heid did vaudeville, nickelodeons, opera and theater in the early 20th century, says his son, George II.

"He could play piano, drums, sax and guitar, and he was a great singer. He was an overachiever -- I see this in my son," he says.

During the Depression, George I landed a radio job at KQV as program manager and later worked for KDKA, WCAE, WJAS and WWSW. In 1948, he started a school out of the William Penn Hotel for radio and television performers. Students included broadcaster Eleanor Schano, sportscaster Dick Stockton and WAMO personality Hal Brown. His link to musicians, George Heid Productions & Transcription Services, captivated his son, George II.

"I fell in love with music from a very young age," he says.

So did his son. In addition to receiving a drum set as a toddler, he joined his father in the recording studio, where he met artists such as Dave Budway, Mr. Humphries and others.

"Dwayne Dolphin was Uncle Dwayne and Jimmy Ponder was Uncle Jimmy. They noticed this little kid bopping with the music," says George II.

Yet his second-grade teacher told the boy he had no rhythm. The comment still bothers him. "She had no idea what I was soaking up. ... When I grew up, I thought everyone played music," he says.

George III says he never felt pressured by his father to become a musician. "He let me find it on my own. ... He's my number 1 supporter, a super inspiration."

When he was 4 years old, his father bought the former Women's Club of Aspinwall, a large brick building with plenty of room for a recording studio on the first floor and living quarters on the lower level. At age 10, he began taking piano and drum lessons at the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood.

After his freshman year at Fox Chapel High School, George III transferred to CAPA, where his classmates included Mr. DeFade and Miles Jackson, whose trio he often performs with. While in high school, he met three of his four Elevations bandmates at Center of Life, a musical outreach program run by pastor Tim Smith of Keystone -- Center of Life Church in Hazelwood. The young drummer relished his three years with Mr. Humphries, who retired from teaching at CAPA after his senior year.

After graduating in 2009, Mr. Heid majored in music at Purchase College, State University of New York. This year, he transferred to Duquesne University, joining Mr. Williams. Mr. Benack and Mr. Stephenson, meanwhile, are studying in New York City.

Mr. Heid's father is pleased that he will have a college degree, something to fall back on if his music doesn't become his life's work. Watching his son' sticks fly across his 1962 Cleveland-made Rogers drum kit, he admits that letting go is hard.

"My greatest challenge is to stay in my lane and not get in his way," he says.

George II offers one more piece of advice to George III: "Master your instrument. When other guys in the band say 'Who you got on drums?' be the man they love to hear.

"Become undeniable."

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Kevin Kirkland: or 412-263-1978. First Published December 23, 2012 5:00 AM


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