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Freddie Gruber, a respected jazz drummer who played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, was close friends with Buddy Rich and taught such famed rock drummers as Rush’s Neil Peart and session player Jim Keltner (George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Traveling Wilburys), died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 84.
While still in his teens, the Bronx native impressed be-bop contemporaries, writers and fans with his innovative playing. And Gruber’s polyrhythmic style influenced countless stick men over the decades, including such students as Kenny Aronoff (John Fogerty, John Mellencamp), Steve Smith (Journey), Anton Fig (David Letterman’s band) and Rod Morgenstein (Dixie Dregs).
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Keltner, a revered studio player whose résumé ranges from three Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Simon and Garfunkel to the Traveling Wilburys and John Hiatt, once said of Gruber, “Freddie is a veritable walking book of musical history and one of the few remaining links to the most innovative era in drumming.”
Born on May 27, 1927, in the Bronx, Gruber grew up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, soaking up the local Afro-Cuban rhythms. He studied under such drum legends as Henry Adler and Mo Goldenberg and apprenticed with Joe Springer while the pianist was Billie Holiday’s accompanist. He went on to tour with Rudy Vallee and landed in the thick of the 1940s 52nd Street scene.
Along with heavyweights Parker and Gillespie, Gruber jammed with such big names as Zoot Sims, Al Porcaro and Al Cohn. A drug habit had nearly killed his career by the mid-‘50s, so Gruber took off for Los Angeles. After a stint in Las Vegas, he hooked up and gigged with players including Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins.
By the mid-‘60s, Vibraphonst Terry Gibbs, who had a music store in L.A., persuaded Gruber to try teaching there, and a new career was born. Among the most famous of his many students is Rush drummer Peart, whom Gruber met in 1994. Soon after, Peart’s wild style took a huge turn, with his legendary solos incorporating obvious jazz and swing components.
At the NAMM trade show in January, cymbal maker Zildjian presented Gruber with its Lifetime Achievement Award for Education.
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