Q&A: Ralph Peterson Jr.

Ralph Peterson
Ralph Peterson Jr. speaks with Artistic Director Don Lucoff on the legacy of Art Blakey as part of this year’s Double Legacy celebration.
Q: Art was an imposing figure on the bandstand, larger than life with a sound all his own. Can you speak to that distinctive sound and where it came from?
A: Art Blakey sound was rooted in his early playing of Big Bands of Fletcher Henderson. Once in Perrugia we were all sitting around having lunch and some Fletcher Henderson Big Band music came on. Art got really animated and energetically sang all the cus and hits for as long as this music was on.  The essence of Art Blakey approach was Big Band Drummer in a small group setting. Art was a dynamic drummer and a lot of people think that means he could play soft… But thats no more true than saying he played loud all the time. Art taught me that dynamics is not the extremes of soft or loud but how you get from one to the other and back.
Q: Can you recall when you first met Art?
A: The first time was at the old Jazz Forum in Spring/Summer of ’92. Terrence Blanchard and I were schoolmates in College at the time and when he got the call from Art I would go to as many gigs as I could. This particular night after following the band around NYC faithfully that year he walked off the bandstand and patted me on the shoulder. Later during the break Terrence introduced me to Art Blakey for the first time.
Q: The mentorship of the university of Art Blakey is unrivaled on and off the bandstand. What was your major takeaway from your experience with Bu?
A: The bandstand is a sacred place. LIKE CHURCH, it and the music played on it is to be respected at all times. The look was as important as the sound. “They see you before they hear you/” Also that writers should be expected to do their homework and due diligence BEFORE an interview to ask intelligent and meaningful questions. 
Q: In your role as professor at Berklee what do you impart on your students when Art enters the discussion? 
A: Art Blakey rarely if ever LEAVES the discussion because what he represents musically, culturally and globally. He musically fathered 3–4 generations of the most important bandleaders in the history of this music. I am simply attempting to honor what he imparted to me by teaching the truth I was blessed enough to learn directly from them and where I have managed to go with it to my students to the best of my ability.
Q: What’s the funniest story you feel is appropriate to mention?
A: Going back to the introduction experience, a few months after the Jazz Forum I did my first serious gig in NYC with Walter Davis, Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Phil Bowler were on that gig. Shortly after that The Jazz Messengers played Mikell’s in NYC. At that gig Wynton re introduced me to Art. (Wynton) “Yeah Bu, this Ralph Peterson from Jersey he can swing you outta let him sit in.” Bu “IF HE SOUNDS THAT GOOD WHY DON’T YOU HIRE HIM!”  That night I did sit in, and true to his promise that night, in March of 1983 at The Boston Globe Jazz Festival, I played as a Messenger in Art Blakey’s Two Drummer Jazz Messenger Big Band and did so until his passing.
Q: With the band you constructed in Art’s honor, what is the most important facet that you want to get across musically? 
A: That the Legacy of Art Blakey is a LIVING GROWING Legacy…it lives and grows in the sidemen of us Jazz Messenger Alumni who lead bands and usher new talent onto the scene, Bobby Watson with Roy Hargrove, Ed Simon, Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and me with The Curtis Brothers. Me with Sean Jones, Tia Fuller, Victor Gould, Melissa Aldana, Mark Whitfield Jr., Justin Faulkner (me and Branford), the list goes on!  So when we gather together as Messengers to celebrate the life, music and legacy of Art Blakey we play the music IN THE HERE AND NOW! The spirit may draw on the ancestors but this is still RIGHT NOW MUSIC!