Mickey Roker: my moments with a drumming giant

Mickey Roker was one of my early influences, not just because he was a phenomenal drummer, but primarily due to a personal connection.

Mickey Roker w/Milt Jackson at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA 1980s
© Brian McMillen
http://www.brianmcmillenphotography.com

It began around 1972 when Mickey was Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer. Dizzy’s trio had just played a matinée at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, NC, where my dad was a dean. After their performance my dad invited Dizzy and his band to our home for dinner. Surprisingly, they accepted! Dizzy Gillespie in my house!

Somewhere during conversation before dinner I asked Mickey how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better,” was his immediate reply.

It wasn’t long before he found out I was an aspiring drummer (and by aspiring, I mean I owned a set of drums; it was too soon to call me a drummer.) With a big grin on his face he said to me, “Come on, let’s go see your drums!”

Mickey followed me back to my bedroom where my Sears blue sparkle drums were set up. “Let me see you play!” he practically shouted. I banged on them the best I could; I’m sure it sucked but Mickey was nothing but enthusiastic and encouraging to me. He did, however, admonish me to practice my rudiments. Must’ve been apparent that I hadn’t been…

Several years later while I was attending NC State University, I went to see Dizzy and band at a local nightclub. During a break between sets I walked up to Mickey and, just for fun, again asked him how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better.” (I loved it, and to this day I often use his line when somebody asks me the same question.)

I then reintroduced myself, and he at least pretended to remember me. He asked if I was still playing drums; I said yes, I was playing in a southern rock band. “Ah,” he said, “lotta shuffles, right?”

Oh, yeah, lotta shuffles. As a rookie I was impressed that an old school bebop and jazz drummer was aware of a very different musical style favored by us younger musicians. But Mickey Roker was actually much more than a jazz drummer – he was a role model for a kid who wanted to play.

Mickey passed in May 2017. I wish I’d had a chance for just one more conversation with him; if I had, I would have told him I never forgot his encouragement or his incredible drumming. And I would have confessed I haven’t always practiced my rudiments like I should, but I’ve tried to honor his passion for drums.

Rest in peace, Mickey.

Photo credit: By Brianmcmillen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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