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Drumming Lost In Time, But Not On Tape

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Every Sunday this month on WEEKEND EDITION, we've been listening to stories from the Jazz Loft. It was a New York City hangout for artists and musicians in the 1950s and '60s. The home of Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith was often a place of joy in music making, but there was another darker side to it.

Today, WNYC's Jazz Loft Project Radio Series, produced in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, tells the story of drummer Ron Free.

Here's Sara Fishko with part three of our series.

SARA FISHKO: The building known as the Jazz Loft was in a commercial district, so after six at night there were no neighbors to worry about. It was located in between midtown and downtown on the way to everywhere from everywhere.

Sam Stephenson, author of the new book "The Jazz Loft Project," says there were other characteristics that made 821 Sixth Avenue the place to come, hang out and play all night.

Mr. SAM STEPHENSON (Author, "The Jazz Loft Project"): I think it became the Jazz Loft because of the pianos that were there.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEPHENSON: There were four pianos. It was a place that musicians knew they could go and find tuned pianos. There were drums there.

FISHKO: There was also a drummer in residence. That was Ron Free. He called himself Ronnie Free then. Free turned out to be one of the anchors at the Loft from 1958 to 1960. He was dedicated to drumming.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RON FREE (Drummer): For one period of time, I kind of holed up in Gene Smith's loft, and didn't even go out and jammed for like, I don't know, several weeks.

FISHKO: Free had had a prodigious, rather miraculous career up to that point. Having known from the age of eight, growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, that drumming was what he wanted to do. He'd picked up enough technique to start playing in local clubs by age 12. And at 18, still hell bent for drumming, Free headed for New York.

Mr. FREE: I wanted to kind of study at the feet of the masters, so to speak. But I started getting gigs pretty quick, much to my amazement.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: As a young player, he made a couple of commercial recordings. And after the paying gigs and recording sessions, sometimes at 3 a.m., he'd wind up at the Jazz Loft to jam.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FREE: He had just a beautiful, beautiful touch.

FISHKO: Bass player Steve Swallow often played with Free in the Jazz Loft.

Mr. STEVE SWALLOW (Bassist): Ron always seemed to be able to draw sound out of whatever drums were available that was very personal and very musical.

FISHKO: Pianist Dave Frishberg agrees.

Mr. DAVE FRISHBERG (Pianist): I never heard a drummer address the set of drums the way he did. He was a freakishly good drummer and a complete natural.

FISHKO: Ronnie Free, very young, very good drummer from Charleston was on the rise. He was also slipping into another kind of life.

Mr. FREE: I was. And I think at the time that I was hanging out at Smith's, I might've been homeless during that particular period because I had sunk to some pretty low levels economically and mentally and so forth. But meanwhile, you know, my music was � I put all my eggs in that basket and that was my total focus.

FISHKO: Free's childhood dreams of the music world were turning to dust.

Mr. FREE: When I was about 12 years old, for example, a friend of the family took me to New York. And I went to Birdland and I heard Erroll Garner Trio and he had a drummer named Shadow Wilson. And Shadow just totally dazzled me with his brush work.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FREE: And he was just catching all the licks right in sync with Erroll and the bass player. That made a profound impact on me. And so Shadow was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York. Many years later, somebody introduced us and turns out that Shadow was a junkie and so was the bass player that was with Erroll Garner, John Simmons. And so we used to all hang out and I got sucked into that because these were my childhood heroes. And so it wasn't much of a stretch to just - I'd always smoked a little grass here and there, but Shadow introduced me to smack.

Meanwhile, he'd basically lost all interest in music. And so he would send me out to sub on jobs that I would've died for, and he could've cared less. Well, that's the price of idolatry, I guess, you know, you discover those clay feet sooner or later. And so I was living the dream on one hand and it was not at all like I thought it would be. So I was heartbroken at a very deep level.

FISHKO: By now, addicted to heroin, Free slept on a lounge chair in Gene Smith's studio and continued to play gigs with the idols he had heard as a kid: Chico Hamilton, Woody Herman. He played with Lena Horne. He worked at the Hickory House with Marian McPartland - all the time walking a thin line.

Mr. FREE: I was following in the feet of my gurus. And in the process of chasing The Bird, Charlie Parker, I wound up in Bellevue, where he did a little stint there. So did Charlie Mingus and any number of jazz icons wound up in Bellevue. Any respectable jazz man...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREE: ...has to pay those dues, I guess. Anyhow, here I am in Bellevue looking at these magazines and reminiscing and it had a picture on the cover of Lena Horne, and I kind of teared up. So tears were kind of streaming down my cheek and one of the attendants saw me and he came over and says: What's the matter with you, man? And I said: Oh, I don't know. I just - looking at my old boss there. I used to work with Lena Horne. And he looked at the picture, and he looked at me and patted me on the back and said: Uh-huh, yeah, okay. You take it easy now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: In 1960, Ron Free left the loft and New York and gradually kicked his drug habit.

Mr. FREE: I quit playing altogether after a while. And I went for like 10 or 12 years without playing, without even listening to jazz because it was too painful to listen to it and not be a part of it.

FISHKO: Eventually, Free did come back to music and managed to find work as a drummer � if not at the same heights he'd reached before. Sometimes even Free himself wondered, looking back on that period, whether he'd really played as well as he'd thought, been so close to the top.

Then the tapes were discovered in the Smith archive, he could hear it for himself.

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: As for his idols who may have played a role in pushing him towards a drug habit...

Mr. FREE: I look back them with great compassion. They were trapped doing the best that they could under the circumstances that they found themselves. Racism was a big part of it, I think, back in those days. You know, Shadow and John Simmons, they were black guys, and they grew up with the contradictions of, you know, being jazz heroes on the one hand and being, you know, the N-word. How do you - that does not compute.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FREE: But it was quite a ride, I'll tell you. Wouldn't trade it for the world. Wouldn't want to do it again, but I learned a lot and it was just incredible experiences.

FISHKO: So, by way of the Jazz Loft tapes, Ron Free, who was Ronnie Free a half-century ago, a terrific drummer who was seminal to the scene, gets a rare chance to review his own rise and fall.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Next Sunday, we conclude our series with a look at what happened to jazz and life in the Loft as the '50s' gateway to the '60s.

Mr. FRISHBERG: It was a whole different world then. Musically and socially, the folk musicians came and took over. The guitar players came and took over. The recording engineers came and took over. It changed the face and the sound of music forever.

HANSEN: That's musician Dave Frishberg from the final episode of The Jazz Loft Project Radio Series airing next week.

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