Feb. 6 2013 12:00 AM

A press roll through jazz history with drummer Randy Gelispie


Randy Gelispie folded his hands and gave thanks for his meal. Settling into a booth at the Lansing Mall Panera Bread, he began to dismantle his sandwich, like a jeweler taking a watch apart.

“Ever since I can remember being in the world, I wanted to play the drums,” he said, peeking under the crust.

At 16, Gelispie played in Ray Charles’ band, substituting for a sick drummer, at the Armory in his hometown of Akron, Ohio.

“I was so young I didn’t have sense enough to be scared,” Gelispie said. Just before Charles came on stage, his bass player, Edgar Willis, turned to Gelispie. “You just watch Ray,” he whispered. “Stay with Ray.’”

While telling the story, Gelispie set the top slice of bread aside, air-drummed on the exposed meat and shot a glance to his right, at a phantom Ray Charles. “Ray started playing. I heard him say, ‘That’s nice, son, that’s nice.’ Edgar Willis winked at me.”

He sat back, savored the memory and gave the sandwich a rest. Charles is one of Gelispie’s two most revered musical idols. John Coltrane is the other. He has gotten compliments from both.

“Years later, I’m on the road, I hear all these horror stories about how hard Ray was on drummers,” Gelispie said. “Then I got scared.”

After years of travel in hundreds of clubs, playing with some of the world’s greatest musicians, Gelispie settled in Lansing and became the firebrand and father figure of jazz studies at MSU. His students revere him, and many say he changed their lives. A tribute to Gelispie, with a wild-card line-up of fellow musicians and colleagues, is set for Sunday at The Avenue café.

At 77, Gelispie regards everything life puts in front of him with curiosity and wonder. An avid bow hunter, he loves to spend time in northern Michigan. If no game is afoot, he is content to sit in a tree and listen to the wind, the rustling leaves and the woodpeckers.

“You can hear some slick rhythms in the woods,” he said with a grin.

The next gig, the next student, the next sandwich are all packages on his porch. For me? What’s in this thing?

He parted the meat from the cheese, set them aside, and examined the bottom slice of bread. Then he started in on the meat.

So slick

When Gelispie was 4 years old, he wandered away from home, crossing two major intersections, to stand in front of Ross Music on Howard Street in midtown Akron, to look at the drum kit in the window. He was calmly walking back home when a car screeched to the curb and his frantic father scooped him up.

“They had the police and everybody looking for me,” Gelispie said. “That’s the only time I ever got a spanking.” Late every night, Gelispie crept out of bed, laid his head on the dining room table and listened to the radio, turned low. Swing, jazz and rhythm and blues (from “Randy’s Record Shop” in Memphis) kept him up until early morning.

He went to the woodshed, whittled sticks out of kindling and banged on cans until he was 6, when his parents got him a wood-framed snare drum and a cymbal. (Metal was subject to wartime rationing.) When he was 11, his Uncle Nathan bought him his first set of drums for about $130.

On Saturdays, Gelispie tagged along with his grandfather as he delivered homemade pork rinds to the clubs.

“I’d watch the cats playing for about five minutes until the next club,” Gelispie said. “Those were happy times, watching guys play.”

At 11, Gelispie started in on the snare drum at the Supreme Council of the House of Jacob, a sanctified church in Akron that is still going strong. “It was church songs, but the way they played them had a jazz concept, like the bebop cats,” he said. “I hate to use this word in the church, but it was so slick.”

In mid-20th-century mid-America, jazz was almost a utility, like water or gas. Gelispie saw Basie, Ellington and many other touring greats at Akron’s Palace and Ritz theaters. At 15, he saw alto sax great Sonny Stitt at the Armory, little dreaming that 20 years later he would tour and record with the music’s celebrated post-Charlie Parker alto player.

While still in junior high, Gelispie played after-hours joints. He was under age, but everyone in town knew him and looked the other way. Cops helped him carry his drums into the clubs. With everyone in town supervising him, a life of abstemiousness took root.

“You work with older people, they’re going to look out for you,” he said. “Never was curious about smoking or drinking.” The church elders’ pipe tobacco, Mix No. 7, was the only temptation.

“I wanted to smoke when I grew up, but I never did. I’m shooting for Methuselah.”

Straight out of high school, Gelispie went to work at Akron’s dominant employer, Goodyear, while playing the local clubs.

“Go to work at noon, get off at 6 — I’m hittin,’” he said. “Why would I travel? There were so many bad cats to play with.” 


A map of Akron’s 1950s jazz scene is burned like neon into Gelispie’s mind. At the bottom of the Howard Street hill, half way up from North Street, was the Rhythm Bar. Benny Rivers’ club was at the top of the hill. Halfway down the block was the Pacific, later renamed the Tropicana. The High Hat was across the street. Four or five doors back north was the 40 Club. All of them had jazz five nights a week.

On Friday and Saturday nights, after the regular gigs, the musicians gathered at the Cosmo, upstairs from the High Hat, and jammed until dawn.

“And that was just Akron!” he cried. “Then there was Cleveland. Cleveland had so many clubs. Did I name them? I played all of them. The Shangri-La …”

With so much going on in his backyard, Gelispie had no intention of going on the road, but the headiest days of American jazz were at hand. Old timers, swing bands, beboppers, juke-joint cookers and avant-garde players were all on the scene at once. A herd of giants, from Armstrong to Ellington to Monk to Miles Davis, criss-crossed the country. By 1958, Gelispie was doing the same.

“The jobs went down everywhere,” he said. “I can’t remember all the clubs. It’s bad when you go to the room number of the hotel you had last week.”

Consider two weeks from Gelispie’s 1969 schedule, starting with an organ trio gig in a Buffalo club from Monday through Sunday. Late Sunday night, they packed up the organ and shoved it into the corner of the club. They flew from Buffalo to Newark the next morning, rented a car and drove to Rudy van Gelder’s legendary studio to record the Sonny Stitt album “Night Letter” (still available on CD on the Prestige label). They caught a plane in Newark, flew back to Buffalo, picked up the organ, put it in the trailer and drove from Buffalo to Dayton, Ohio, where they arrived Tuesday morning, set up and played Tuesday through Sunday. They packed up at 3 a.m Monday morning and shoved off for Raleigh, N.C., arriving at 7:30 that evening. “We set up, went to the hotel, took a shower, changed clothes and hit at 9:30 in Raleigh,” Gelispie said. “We were doing all that kind of stuff all the time.”

Gelispie’s reputation grew. Between sets at a gig with guitar legend Wes Montgomery at New York’s Jazz Gallery, one of jazz’s greatest drummers, Philly Joe Jones, yanked the sticks out of his hands. “Get up, motherfucker, you’re too young to be playing so good,” Jones told Gelispie. Alto legend Cannonball Adderley offered Gelispie a spot in his band if drummer Roy McCurdy ever left. (He didn’t.)

While scaling the jazz heights, Gelispie enjoyed working with entertainers like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who came on stage in a coffin and dressed like Dracula, and blues powerhouse Big Maybelle.

“You talk about a trouper,” Gelispie said of Maybelle. After sending the crowd into a frenzy with her hit song, “Candy,” Maybelle would turn her back to the audience, take out her false teeth, drop them in her bosom, turn around and whistle the blues.

“Those people went stone crazy!” Gelispie cried, bending over with laughter.

One memorable night, during Gelispie’s stint with guitar legend Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk climbed on stage and launched into “Happy Birthday.”

“We just played like he was another cat,” Gelispie said. “Nothing unusual.”

Dumps and dives

A keen listener, Gelispie meshed especially well with organists. In 1963, the trio of organist Gene Ludwig, guitarist Jerry Byrd and Gelispie scored a hit single, “Sticks and Stones,” that ruled juke joints across the country for months. Check it out on YouTube and you’ll hear Gelispie’s high hat shimmer, like wall-to-wall shag, over a bone-cracking shimmy on the snare.

Gravel-voiced keyboard player Bill Heid, longtime Detroit organist and a veteran of 50 years at the Hammond B3 console, first saw Gelispie in the trio with Byrd at Count Basie’s in Harlem in 1969. When Ludwig left the trio, young Heid moved into the chair.

“These guys were veterans, but Randy just coached me along,” Heid said. “When I turned meters around or did stupid stuff, he never gave me a hard time, like some of those guys.”

Heid played with Gelispie dozens of times, from Pittsburgh in the 1970s and the East Coast to Detroit and Lansing in the 1980s, as gigs slowly dried up.

“We played in some real dumps and dives,” Heid said. “We might make 20 dollars each, split the cost of hauling the B3 (organ) and go home with $15 apiece.”

As club work skidded to a nadir in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Heid, Gelispie and trumpeter Walt Szymanski scampered off to Oakland University to record scores for a dozen or so adult films produced by jazz-loving porn star John Leslie. (On the Internet Movie Database, Gelispie is credited as drummer on three Leslie opuses, with his name spelled three different ways.) The high-end jazz in some of Leslie’s films is often more arresting than the action. For Leslie’s “Mad Love,” Gelispie and the trio fulfilled a precise request for four minutes and ten seconds of “crazy music” with a climactic free-jazz freakout. They named the track “9,000 Archie Shepps,” in honor of the avant-garde tenor sax player.

“We had to name the tracks to get royalties,” Heid explained. “We had a ball.”

By the mid ‘70s, Gelispie had settled in Lansing with his second wife, Violet Jean, and a growing family. He worked a day job at GM’s Fisher Body plant, where both plant managers were jazz fans. Looking back, he said, it was a good time to settle down.

A handful of Lansing clubs, including the Stables and the Stone House, still hosted jazz. Most weekends, Gelispie played in Detroit clubs like Baker’s, Club Mozambique, Dummy George’s and Jazz West. When longer gigs came up, Gelispie’s sympathetic bosses at Fisher Body didn’t ask for a vacation slip.

Sound in motion

In the late 1980s, Gelispie started tutoring drum students at MSU and was brought on as an instructor by Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker in 1991.

Heid, who considers schools “prisons,” thinks MSU was forward-thinking to take Gelispie in.

“Even though he’s teaching at Michigan State, he never has that ‘jazz goes to college’ vibe, talking about textures and that cornball academic nonsense,” Heid growled. 

Gelispie’s students talk about him the way acolytes talk about a Zen master. Ryan Ptasnik graduated from MSU last year after studying with Gelispie and now works as a musician in New York.

“I always learned something that was priceless in a lesson, every time,” Ptasnik said. “And it was always something I could use in music and in life.”

Joshua Davis, another Gelispie drums student who is now working as a musician in New York, kept it simple: “I owe every paycheck I ever earned to him.”

Gelispie’s most frequent reminder to jazz students is to listen.

“A drummer never plays alone,” Gelispie said. Only after learning to listen carefully, he tells them, will there be occasions to solo, or “let them know it’s a drum.”

Jeff Shoup, a mainstay of the Lansing jazz scene, studied with Gelispie for seven years through graduate school.

“His teaching style is like his drumming,” Shoup said. “It’s like this effortless thing.”

If there’s a signature feature to Gelispie’s playing, it’s the “chang-a-lang” of his ride cymbal, a sonic nimbus like the mist at the fringe of a great waterfall. “His cymbal beat is definitive,” Shoup said. “I remember, just watching his hand on the cymbal, especially when he’s playing fast tempos. There’s all this sound in motion coming out.”

Even non-drummers study with Gelispie to soak in his experience and knowledge. Detroit-area guitarist Ralph Tope studied with him for two years.

“He took all the greatest things from the greats who came before him, internalized it and made it his own,” Tope said. 

Gelispie has 14 children (from two wives, both deceased) and 19 grandchildren, but that’s just biology. As a teacher, his progeny is legion. Recently, Tope was having a drink at Small’s Nightclub in New York and heard a drummer play a familiar three-part lick: DOOT-da-doot-da-doot, BOPE-a-dope-a-dope, BOP-a-dop-a-dop. Sure enough, the drummer had studied with Gelispie.

Last week, Ptasnik and three other MSU jazz grads were touring Ohio, teaching jazz in middle schools, passing on the jazz message. 

“That he was life-changing for me is maybe an understatement,” Ptasnik said. “It will go beyond my life.”

Gelispie said he’s only passing along the blessings he’s gotten.

 “I look at music as a wonderful feeling,” he said. “Spiritual? All we got is the spirit.”

With his bread gnawed to the bare crust, Gelispie carved out time for one more story. After an early-1960s gig with Wes Montgomery in New York, Gelispie saw John Coltrane approach the bandstand. “I love your feeling,” Coltrane told him softly.

With the possible exception of Ray Charles, no musician is dearer to Gelispie than Coltrane.

“Coltrane’s playing is from the earth, from the beginning,” he said. “It starts from here, yet it’s out there, and everything in between is beautiful.” He swept his hand from the floor to the ceiling. “It reminds me of when you look out into space and you see all those beautiful colors. You know there’s nothing out there but that beauty.”

The compliment from Coltrane means a lot to Gelispie, but he relishes its sequel even more.

“Coltrane asked about you three or four times,’” Montgomery told him later. “But don’t ask for no raise.”

Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan (JAMM) Tribute to Randy Gelispie
4-6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, doors@ 2:30 p.m for Silent Auction
The Avenue Café, 2012 E. Michigan Ave.
Jam Session 6 p.m-7 p.m.
www.jazzjamm.com or call (313) 444-JAMM

Afterparty 7-10 p.m. with Randy Gelispie (drums), Bill Heid (organ) and Perry Hughes (guitar)
Bar30, 2324 Showtime Dr., Lansing Twp.
(517) 485-0030