Rudy Royston, the jazz drummer, is bringing a brand new quartet to his next gig, which will be at New Brunswick’s Ethiopian bistro Makeda on Thursday, August 26. As a drummer and leader, he believes it is possible and feasible to lead a group from that perspective. He has played in many different genres within jazz and the fusion of jazz with classical and world music, and he has no problem integrating all of these approaches into his music.
“Right now, I’m searching for a direction. I’ve played with the guys in the band in other settings, but never as an ensemble itself,” he says in a phone interview. “Because I’ve played with so many different people, with this group it’s going to interest me to see what kind of band we’re going to end up being. I’m the type of player who is not afraid to let things go where they want to go, or where they need to go.”
His philosophy in selecting people to play with comes from Ron Miles, the underrated trumpeter in whose groups Royston has played for most of a decade and whom the drummer considers his greatest influence. “He has taught me most everything I know about music,” Royston says. “He puts together personalities who have their own sound. He just lets them completely be themselves. In all the time I have played with him, he never ever told me what to play. He just said, ‘Just play what you play.’ I am never going to tell my quartet what to do. I just want them to play their way. I find that when someone’s telling you what to do, it’s a job. I don’t want to make anyone do anything they are not comfortable doing.”
However, sometimes it’s frustrating for Royston to lead a band from the drummer’s chair. “This is why I have to find guys who really like playing what they want to play, because I’m not playing any harmony. I’m not playing any melody. That’s why I have to find players who are speaking closely to my sentiment.
“Sometimes I really hate it,” he continues. “I wish I could get on the bass and play the stuff that I want, but I can’t, because I’m on the drums. Leading from another instrument is sometimes a little easier, because you can shape the melody or harmony.”
Royston will bring Noah Preminger on tenor sax, Theo Hill on piano, and Marcos Varela on bass to the Makeda showcase. He is looking forward to playing with this particular configuration because the group is new. Hill, a young player, is especially interesting to play with, says Royston, because “he really likes to stretch out.”
Royston, 39, lives in Piscataway with his wife and their two children. He received his master’s degree in jazz studies from Rutgers last year. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in Denver.
Neither of his parents were particularly musical, but in their own way they both contributed to Royston’s musical bent, he says. His father was the head of the shipping department for Rhythm Band Inc. (RBI) Music, a company that manufactured and distributed small instruments used in children’s school music programs all around the country and beyond.
“He would bring all these little instruments home — tambourines, maracas, marimbas,” says Royston, the youngest of five. “So from the beginning I was around all these little tinkering percussion instruments. (Dad) wasn’t musical — he actually lost his hand in an industrial accident — but I was always there beating on this stuff and playing around with it.”
His three older brothers would monopolize the family record player and listen to all kinds of music — country, R&B, blues, gospel, rock, classical. Influenced a bit by recreational substances, the oldest brothers would marvel at every type of sound.
“I really didn’t have any say. I would hang out with them in the room and check out what they were checking out. The cool thing was that they were into everything,” says Royston. “Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Charley Pride, Trane. And everything was cool when they were high. ‘Man, that Dolly Parton’s killin.’ Everything was ‘killin.’ And that influences my music even today. I can’t just limit myself to one kind of music or I would get bored. I always try to find out what’s cool in everything. And that is also why I’m such a melodic, a musical, jazz drummer. I don’t really play the drums. That would mean I have a role. And I don’t want to have a role. I want to play music.”
His mother raised Royston and his three brothers and one sister in Denver after his parents split during his elementary school years. A hospital housekeeping supervisor who also had her own house cleaning service, Royston’s mom insisted on raising her children in the church.
It was in the family’s church that Rudy first began playing music. Predictably, it was the drums that he gravitated to the most. “When we were young, my brothers and sister wanted to go to church, and I didn’t. As I got older, they didn’t want to go to church anymore, and I did. I thought it was cool.”
The cool came from the music, which started at 9 a.m. and went until 3 p.m. “When I started playing in church, it took me to a different level as a musician. It was not as much about what you were going to do; it was about the spirituality of the experience. It opened me up to another side of music. It is not just sound; you are speaking to people’s hearts.”
If it weren’t for music, Royston would have never gone to college. He graduated from the University of Denver, where he studied classical percussion and poetry, and began teaching elementary school music in the Denver public schools. He also began playing with Miles, a Denver native, and touring with him during the summer.
He was married with two kids and enjoying life but he wanted to challenge himself. He and his wife, Shamie, also a teacher and pianist (most prominently with saxophonist Tia Fuller, her sister), decided to move to New Jersey, where Royston enrolled in a master’s program at Rutgers and began playing with guitarist Bill Frisell, violist Eyvind Kang, and other New York jazz luminaries.
Both Frisell and Kang are also strongly associated with Seattle. Kang is an Oregon native who grew up in the city and Frisell lives there now, although he was born in Denver. Royston met the duo in Denver but did not begin playing with them until he moved to New Jersey.
Royston says he was content with teaching, a stable job with benefits, and influencing young lives. “I really enjoyed watching the kids grow to love music as much as I did,” he says. But he felt he had to try to become the best musician he could. “‘If I don’t start devoting myself to playing now,’” he says he thought to himself, “‘I’ll never be able to do it.’ I kind of had to take the chance. I just wish I would have done it earlier.”
Rudy Royston Quartet, New Jersey Jazz Project, Makeda, 338 George Street, New Brunswick. Thursday, August 26, 9 p.m. 732-640-0001 or www.nbjp.org.