September 23, 2009

"I Must Have Been the Luckiest" — Eddie Locke

During one of my New York City interview trips back in January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing drummer Eddie Locke. Though his was a familiar name from LP liner notes, I can’t honestly say I knew of his work. Other interviewees suggested he might be a good candidate to interview for our archive.

This year, for the first time, Eddie was scheduled to come to Hamilton for our annual Fallcoming event October 2. When he called in July saying he had to cancel the gig, I didn’t realize how sick he was. I wanted to hold the date open for him, thinking whatever illness he had he was likely to overcome in three months. Sadly, last week we learned he passed.

Trying not to be over-the-top with superlatives, I will say that Eddie is our (my wife and my) favorite interview. He was spontaneous, funny, and deeply appreciative of the mentoring he received from Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins and others. Eddie may have been the youngest musician to have appeared in the famous Art Kane photograph “A Great Day in Harlem,” photographed in 1958. He claims he didn’t belong there; the only reason he was included was because at the time he was hanging out with Jo Jones, sometimes literally carrying his drums. Still, Eddie was there, and he was not one of the random toddlers sitting along the curb with Count Basie. At the time he would have been around 28 years old, and had been in New York City for four years.

Eddie was deeply respectful of what his mentors explained by example; perhaps the last of a group of musicians who learned by mentorship. They dressed impeccably. They carried themselves in a dignified manner. They respected their audience, even when the crowd was thimble-sized. Sharing the stage with musicians of more experience and stature, Eddie learned his craft from the stimulating environment in New York City in the 1950’s. For most of his life he was a sideman, though there are a few LP’s listed under Eddie’s own name.

In our interview, Eddie related his experience of coming from his hometown of Detroit to New York for the first time as one half of the duo “Bop and Locke,” and his wonderment at what imploded his senses at first:

EL:       We came here in ’54.

MR:       Okay.

EL:       But we got booked into the Apollo Theater which was unheard of. That was one of the biggest Vaudeville houses that’s ever been. And we didn’t have no name. We only had played once in Detroit. And this agent saw us there. And we played at the Colonial Theater. And then he submitted us to the Apollo. And they accepted us. And that was really something you know, just to come right from Detroit to the Apollo Theater, in New York City like that, it was like astounding for me.

MR:       Were you guys nervous?

EL:       Whew. Was I nervous. When we got off the train, we rode the train here, we got off at Park Avenue and 125th Street. And when we came down those steps I was scared. I never had seen that many people. It was in July. I had never seen that many people on the street before in my life. It was like wooh, I wanted to go right back up those steps man. I was very, very funny to see. And I asked somebody, was it a parade? Because I’d never seen that many people on the street at one time like that. And that was the beginning. And we played the Apollo, and we made the whole week. You know after the first show at the Apollo, Mr. Schifman, he always watched the first show. That was the guy that owned the Apollo. And then if he called you into the office it was usually to tell you that you’ve got to go. He would pay you, but he didn’t want you. If he didn’t like the act you had to go. And after we did our first show, they had a little speaker system you know, they said “Bop and Locke? This is Schifman’s office.” And all the other acts in the other show said, “Oh, man, I feel sorry for you guys, man.” Because usually when he called —. But when we went in his office, you know, he said “you know, you guys got a nice little act, I’ll tell you one thing though, cut out those jokes.” We had some terrible jokes. And you know where we got the jokes from? We sent off for them, you know, years ago in the back of comedy books and things, you could send off for a joke book. That’s what we did. And I’ve still got it.

MR:       You’ve still got the book?

EL:       Yeah, I’ve still got the joke book. Yeah.

MR:       Oh, great.

EL:       He said “you can stay, you can do the dancing and the drumming, singing. No more jokes.”

In the ensuing five decades of life in New York, Eddie never lost that youthful enthusiasm and reverence for the music, even as he became an inspiration to other musicians. Here Eddie speaks of his relationship with Roy Eldridge:

EL:       I must have been the luckiest — and I thank God for it. I mean I don’t go to church all the time, but I do thank God for it all the time. Because that was really luck. You’ve got to be good but you’ve got to be lucky too.

MR:       Roy had quite a competitive spirit, didn’t he?

EL:       I’ve never played with anyone that loved to play as much as him. Never. And my greatest story, every time I tell somebody this, they always, they love it, but I’m going to tell this so this will be on film forever. I will never forget, we were playing in a place and there was no one in the place, just like this room we’re in now, with the band. We were up there playing. And I was just like that [scats]. And he turned around and he leaned over the drumset at me and he said “what are you doing?” And I said “well Roy” I says, “there’s nobody in here.” He looked me right in — I mean he got closer — he said, “I’M HERE!” That was the scariest thing, I mean and the way he said it, you know what I mean? But it made a difference in me. He said “I’m here.” Let’s play. Because that’s what he did. I mean I’ve heard him play some of the greatest music I ever heard, in a room just like this with nobody in it. He loved that horn. It was just like — that’s why at his funeral, when Dizzy said, He said “y’all gotta find something else to do now,” he said “because this is the only person that was ever named Jazz.” And that’s what he was. I’ve seen him, I mean Jo Jones told me, he said “one of these days you’re going to be playing with him, man, and he’s going to take you out of that drum seat. He’s going to rip you right out of that drum seat.” I said now that is really deep. I didn’t pay that much attention. But he did. Right up in Toronto one time. Oh God. I had this feature on “Caravan” that we did, and when he got to the bridge one time boy, I mean it was just like it was so dynamic. It was just like I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even play. It just took me away, I’m telling you. It was unbelievable. I never felt nothing like that before in my life. It was just — his presence when he played was just like unbelievable. Unbelievable. Like I said, I heard him every night. I never played with him — you know how long I played with him — but I had played with him before I played in Ryan’s. And never a night — he’s the only person I’ve ever been around like that — it was never a night where sometime during the night I said “wow.” Do you know what I mean? I mean he would do something that I’d never heard him do before. Like this stuff so dynamic that it would be just like woah. That was amazing. He was amazing.

 “Lucky” are the young drummers who chose Eddie as their mentor.



  1. I knew Eddie as an educator. He was the resident jazz performer and drum teacher at Trevor Day School for 15 years or so. During his tenure he brought the same love of music that Monk Rowe illustrates in his interview. He did an annual assembly highlighting the history of jazz, and with Eddie's friends, his approach was to present a living history. Eddie shared his good luck with us, the students and staff; he brought in a roster of great players that is so impressive. Roy Eldridge was the students' favorite. He always found a way to get them involved in a call and shout chorus. His private drum teaching was always fully enrolled. His recitals took 3 hours and filled the auditorium to standing room proportions. Eddie was full of love: for his art, for his family, for his friends and for the children who flocked to him always.

  2. John, you may wish to see a clip of Eddie from our interview, which was recently posted to the Hamilton website: