Fascinating Ladies: JoJo Ruocco, drummer and percussionist

Alice Frances talks to JoJo Ruocco about her fascinating journey as a professional drummer

Jo-Jo-RuoccoTell us a little bit about your musical background and how it all began.

I started out when I was 13 years old in Long Island, as a guest with the Mercer Ellington orchestra. I was a prodigy! [Laughs] This was just after Duke Ellington died; it was a fundraiser for cancer awareness. I went up and did a drum solo on Satin Doll, with Ella Fitzgerald singing in the foreground.

After that I was approached to go on the road with Mercer Ellington but sadly I had to finish schooling. Further down the road I got a call out of the blue from the William Morris agency asking if I would be able to play with Chuck Berry. It was at Hunter College, NYC. That same night I met with Chuck – it was phenomenal. The audience was terrific.

Then I guested again with Chuck, at another performance and then another. We played quite a number of gigs. This was in my teen years. Chuck had to do some time in prison over tax evasion, but we kept in touch, Chuck writing to my home address. So that was quite precious. He was like a guide, a mentor. Whilst he was in prison I went on to study Jazz and Rock drumming, which I love.

Who were your most inspirational teachers?

I started off with Joe Morello – he played with the Dave Brubeck band. Joe was starting to…as I say…really starting to ‘go’. We had some really intense stick work exercises; this was while he was writing his book, ‘Master Studies, Joe Morello.’

The drumming mannerism from Pete Erskine – so gentle and controlled, with the Hi-Hat, opening and closing eighth notes, whilst doing various syncopation patterns with the right hand. Here’s this guy working with Weather Report and all these Jazz musicians who I admired, he was so approachable.

After Erskine, I studied Afro Cuban with Montego Joe, and later on I met up with Glenn Weber who taught Danny Gottlieb, the drummer of Pat Metheny Group. Glenn was one of my favourite drum teachers. With Glenn we picked up where Jo Morello left off. We picked up where Peter Erskine left off, before he went back on the road. Basically, I went through the full repertoire from Jazz, and went on from there, all the folkloric AfroCuban percussion rhythms, Congas, Timbale, Bongos, and orchestrated percussion.

What was the most important thing you learned?

What I learned back then was anything is possible, it doesn’t matter where you come from, your background. It shouldn’t matter if you’re from America, or whatever country, or if you’re rich or if you’re poor. The key element is drive, or determination and perseverance.

Are you mainly a set drummer?

Well, what happened was, I was in New Jersey, married, settled down, and I got a call out of the blue to go back out and play with an artist called Howard Carpendale who was signed to Polydor. It was a sell-out tour throughout Germany; usually a 55,000 seater. I had the percussion chair, so I had to do orchestrated percussion on Timpani’s, Tubular Bells Glockenspiel, going back to when I was at college! So I booked Glenn Weber for a five-day crash course and went through everything.

So here I am, with a 10-piece Latin Percussion cage around me. I had Timpani’s and a 48inch diameter gong! One night, the musical director pissed me off, so I put all my anger into the mallet. When I hit the gong for emphasis it split in half!

You sound like Bruce Lee!

[Laughs] Can you believe? Everyone got a laugh out of it, and afterwards the musical director and I became best of friends.

So for a young woman starting out, what’s the first thing she needs to learn about percussion?

First thing you do, listen to the music you like, and never underestimate your ear. And remember, percussion is anything that percusses, so don’t stop at drums – experiment with everything, including keyboards!

So to answer your question, I would say play the music you love. But you have to then say, ‘okay, where do I want to go with this? What do I want to do?’

I would recommend listening to your big band guys like, Gene Krupa, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ Max Roach, John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, listen to his snare drum, bass drum and his Hi-Hat variations, people just copy that and use it in dance tracks, hip hop, rap and the rest of it.

And you’re bringing a book out about your drumming days?

Yeah, a very unique setting. My mother was in PR so she knew a lot of famous types, people like Woody Allen, Roy Ayers, the Jazz instrumentalist, various different sorts. Growing up with her was off the wall, but a lot of fun! I had to push to be heard. I didn’t want part of that; I wanted to make my own path. So, after I finished school, I took two suitcases, came over to England with a pocketful of dreams and a lot of determination. As soon as the wheels hit the pavement at Heathrow – I had nowhere to go, nowhere to stay – I said, ‘I’m going to make this work.’

From the late 1980s JoJo Ruocco went on to play with Style Council, Kylie Minogue, Sinead O’Conner and Ronnie Wood. Read more in her fascinating book ‘Beautiful Confusion’, coming soon.

You can also find this interview at newlondonbloggers.com