A Portland native, drummer Ron Steen understands the rhythm of jazz. He has, after all, been playing those sticks with finesse for five decades. Catch a gig here. KMHD Jazz Radio‘s Deborah DeMoss Smith spoke (and laughed) with the jazz veteran as he took five, to give you these five.
1. There’s a nursery rhyme that could be about you: One-two, buckle my shoe; three-four, shut the door; five-six, pick up sticks …
That’s true (laughter)! Pick up sticks, yeah! When I hear the word ‘sticks’ the first thing I think about is drum sticks. I’ve had a personal relationship with drumsticks for over 50 years. It’s in my hands every day; it’s part of my hands. It’s an extension. It’s something I’m thinking about all the time. Constantly thinking about it on some level and relating other things to it on some level.
2. What tune would you have your band play for someone completely unfamiliar with jazz?
A blues tune, maybe. Something like ‘Now’s the Time’ or ‘C-Jam Blues.’ Something with a real simple melody and easy to follow. Or maybe it could be a tune like Sonny Rollins’ ‘St. Thomas,’ because that’s a catchy melody you can hear. Or even a vocal like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, something with words in it! A lot of times with people who don’t listen to jazz, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that they notice that there are no words in it. My sister, who’s really not a jazz person, one time when she was a teenager hearing me play said, ‘Don’t you have tunes with words in them?’ To her, music was always something that had lyrics. I hadn’t thought of it like that: All popular music has words and most jazz is 90 percent instrumental.
3. Is it possible for you NOT to listen to the drums when you just walk into a venue and someone else is playing?
Yes and no. If I really dislike what I’m hearing, it’s kind of impossible not to hear, or if it’s really extremely good, it’s impossible not to hear. The only time for me to walk into a jazz club without the intent of me hearing, just going in where jazz is being played, is if I’m just talking and there to socialize. But well, you know what? Not really. On some level, I’m going to take notice even if I didn’t go there for that. Guess a short answer is: No, it’s hard for me not to notice on some level!
4. What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you on stage?
There was a bass player who was quite inebriated. He was really a good bass player and he was rocking back and forth. I thought he was really into the music. The next thing I know, man, he fell right into my drums with the bass and it hit me in the head. Another time — this was in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s — I was playing with Waine (Froggy) Hearn. At one point he brought out a fish sandwich in newspaper. He was eating the sandwich on the bandstand while playing bass. Later on, he’s eating pizza and it falls out of his hand — tomato-face down — on my snare drums. Splat!
5. What’s your secret to keeping really good rhythm?
It’s funny, I’m learning about rhythm more and more each day. I think more about it now than I ever have in my entire life. There’s a thing, something that Scott Steed the bass player told me — the bass and drums really have to work up together. He prides himself in being able to work with any kind of drummer. Everybody has their own sense of time but his saying that made me really aware. You have to ‘play’ who you are playing with. The challenge is you’re playing music that’s happening right now. Jazz is ‘right now’ music. You have to make this right with whoever you’re playing with. As Monk said, ‘Sometimes wrong is right.’ Sometimes you go with it so it won’t fall apart.