Symphony Sid’s intoning the phrase every night remains engraved in my mind’s ear as i drifted off to sleep. “…and PETE LA ROCA on drums.” i envisioned a powerful swarthy dude crouched over a drum kit knocking out those complicated multi-rhythms like “Fungi Mama” backing up other leaders on the Blue Note Label.
[for the uninitiated Symphony Sid was Sid Torin a late night jazz and later latin jock, given to shiny sharkskin suits and pinky rings, who broadcast from studios and "live from ringside" at the original Birdland on Broadway and 52nd St. and at long-gone and lamented Harlem spots. his raspy voice --he smoked, a lot, as did LaRoca; helped kill 'em both-- had a clear channel so you could hear him, on AM i might add, clear up the Eastcoast into Canada on some nights unencumbered on WJZ, WEVD or WADO. if he liked you he would play your music every night, perhaps even do an interview between sets. evidently he liked Pete.]
songwriter Sammy Cahn when asked the inevitable question, “which comes first the words or the music,” replied with tongue-not-really-in-cheek, “first comes the phone call.” that’s how my personal relationship with Sims began many years after Sid had left the scene and my enjoyment of LaRoca’s contributions was only on recordings. Pete called. seems he was setting up a new band he called “SwingTime” and needed some advice on how to go about getting noticed, and gigs.
“no fancy stuff; just ‘ching-a-ding,’” he firmly opined. [ching-a-ding was his way of pronouncing the dotted-16th note ride cymbal pattern] Pete LaRoca, the not-really swarthy multi-rhythm traps perfectionist, wanted to become Peter Sims, his real surname, the in-the-pocket kicker of a sextet of fly-shit-reading all stars. i am not too jaded not to take that term lightly. cumulatively SwingTime became Joanne Brackeen, George Cables, piano; Dave Liebman, Bobby LaVell, Joe Ford, Doug Harris, David Sanchez, reeds; Claudio Roditi, Jimmy Owens, trumpet, flugelhorn; Santi de Briano, Clint Houston, bass. i was at all the rehearsals and eventually all the gigs i arranged for them at a satellite venue to the current Birdland called Yardbird Suite, in Cooper Square in the East Village. Gianni Valenti was the proprietor who liked Pete. i was the club’s publicist at the time. and, oh yes, i have the cassettes recorded on my then top-of-line portable with extra detachable mics. early surround sound?
by 1993, the year of SwingTime, Peter Sims, Esq., had become a lawyer with many of his musician friends as clients: Lew Tabackin, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Liebman and Mike Longo among them. all praised him for his efforts on their behalf saying that Sims understood them and their needs, i.e., musician-to-musician, better than other attorneys.
a memorial was held at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, the so-called Jazz Church, at which i was prepared to speak. illness curtailed my appearance as well as a few other participants, but i managed to obtain a program. frustratingly, i am unable to comment on the performances, but pleased that i got the tune titles from the director of the night’s dedications Randa Kirshbaum, Dave Liebman and musical director David Weiss. herewith the play-by-play.
(1) George Braith played his two-horned Braithaphone backed by Brackeen, Lisle Atkinson, bass, and Billy Kaye, drums. the selections: Invitation, Body and Soul.
(2) Tabackin, tenor with Akiyoshi, piano, Boris Kozlov, bass, and Mark Taylor, drums. selection: Akiyoshi’s Farewell.
(3) Henry Grimes, bass, with Charles Davis, tenor, and Billy Hart, drums. selections: Sonnymoon For Two, St. Thomas.
spoken dedications by bassist Larry Ridley and Owens, who played Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen on unaccompanied flugelhorn. i’ve heard him do this a few times; a very moving moment.
(4) Susan Renee Sims, daughter, voice with Hart, Ron Carter, bass, Owens, Steve Kuhn, piano, Joe Ragonese, tenor. selection: Nature Boy.
(5) Kuhn accompanied by David Weiss, trumpet, Liebman, Carter, and Hart. selection: Eiderdown.
(6) Slide Hampton, trombone, with Michael Weiss, piano, Burno, and Carl Allen, dums. selections: Lament, Sippin’ At Bells.
(7) Liebman concluded with Owens, Cables, deBriano, Billy Drummond, drums, and Jon Ragonese, tenor. selections: Tomorrow’s Expectations, Footprints.
SwingTime was a band dedicated to their leader, Pete LaRoca Sims, who was beneficent in the extreme: he paid them before, if ever, taking any remuneration himself. his “Basra” recording was reissued when SwingTime began making some noise. the new band, did make one recording. both are for Blue Note.
ⓒ arnold jay smith