Ralph Peterson




United States

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Ralph Peterson picked up the drums at age three. “We always had drums in the house,” he recalls. “I started playing them by ear. Everybody in the family was into music. My three sisters formed an a capella doo-wop group. By fourth grade, I started to learn the trumpet, which I played in the marching band when I was in seventh grade. Learning the trumpet helped me learn how to read the rhythms I was feeling my way through on drums.” Thinking back to those years makes Peterson wistful towards a time when music instruction in public schools was far more encouraged than now. “I believe there’s a direct correlation, a very clear solid line between the decline of arts education and the increase of violence in the public schools. I was very lucky to have come up in the time that I did.

He spent part of his teens playing jazz-funk in bands with names like Cosmic Nirvana or Black Spirit. Did he collect his first professional credentials in these groups? “Yeah, if you call prom gigs professional?” He hadn’t yet established intimate acquaintance with the jazz repertoire. “My father had walls with racks and racks of music that I wasn’t interested in. That came after I graduated high school (in 1980).”

He was accepted into Rutgers University’s prestigious Jazz Studies program, even though, as he recalls, “I failed the percussion audition because I didn’t know the rudiments, the alphabet and language of playing drums, even though I knew major and minor scales. So I was accepted as a trumpeter.” He credits drummer Michael Carvin and trumpeter Bill Fielder, among a faculty that included pianist Kenny Barron and saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, for sharpening his ability to be as good a listener as he is a player. “Fielder said he wanted me to hold onto the fire, the intensity, the energy of music.”

He carried those values with him to his fateful encounter with Art Blakey, who in 1983, while Peterson was still a student, asked him play in his two-percussionist band at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. Peterson continued his association with Blakey’s storied Jazz Messengers till Blakey’s death in 1990. He proudly carries the Messenger spirit with him in his present calling as a faculty member at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where one of his ensemble classes is entirely devoted to the Jazz Messenger repertoire.

Peterson’s prolific recording career began in 1985 with the fabled Blue Note label, with whose house band, OTB (Out of the Blue) he performed as a drummer. He released six Blue Note albums as a leader of different combos, including the “Fo’tet,” a quartet whose members have at various times included clarinetist Don Byron, saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Belden Bullock and vibraphonist Bryan Carrott. (The latest edition of the Fo’Tet includes three of his former Berklee students.) He has also released albums under the Evidence and Criss Cross labels and began releasing recordings under his own label, Onyx, in 2010, with Outer Reaches. (“I started the label,” he says, “because I wanted to do my trumpet album.”)

His glittering curriculum vitae includes such names as pianists Walter Davis Jr., Geri Allen and Stanley Cowell; trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell, Jon Faddis and Roy Hargrove; saxophonists Michael Brecker, David Murray, Branford Marsalis and Charles Lloyd and vocalist Betty Carter.

He’s justly proud of being a teacher for 28 years during which time, he says, “I’ve been giving back the experience that I was really fortunate enough to love.”

Peterson is also proud of the manner in which he has prevailed over physical and personal difficulties. Along with the aforementioned surgeries, he has completed his second decade of being “drink and drug-free.” He has survived colon cancer and
Bell’s Palsy in addition to the fore mentioned orthopedic challenges.

“The strongest sword,” he says, “goes through the hottest fire.”


Ralph Peterson

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