Story by Clare O’Shea | Photo by Jimmy KatzClare O’Shea, M.A. ’87 & B.A. ’84, is an editor at Epicurious.com.
Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Hear that? Bobby Previte leaned across the table in a café on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and said it again: Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. When he was a young kid, he thought that was the sound of night. It was a long time before anyone told him it was the dull roar of Niagara Falls, 30 blocks away.
Now an internationally acclaimed drummer and jazz composer, Bobby Previte (B.A. ’73) can still remember that “incredibly powerful but soothing” rumble; he couldn’t get that sound out of his system if he tried. “Every time I write something, I’m inspired by that,” Previte says. “You can’t get out of your own skin.”
Yet he has spent a lifetime shedding his own skin, redefining what it means to be Bobby Previte. Though most of his life he has lived in New York, Previte’s music has never sat still. He has been in rock bands and taken jazz ensembles around the world. He has performed with cutting-edge musicians, from John Zorn to Tom Waits. He has released about two dozen records of his own and contributed on at least 60 others. “The music copies nothing,” wrote the New York Times of his work. It is “thoroughly, stubbornly and distinctly his own.”
“All I’m trying to do in my music is take off as many clothes as I can, to get to some inner essence,” says Previte.
Just back from a UK tour and getting ready for another in Europe, Previte talked in March about his life in music. A wiry man with recently acquired bleached-blond hair and an easy laugh, Previte is a born storyteller.
He can’t remember ever not playing the drums, but his cousin had a drum set first. Once a month, Previte accompanied his father, who had trained as a barber, when it was his cousin’s turn for a trim. “The deal was, while my cousin got his hair cut, I could play his drums. I loved the sound so much I would start hyperventilating,” Previte recalls with a laugh. “There’s something about the cymbals ringing and the drums—it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.”
While he waited for the monthly sessions, Previte played in a band with some friends, using his own kit: four rubber trash bins, three plungers, pie plates, pieces of linoleum and a galvanized garbage can. Too embarrassed to play in public with homemade drums, his bandmates kicked him out. Previte grew even more determined to get his own set: Out of every $12 he made delivering the Niagara Gazette, he put aside $10, plus his father offered to pay half. Then the band took him back—just in time to play at a party at Niagara Falls High School. Previte was so excited he didn’t even mind when, on the way to the gig, his cymbals flew out of the station wagon and were run over.
And once they started playing, Previte knew he’d found his future. Previte remembers, “I thought, ‘This is heaven!’ I like everything about this: the music, the male bonding, the little amplifier lights that glow, the incredible energy in the room. And the girls—that’s why I started playing music in the first place, let’s face it.”
Previte never looked back. He played in bands, listened to soul and rock, and practiced incessantly. “I never took a drum lesson in my life—I think that made me the idiosyncratic mess that I am today,” he says. “I learned by doing.”
“He was one of those magic people who come along in your life,” Previte says. “I took that test, and the results looked like a valley with a tremendous mound and then another valley. He said, ‘That peak is music; now do you believe me?’ And I said ‘okay.’”
UB suddenly became an exciting place for Previte. “I started to take music courses, and that led me to Jan Williams and the percussion department and to John Cage, and that led me to Miles Davis, and that led me to music I didn’t even think could exist on the face of the earth, and that led to the incredible collision of everything I’d been playing: groove music, soul music, percussion music, classical music and modern jazz music. It all collided at UB.”
Williams was the most important connection he made as a budding musician. “The seed of being an artist was planted by Jan, and it just grew; he’s the one who opened up my mind,” Previte says. “I’d heard all this incredible music, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was a real turning point.”
By 1979, he was ready to move to New York City. His only friend there, electric guitarist Elliott Sharp, introduced him to the downtown music scene, the most vibrant in the city at the time. Quickly Previte became the drummer of choice.
“I was lucky; I just walked in and filled a need,” he recalls. “I met John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz. I met Arto Lindsey, Bill Frisell, all those people. We were the scene. There was always something wild going on. It was fantastic, because it wasn’t so investment-bankerfied. People could open a club without much money and take chances.”
So Previte let loose. He played everything: blues, rock and industrial-noise-bop-jazz. He toured the world with his bands and made a string of acclaimed recordings, including “Claude’s Late Morning” (1988), which Interview magazine called “one of the finest of the decade.” He wrote scores for the Moscow Circus and the International Puppet Festival, and even had a role in Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts.
One of his most exciting recent projects is “The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró,” 23 short pieces inspired by a sequence of Miró paintings. Previte saw a Miró retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993 and was stunned. “I walked into that room and felt hyperalive,” he remembers.
His own “Constellations” represents his emotional response. The Financial Times of London called it a masterwork. Following a performance by his eight-musician ensemble, the paper gushed: “Flutes and saxophones flutter over rhapsodic harps, and muted trumpet fanfares are accompanied by the metallic ring of marimbas and chimes.”
Previte has returned regularly to his hometown over the years, including a memorable 2003 show at the Tralfamadore with eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter. In April he performed at UB, at the invitation of faculty member Jon Nelson. Nelson’s students spent the semester working on pieces from Previte’s recordings, which culminated in rehearsals with Previte and a performance at Slee Concert Hall.
Five years ago, Previte was honored with a retrospective at the Knitting Factory, New York’s legendary avant-garde venue. For some musicians, such an occasion might mark an ending of sorts; Previte saw it as another chance to re-create himself. “It was a freeing experience—it allowed me to bury that past,” he says.
So he moves forward, playing with diverse young musicians who think about music in different ways, listening to American composer Aaron Copland, medieval composer Guillaume Dufay and rapper Bubba Sparxxx, and discovering new music with his teenage daughter.
“The hardest thing is to resist becoming yourself—I’m not interested in becoming Bobby Previte, because it’s a trap,” Previte says. “In the last five years, I may have finally understood what being an artist is all about. I now care very little about my past work. I only care about what’s coming next.”