Musings from a Jazz Drummer

Below is a blog entry by jazz drummer, Ron Free, also known as Ronnie Free back in the loft days.  According to Jazz Loft Project (JLP) Director and co-curator of the exhibition at MOPA, Sam Stephenson, Ron is the most ubiquitous presence on W. Eugene Smith’s tapes from the loft, with Ron documented on roughly three hundred hours of late night jam sessions.  In Sam’s JLP book there is a section devoted to Ron, one of the few musicians with his own section in the book.  Ron’s blog entry tells of his days driving a taxi in San Diego after his New York jazz years were over. 

In the mid seventies, due to a series of serendipitous events, I found myself driving a cab in San Diego.  And because San Diego is such a beautiful city with such a beautiful  year-round climate, driving a cab there turned out to be my all-time favorite "day gig." I loved the adventure of never knowing where that next fare would take me. It might be La Jolla, Seaworld, Tijuana, or someplace more mundane such as the Elks Club in Hillcrest.  

In fact,one night a call came in from the Elks Club which turned out to be not so mundane after all.  The fare was the club's bartender, a gentleman named Jim Warren. We struck up a conversation in which it came out that Jim was big jazz buff.  Long story short -- when I told him that I used to be a jazz drummer and had played with a lot of the names he mentioned--Mary Lou Williams,  Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and others -- he got all excited about discovering me driving a cab, especially when he got home and found my name on a few recordings in his collection.  

When I first met Jim I hadn't played or even listened to jazz in many years.  I left NYC in 1960 to return to my hometown of Charleston S.C. I had to change my environment completely in order to kick a serious drug habit.  I didn't think I'd ever be able to play sober.  After about five years of clinical depression, marriage, divorce and dozens of bizarre day gigs, I decided to head to the west coast for the first time.  And San Diego proved to be the perfect place to add the finishing touches to my recovery (not that it's ever really finished).

Back to Jim, who insisted on taking me around to various clubs and introducing me to a few of his musician friends.  One of them was the excellent tenor man Joe Marillo.  When Joe invited me to sit in with his quartet I was terrified.  After ten or twelve years of not playing or listening to jazz, I didn't know if my stuff was still relevant or gone the way of the dinosaur.  

I must have done okay because I started getting calls for gigs and went on to play with many of San Diego's finest:  Charles Mcpherson, Mike Wofford, Peter Sprague, Hollis Gentry etc. At one point I was virtually the house drummer at a LaJolla club called the Blue Parrot where I gigged with many headliners from LA such as Don Menza, Jack Sheldon and Ross Tompkins.  I even reunited with my old friend Mose Allison after a hiatus of 35 or 40 years.  

I now live in Hot Springs Virginia--still gigging and recording--and now that Sam Stephenson's excellent book The Jazz Loft Project has been published I've become something of a legend in my own mind.  And San Diego will always hold a special place in my heart.

Today Ron Free is one of the house drummers at the Homestead resort in the mountains of Virginia.  He also plays jazz gigs in the region with his trio.  Read more of his story in Sam Stephenson’s piece, “What Happened to Ronnie Free?” that was originally published in the Oxford American’s 2001 music issue.