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Take Five: Peter Erskine drums up enthusiasm for teaching

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2009 - Peter Erskine may be one of the most recorded drummers in the past three-plus decades. Since he made his professional debut with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1972 at the age of 18, he's worked with a who's who of the jazz and pop world. He moved from Maynard Ferguson's band to become the drummer for the legendary jazz-fusion band Weather Report from 1978 to 1983.

Erskine has also played with everyone from Gary Burton, Steps Ahead, Rickie Lee Jones, Leo Kottke and Carlos Santana to Diana Krall, Barbra Streisand, Chris Botti, Elvis Costello and literally hundreds of other artists. In addition to more than 20 recordings as a leader, Erskine also is the director of drum set studies at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music.

The Beacon caught up with Erskine on the phone at his Los Angeles-area home for a quick interview in between teaching, performing and recording.

Q: Checking your discography involves some serious research! Do you have any idea just how many recordings you've played on over the years?

A: It's funny. I've tried to keep track of all the recordings I've been on through my website. But my website designer eventually told me I was going to have to break down my discography into several separate pages. Evidently, the list was getting so long that it was taking forever for that page to load! I know I've played on well over 500 recordings and I've done over 60 film scores as well.

Q: In looking over your discography, it's amazing to see the diversity of musical styles your recording credits include. How eclectic are your musical tastes?

A: I really feel that I was incredibly lucky to grow up listening to music in the late 1960s and the '70s. I was playing and listening to jazz - Stan Kenton of course, but I was also digging Elvin Jones with John Coltrane. I was hearing the Beatles. I was listening to James Brown and thinking, 'Man, that drummer is funky!' Ultimately, I think it comes down to this. I like music that swings. So I always feel that every jazz thing I got to play on informed the next opportunity I had to play - whatever musical style might be.

Q: You and Jim Widner both have roots in the Stan Kenton orchestra. Do you remember when you first met Jim?

A: My very first professional gig with Stan and the orchestra as in 1972 at the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan. I actually had begun attending Stan's summer jazz camps when I was 7 years old, so in a way, it just seemed like it was a natural progression for me to aspire to play with the band. I remember the first time I met Jim was at one of those summer camps. Jim was playing bass with the orchestra and he was a great conductor and educator.

Q: You are very involved in music education. How does teaching fit into your life as a professional musician?

A: I really enjoy teaching music. To me, it's part of a time-honored tradition - passing along your knowledge to a new generation. Plus, teaching is reinvigorating to me. It's such a wonderful thing when you're teaching and you get to witness that "light bulb moment" when it all begins to come into focus and click for the students. And teaching is a constant reminder to you to check out what you think you know versus what you really know. If they're doing it right, you learn, too.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer known for covering music.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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