He's got the beat
Sunday, September 12, 2004
By ANNIE PIERCE RUSUNEN, Columbian staff writer
Most musicians hit the road in their 20s and tour until the endless miles and late-night concerts take a toll on the soul.
Vancouver's Gary Hobbs is the first to admit he's doing things a little, well, backwards.
From his vibrant terra cotta-hued living room, this 55-year-old jazz drummer, sitting with his 9-week-old kitten, Smigel, perched on his shoulder, explains he's oddly in his touring prime.
Eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas, Hobbs says he's recently played gigs in more than a dozen states in as many months. He's also just released a new album, "Of My Time," which is the first album he's single-handedly arranged. In all, he's worked on more than 40 albums.
Not bad for a guy who chose to trade his youthful touring years for more "daddy time" with his now 25-year-old daughter, Britta Hobbs Vrosh. After playing with the Stan Kenton band in the mid-'70s, he chose to stay closer to home after the birth of his daughter. He played mainly at area jazz clubs and at local concerts.
"I really do like being on the road now," Hobbs says. "There's a lot of guys my age who just stayed on the road since the '70s, and they became road rats who got pretty burned out on (jazz). But to me, it's really fresh. I'm enjoying it."
Hobbs, who has been playing jazz for more than 35 years with musicians including Bud Shank, Stan Kenton, Randy Brecker, Tom Grant and Bill Ramsey, has performed at a wide variety of venues ranging from quaint bars to Carnegie Hall. He's performed across the United States and in Europe.
Hobbs says the jazz gene runs in his family. His grandfather, Harry Hobbs, played drums for a dance band in the 1920s and '30s. His late father, Larry Hobbs, a longtime manager of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, also was a drummer in the late '30s.
So it's fitting that Hobbs' latest album includes vocals by his daughter, who teachers choir at Covington Middle School in Vancouver. Her featured tune is Peggy Lee's legendary "Fever."
"She escaped the drums," Hobbs says with a laugh. "She's a very talented vocalist."
A trip downstairs to Hobbs' basement studio reveals a unique collection of drums, cymbals and homemade contraptions.
"This house is made of drum parts," jokes his wife, Marcia, who met Hobbs in the band at Central Washington University. They've been married for 27 years. "Some of these were wedding gifts."
Hobbs is sitting yes, sitting on this particular drum. It's called a cajon. He taps the sides of this Cuban folkloric box drum while rhythmically hitting another cajon in front of him and stomping on handcrafted pedals with shakers and cymbals attached.
"When I'm playing and people hear the sounds, they just are fascinated because the drums look so odd," Hobbs says. "In fact, people that know about music are often even dumfounded by it."
Hobbs has always had an ear for experimentation when it comes to playing and arranging music.
"I think one of the reasons jazz has survived for so long is because it's always changing and evolving," Hobbs says. "I love the variety... There's so much you get from it emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually.
"It's just a multidimensional involvement that from the moment I started doing it, it took over a part of me. And I think the music has become such a large part of me now that I wouldn't be able to exist without it."
Adds Marcia: "From the minute I met him, I could never see him doing anything else."
It's 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night and a number of diners are tapping their toes to Hobbs' beat at the Brasserie Montmartre in Portland. Tucked in a small stage area at the outer edge of the restaurant's checkerboard floor, Hobbs' drumming sets the beat for pianist Dave Captein and bass player Randy Porter. Their jazz tunes echo throughout the room as patrons color on the restaurant's tablecloths (a highlight at the Brasserie).
Hobbs' facial expressions appear calm and relaxed, but a look at his hands and feet reveal that drumming can be quite a workout.
That's part of the allure, he says.
Hobbs, who played football, baseball and basketball in high school, didn't pick up a drum stick until his senior year. That, obviously, changed everything.
"I'd always played sports, so (athletics) was something that was much more in me than artistic temperament but it translates exactly the same way... I think there's an equivalent to the runner's high in drumming, and that's when you're playing and just feeling the music it's almost like an out-of-body experience. It's the most incredible high."
To stay in shape to play the music he loves, Hobbs runs four to five miles three times a week, and rides his bike about 20 miles four days a week.
"Strength is very important with drumming. You have to learn to balance that with patience and staying loose and relaxed while you're playing. To play for two hours without stopping, it's a huge workout, so you need strength and endurance to get you through that."
But despite the late nights, physical demands and traveling, Hobbs says he feels fortunate that his work and life passions are intertwined.
"I feel blessed to be able to do what I love as a profession," Hobbs says. "As I say in clinics I teach, drummers rule the universe because we're in charge of the tempo, the volume, the textures. ... I tell you, I will play until I die."