I first met Ralph back in 1993. I had just taken over doing sound at the Blue Moon Jazz Club in Philadelphia. There was a gig featuring Uri Caine, Charles Fambrough, Steve Wilson, and Ralph. At that time, I wasn’t super-familiar with his work. Ralph came in the door with a cast on his foot and I said, “Hey Mr. Peterson, my name’s Orrin Evans, Tim Warfield said we should meet. I’m doing sound tonight.” He said, “All right, take my cymbals downstairs.”
And from that moment on, without him even hearing me, he booked me on a trio gig with him and Charles for a set in West Philly. That was the first connection of us playing together and also being “brothers,” but definitely the music got us to that next level.
Even though some people can get turned off by a certain sort of bluster that Ralph was known for, to me it felt like home. I grew up around guys like Mr. C [William Carney], Bootsie Barnes, and Bobby Durham, so my attitude was “You don’t scare me.” If you’re sure about who you are and you know you deserve good things, then Ralph was a good person to be around because he would encourage you to continue. He did that with me.
It took me years to figure out how to play with Ralph because I always used to try to play exactly what he did. Early on, it was like ping-pong—back and forth. You do it, I do it. After a while, I realized that I should just play like I would play with anybody and not compete with him musically. Then I realized he was able to bring things out of me that no one else did.
His sound on drums was very distinctive because of his cymbals. Even though we knew who he was by the way he played the cymbal, we also knew who he was by the way the cymbal sounded. And he took a lot of time tuning his drums, making them sound like Ralph. Soundchecks used to be funny, just hearing him hit those drums over and over.
Art Blakey was very important to him and he talked about Blakey not just with me, but with everybody. He brought that into the way he led his band. Although that wasn’t as easy for him, because after he had a band for a while—and he had some great ones—the members would eventually go their own way. When it came time for us to move on, that was probably the hardest adjustment for Ralph. At some point he realized, “Oh God, I didn’t just get all these other things from Art Blakey, I’m leading a band like Art Blakey too.” He liked to say something like, “This ain’t the Post Office, you don’t retire from this.”
Ralph loved an audience, and that audience didn’t always have to be at the Village Vanguard. For him, teaching was another gig or another show. It was never “Okay, now I put my teaching hat on” and “Now I put my playing hat on.” They were the same hat.
He was never defeated, and that’s how he dealt with his disease. He didn’t let it stop him from doing what he loved best. And it wasn’t just cancer. Before that, he mastered the disease of addiction. He became a great mentor and counselor to so many people that were going through drug addiction. I know a lot of that had to do with his parents, who were just beautiful people who always supported him and lifted him up.
I learned from Ralph that I’m worthy and everyone else is too. I think that’s something people misunderstood about Ralph. They thought that his shine meant that you couldn’t shine too. Ralph was going to come into the room and he was going to be big, but if you’re big too, you’ll have no problem in that room. I learned from him to never let my shine be diminished by someone else, because their shine is giving me a right to shine just as bright. He said to me, right before he passed, “I’m glad I played the way I did my entire life. I have no regrets.” How many people can say that?
[as told to Lee Mergner]