Most drummers can trace back to when the beat first hit them and latched on. There are umpteen assorted tales of banged up pots and pans or cardboard boxes and fed-up parents and the undeniable urge to hit, to keep time.
Eighty-one-year-old Eddie Israel is a jazz legend who has run with some of the greats. And yet his storied past doesn't have any of these youthful rhythm-driven accounts.
"Oh, I wish I knew what started me," he says in the den of his Corn Hill home. "I really don't know. The first thing I wanted to be was a doctor. And then I wanted to be a trumpet player. I don't ever remember goin' round beating on things. I just don't know where it started. I wasn't thinking of Gene Krupa at the time."
Somehow, around the age of 15 or 16, Israel got to playing the drums in small jazz groups in his native Long Island.
He even auditioned for the Army band at the beginning of World War II. He ended up serving as a truck driver for the Air Corps in the jungles of New Guinea.
"I tried out in Oakland, California, with this guy that played with Glenn Miller who was getting a band together," he says. "And naturally I knew all the tunes: 'American Patrol,' all that. But I couldn't read the charts. They found that out in a hurry."
After his South Pacific hitch, Israel found himself stationed at Mitchell Field in Long Island driving entertainers back and forth to New York City to entertain the troops. After his discharge, Israel heard word Dizzy Gillespie was putting together a band and fixing to hit the road. Israel met up with the group and signed on as a roadie --- a roadie who also played the drums.
He almost immediately graduated from roadie to Gillespie's personal valet after Gillespie absentmindedly left his horn behind on the way to a gig in Albany.
"We toured all down south and then Ella Fitzgerald joined the tour," he says. "She hooked up with us in Chicago. So we did these one-nighters with Diz and Ella. She was like my big sister. She was the sweetest person. She was something else. That was when she and Ray Brown got hooked up and they finally wound up getting married."
Israel then graduated from valet to drummer on a few gigs while the group was tentatively based in Dallas. Drummer Joe Harris had locked horns with Gillespie's wife and got canned.
"Everybody in the group knew I played drums," Israel says. "I knew the book. I still couldn't read at the time, but I knew the book backwards I'd heard it so often." This chance would lead to one of Israel's shining moments in 1946.
"The greatest thing for me when we got to New York City, The Savoy Ballroom," he says. Drummer Kenny Clark was apparently out carousing with the Cuban conga player and was late for the gig.
"So I'm out there, I'm feeling good, I'm home," he says. "All my homies around, you know? I'm in my glory. When Diz paged me from the bandstand I said 'Oh man, what happened? What did I forget?'"
Israel played the whole show.
"Talk about feelin' good," he says. "The Savoy Ballroom. Right in my backyard, my home."
The run with Gillespie ended, and Israel moved back to Long Island as opposed to gigging in New York, where he stood to be one of the greats. He regrets the choice.
"Here I am, I'm an entrepreneur," he says sarcastically. "I'm promoting dances and shit instead of taking care of my business." Though he promoted big shows like Milt Jackson and Sonny Rollins, he wasn't behind the kit.
"That was another bad move," he says. "I was in it but I wasn't in it."
Touring with various jazz groups after that, Israel hit a dead end in Elmira, New York, when the group he was with disbanded. He decided to head north. It was 1954.
"I said, 'I'll go to Rochester. Things are happenin' there,'" he says.
Israel wound up playing drums seven nights a week in the house band at The Cotton Club on Joseph Avenue.
"The names would come there," he says. "I was working with Jimmy Stewart. Ralph Dickerson was the horn player. What they used to do was bring in a horn player like say Bullmoose Jackson or Roy Eldridge or a singer. We were the house band."
Israel even hit the road --- inadvertently --- with Jackson for a bit, "a big mistake," according to Israel.
"He came in for a week at The Cotton Club and said he was putting a band together," Israel says. "He had Gene Keys on keyboards and Al Green was playing trombone with him. He says, 'Yeah man, I got 13 weeks in Atlantic City. We'll be there for a while.' And that sounded good to me."
He soon found Bullmoose was full of bullshit. The tour ended up being a string of one-nighters throughout Ohio that ended in New Jersey.
"Yeah, we got to Atlantic City," Israel says, "three weeks later."
Israel left Rochester in 1959 but returned in 1977 for good. He put together the jazz outfit Thatt Group, while also dabbling in what he calls his "blues phase," after finding the Flower City to be heavy in the blues.
"There was more blues here than down in New York," he says. "I didn't know anything about Muddy Waters or Lightning Hopkins --- I used to hear the names --- but I never listened to B.B. King. I never listened to any of that." But the styles were kin. Israel fit right in.
"If you don't play the blues you don't play anything," he says. "You talkin' 'bout jazz, if you can't play the blues you can't really play jazz either. The blues is the basis, where it all started. The blues. The jazz has got the improvisation, but you gotta know the blues."
Still a jazzer at heart, Israel also remembers Rochester's hot bed of jazz talent in the late '50s, centered around the late Pythodd Lounge on the corner of Clarissa and Troup Streets. The Mangione brothers --- "youngsters at the time" --- Ron Carter, Yak Johnson, Pee Wee Ellis, and countless others would gather at The Pythodd Sunday nights simply to play.
"There was no band, "Israel says. "We never got paid anything. But we was there just like we was goin' to work."
Eddie Israel goes to work for his 81st birthday behind the drums with Thatt Group, Thursday, March 3, at The Clarissa Room, 293 Clarissa Street, at 9 p.m. Call for tix. 325-5350
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