Monday, June 23, 2014

Ralph Penland 1953 - 2014

By Janelle Gelfand
Ralph Morris Penland was a modest virtuoso of the drums who loved to teach, but performing was his life. The prolific jazz drummer and Cincinnati native worked with a Who’s Who in the jazz world.
Mr. Penland died on March 13 from complications of a stroke. He was 61.
Despite the many superstars with whom he performed, from Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis, Mr. Penland remained quiet, humble and a devoted Jehovah’s Witness, his family said. He was an active performer, clinician and faculty member at Pasadena City College in California.
“His love was playing his drums and that was first and foremost,” said his sister, Yvonne Berry of Finneytown. “He left Cincinnati at 18 and went to the New England Conservatory of Music for two years, and got picked up by Miles Davis and went to California. That was it. He loved that.”
Mr. Penland was born and raised in Cincinnati’s West End. He started playing the drums at age 9 and felt an instant kinship. “I related to the beats and rhythms,” he once said.
He graduated from Taft High School, where he studied drums and performed in many ensembles – including a program with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which he recalled in an interview years later. As a teen, he played with some of the best of Cincinnati’s jazz community, which laid the foundation for a life in jazz.
“A line of drummers went to Taft, and one thing we had in common was (band teacher) Oscar Gamby, who played in the Count Basie Band,” said Art Gore, a friend and nationally known drummer, who is faculty member at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. “The guys who came out of Taft are all well-known outside of Cincinnati. He left some history here.”
Jon Ridley, who hosts a Sunday jazz program on WAIF 88.3 FM radio, remembers Mr. Penland as a “world class” musician, even as a teen.
“He was electrifying,” he said. “The world has lost a good ambassador for jazz.”
In Boston, while studying and teaching at the New England Conservatory, Mr. Penland began making a name for himself on the East Coast. At age 19, while gigging in New York, he met jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who invited him to join his band. They recorded five albums together, including the groundbreaking “Keep Your Soul Together” and “High Energy.”
But it was Davis who drew Mr. Penland to the West Coast.
“He was an artist he looked up to, and got him to move to California and get involved in the music scene in L.A.,” said Mr. Penland’s niece, Rhonda Berry of Finneytown. “Miles remained his iconic hero.”
Mr. Penland settled in North Hollywood, and his artistry grew to include all genres. He worked and recorded with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Sarah Vaughn, Etta James, Dianne Reeves, The Coltrane Family, Stan Getz, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Chaka Khan and many others.
Last year, he appeared on “The Queen Latifah Show.”
“He played with so many greats and was influenced by many,” his niece said. “He played for Quincy Jones and so many people. He did movie soundtracks, and he’d call us at home to tell us. One was ‘Throw Momma from the Train.’”
Sinatra recruited Mr. Penland for his year-long Diamond Jubilee World Tour in 1991. The same year, Mr. Penland toured with Latin-rock guitarist Santana. Two years later, he played drums in Hancock’s piano trio (1993-94), which he told the Los Angeles Times was one of the highlights of his life.
To find his own musical voice, Mr. Penland formed his own jazz ensemble called the Penland Polygon.
“I like dealing with many different sides of music,” Mr. Penland told the Times in 1995. “The bulk of my music is acoustic, straight-ahead jazz, but I also like fusion, funk, calypso. I’m always trying to expand.”
In the early ’90s, his niece went to hear her uncle play in a club in Louisville. His performance style, she said, was “like a very smooth singer. He just made the drums sing. But the drums never overpowered the ensemble.”
While he lay in the hospital, his niece and the extended “family” of musicians played his favorite Davis tune, “Seven Steps to Heaven,” “and we watched as the emotion of his love for music covered his face,” his niece said.
His sister, Yvonne Penland Berry, and niece, Rhonda Berry, are his only survivors. He was preceded in death by his wife, Ramona. Mr. Penland later married jazz singer Lynda Laurence. They were later divorced.

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