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Steps forward, and steps backward, with Hall of Famer Roy McCurdy

photo of photo of a bustling scene in a jazz club in the '50s
Paul Hoeffler
CTSIMAGES/Used with permission
A teenage Roy McCurdy plays drums (upper right of photo) at the Pythodd Club, a long-closed jazz venue, "Saturday Night at the Pythodd Club," 1959 by Paul Hoeffler. This is a photograph of a framed print that hangs on the wall in McCurdy's home. Dick Sampson, Jon Eckhardt and other musicians appear on the bandstand with McCurdy.

Jazz was in the air. Everywhere. This was Rochester in the late 1950s, and on into the early ’60s, when the music could be heard at the Cotton Club on Joseph Avenue. Otmen’s Restaurant on Front Street. Squeezer’s on State Street. Shep’s Paradise on Clarissa Street. Sonny Stitt was playing the Hi-Land Inn on Clinton Avenue.

Small, intimate clubs, all long gone. And that parking lot at Clarissa and Troup streets in Rochester’s Corn Hill neighborhood? Sixty years ago, that rectangle of asphalt was the hot center of jazz in Rochester. The Pythodd Club.

“It was a really great scene, it was a neighborhood scene,” Roy McCurdy says. “People came from all over to go there, they got a lot of kids from the colleges, too. It was always packed. It was open about six or seven days a week, I think they had one night off. And when they weren’t bringing in anybody from out of town, they had a house band.

“And I was playing in that.”

From the house band at The Pythodd at age 21, McCurdy moved on to an astonishing career as the drummer behind some of the biggest names in jazz. He was playing the Pythodd with the then-unknown Mangione kids, Chuck and Gap. That’s where the famed trumpet player Art Farmer heard McCurdy, and invited him to join his band with Benny Golson.

Those aren’t minor names on the jazz planet. McCurdy was already on a path that led to Sunday’s Rochester Music Hall of Fame ceremony and concert. He’ll be inducted alongside longtime Rochester favorites The Dady Brothers. Others inductees are jazz singer Nancy Kelly, along with Mick Guzauski and Michael Laiacona, who are among the top behind-the-scenes knob twiddlers in the music industry.

Late additions to the list of inductees are The Eastman School of Music, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this school season, and the Eastman Theatre.

Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester.
Emily Hunt
for WXXI News
Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester.

Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre will be the site of the 7 p.m. May 1 ceremony, which has been postponed twice because of the pandemic.

Over the years, McCurdy is most associated with the 11 years he spent with Cannonball Adderley, a few more with Sonny Rollins, and 31 years with the vocalist Nancy Wilson. “We had just the best times traveling, seeing the world, playing music and having fun,” he says.

He also pounded out the rhythm for so many others. Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Kenny Durham. “The music was fire all the time,” McCurdy says.

“It was the music and the personalities, the personalities were big.”

McCurdy grew up on Adams Street, easy walking distance from Troup Street and The Pythodd. His father was a shoe salesman, then later ran his own catering business. His mother was a homemaker and what they used to call a domestic, cleaning other people’s homes. McCurdy still has nieces and nephews living here.

He was playing drums as a 10-year-old kid sitting on the front steps of the Adams Street house, on a kit his sister bought him. As a teenager, McCurdy took private lessons from Bill Street, one of the significant early names in percussion at the Eastman School of Music, and a charter member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Then McCurdy was off to the Air Force. “The army was going to draft me,” he says. At least the Air Force would allow him to audition for one of its bands.

He made the cut. That’s a Rochester drummer thing; Steve Gadd pulled the same duty with the Army. After his three years of service, McCurdy returned home to The Pythodd. Fellow Rochester Music Hall of Famers the Mangiones, bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis were already there.

Travel was a big part of the jazzman's life. During downtime, McCurdy would read, see a movie, work out at a gym, go on walks through the city. Take an afternoon nap, “Before I had to go to work.”

Roy McCurdy playing drums.
Gary Leonard
Photo provided
Roy McCurdy playing drums.

This was serious work. Jazz in the 1960s was a part of the soundtrack of civil rights. That was certainly on the minds of many of the musicians he worked with, McCurdy says, Cannon’s band in particular. McCurdy calls Cannonball Adderley “Cannon.”

“We were very involved in the civil rights movement with Jesse Jackson in Chicago,” he says. “We actually did an album called ‘Operation Breadbasket,’ which had a lot to do with the civil rights thing.”

That 1969 album, “Country Preacher: Live at Operation Breadbasket,” is a tribute to Jackson’s effort that encouraged Black residents of Chicago to patronize businesses that gave back to the Black community.

McCurdy says he particularly felt the presence of race when the bands headed South. You’ve heard these stories from many sources.

“We kind of watched things,” he says. “We kind of watched things be bad, and watched them kind of change later on as we kept going back down there. You know, you couldn’t stay a lot of places, you had to stay in certain parts of town and, you know, eat in certain restaurants. It was the same way when I was in the service too, it was the same way. So, yeah, we were involved in a lot of that.”

These were big social problems. And big personal problems followed some of those big personalities as well. Alcohol. Drugs. Jazz. It’s a dark triptych.

“The bands I played in,” McCurdy says, “we had guys that were straight and did what they were supposed to do.

“And we had guys that weren’t straight.”

“It was just what was going on at that time. The only thing I tried to do was keep myself straight, so I didn’t worry about those guys.”

“There was a lot of, you know, stuff going on, funny stuff going on, and I ran into a lot of guys who were doing things,” McCurdy says. “And they just said, ‘Listen, you’re a young guy, stay away from that, and you’ll be fine.’ And I took that to heart. And I didn’t do that, never did it. And I don’t drink, or smoke, so all that was great for me, it’s worked for me over the years, now that I’m at this age, I feel great. I think it’s all because of that, and exercise.”

That’s what he tells his students. It’s about being a professional.

Drummer Roy McCurdy poses for a headshot.
Gary Leonard
Photo provided
Drummer Roy McCurdy poses for a headshot.

“When you go out there to do this job, be prepared to do it,” McCurdy says. “Be on time and hold yourself right and, you know, you’ll get jobs. And be prepared to play all kinds of music, just don’t be able to play one kind of music, play it all.”

He’s speaking from experience. A voice from the 1960s and ’70s, “we played five, six nights a week, two or three weeks at one place, we were on the road from LA to New York City, and Canada and back.”

And now? McCurdy is 85 years old. Talking by phone from his home in Los Angeles, he sounds years younger. Decades younger. He’s teaching, recording and still playing out.

But the scene is not doing as well as he is. Fewer clubs, less work. And over the last two years, COVID has made it worse. “Clubs have shut down,” he says, “they’re still trying to recover.”

McCurdy hasn’t been back to Rochester since 1999, when his mother passed away. That was more than two decades ago, and he could see change. “The neighborhood that I grew up in is completely different now, I hardly recognize it,” he says. Even some of the streets are different. McCurdy wasn’t here to witness what the 1964 riots did to the Black neighborhoods. He wasn’t here to witness the gentrification that followed, erasing the culture.

He didn’t witness those upheavals. But he was aware. Jazz, McCurdy says, was music that challenged what was happening.

“I think you can feel,” he says, “you can feel the change and the direction of some of the things that people write, that I think has a direct connection of what’s going on socially around you.”

Music reflects the moment. “I don’t think it can help it,” he says. “It’s just what happens.”

And change isn’t guaranteed to be a move forward.

“I think without a doubt, especially since Trump came in,” McCurdy says. “He tried to take everything backward anyway. It’s a shame, because things were going forward, and now it’s going backward. And the attitude that’s going around now since Trump came in, it’s a very dangerous attitude. It’s giving some people the right to do things that they probably never would have done before.

“It seems to me it’s been a step backward.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.