Skeeter Camera

by Robert Tate

Skeeter Camera remembers a lesson he learned from the famed drummer Art Taylor in Paris. Taylor was going to be out of town for the weekend, but he was scheduled to do a gig with saxophone great Dexter Gordon, so he asked Skeeter to play for him. "It was a Friday-Saturday-Sunday situation," Skeeter relates. "We did all right, sounded ok, felt good. I wasn't Art Taylor, but I was making the gig. Art wasn't due back until Monday. Well, Sunday night was one of those nights that everybody has when nothing works and nothing's happening. Oh, God, man, why does it have to happen when I'm working with Dexter? And all of a sudden I look up and there's A.T. at the bar. Oh, shit! So we go on a break, and I say, 'You want to finish the gig out?' He says, 'No, finish it out; you're doing Skeeter Cameraok.' So we started talking, and I said to him -- you know, I started to feel guiltyI said, 'Hey, man, have you ever tried to do something that you know you can do, and it just don't work?' And he looked me straight in the eye, probably the best lesson I've ever had in my life, he said, 'Who you trying to kid? There's things I try to do that I learned the very first day I picked up a pair of drumsticks that I can't do.'

"Now I'll tell you the truth, man, I went back on the next set and it all came together. I'll never forget that night as long as I live. It was an incredible lesson that I had in two minutes' time there, just talking."

Now sixty, Skeeter's still listening and learning. He listens to what the other musicians on the bandstand are doing and shapes a cocoon of percussion around their solo lines. In Jazz as in life this kind of consideration is the mark of maturity. Skeeter appeals to knowledgeable audiences who've seen flashy, exhibitionistic drummers come and go.

For eleven years Skeeter's main gig was the drum chair in the Terry Henry Trio, playing mostly in the Crockett and Port Costa area thirty miles east of San Francisco. He recently recorded a CD, Friends with Special Friends, documenting the group's high level of musical sophistication. Those who've followed the band's evolution know that Skeeter and his cohorts have created something very special over the years.

Even as a child in Connecticut, Skeeter enjoyed music. He was encouraged in the direction of Jazz by French horn player Willie Ruff, who lived nearby. "I consider Willie Ruff my surrogate father," he says. "My dad and he played in the New Haven Symphony together. I used to go down to his house on my bicycle and listen to [records of] the Modern Jazz Quartet."

After high school and a hitch in the U.S. Navy, Skeeter settled in New York, where he briefly attended the Manhattan School of Music. During this period he worked regularly with vocalist Sheila Jordan, whom he credits with helping him develop his feel for dynamics and the use of brushes. "She got me the gig as the house drummer at this particular club where she was working because she liked the way I played with brushes."

The fledgling drummer moved to Paris in 1965. Again Willie Ruff provided valuable help. "He got me my first gig in Paris. He called Kenny Clarke from my apartment in New York and told Kenny I was coming over, and to see what he could do to help me out. I wasn't in Paris two days and I got a gig over at the Blue Note." In those day Kenny Clarke was the foremost expatriate American Jazz musician in Europe, and the Blue Note was the premier Jazz club in the City of Light.

Skeeter had planned to use Paris as a base of operations and travel around Europe. But he got so much work in Paris that he never left except for one gig with trumpeter Clark Terry in Belgium. "I was part of a trio that was the rhythm section everybody picked up when they came over." Terry, Dexter Gordon, and Blossom Dearie were a few of Skeeter's associations during this period.

Skeeter came back to New York in 1967 to find that the bottom had fallen out of the Jazz scene. For a while he worked on rock and roll studio sessions during the week and went up to Vermont to play ski resorts and such on the weekend. The pace was just too much, and eventually he opted to stay in Vermont full-time. "I just couldn't see going back to New York and doing all that rock and roll studio stuff. What I was doing in Vermont wasn't necessarily what I wanted to be doing, you know as far as the Jazz thing, but it was a good band, the music was good, plus [Vermont's] a much healthier place year 'round. So one thing led to another, and I ended up staying there about twelve years."

There was an interval of a few years in Northampton, Massachusetts, and then Skeeter moved out to California. At a rock and roll studio session in Santa Rosa, he mentioned that he was looking for a Jazz gig. Someone told him that pianist Terry Henry was playing at a place on the Russian River and arranged for him to sit in. "Well, man, I went up there and that was it," Skeeter told me. "And what's really ironic is that Terry, [trumpeter] Larry Baskett, and [bassist] Bill Foutyall the guys that were on the discwere playing there that night."

Skeeter found that the new scene gave him what he had been looking for artistically, and he turned down work that conflicted with his obligation to the Terry Henry Trio. "I wouldn't jeopardize my gig with Terry because I just really enjoyed playing with Terry. We had a very tight little scene."

Friends with Special Friends grew out of that ten-year association. The Friends of the title are Terry, Skeeter, and bassist Bill Fouty, the basic trio. The Special Friends are trumpeter Larry Baskett, guitarist Randy Vincent, and saxophonist Don Weed. All have played together extensively over the years.

"We just did it as a gig, Skeeter recalls. "We just went in and played like we played a gig. If it wasn't for the fact that we were as tight as we were, playing for as long as we played, and just felt as comfortable as we did with each other, it wouldn't have come off nearly as clean and nice."

Initial reaction was very encouraging. "I've gotten it out to the radio stations," says Skeeter, "and it's gotten quite a good response from people like Dick Conte and the people at KCSM." Disc jockey Doug Edwards of KPFA championed the recording very strongly. "I was overwhelmed at the reception he gave the album," Skeeter said about Doug. "I was on the air with him for close to an hour. He played six tunes."

Skeeter never did get the disc out to stores or shop it to a record label. He moved to Australia with his family and is using the recording as a resume for finding work there. He would like to find a congenial situation down under like the one he has enjoyed in California for the last decade. He's also taking a large record collection and a lifetime of experiences, and he seeks an opportunity to share those assets in his new homeland, perhaps with a weekly radio program.

However, you can obtain this exceptional recording through Jazz Now Direct.

by Robert Tate

Jazz Now Magazine -- June 1999 Issue