In Memory of Charlie Rice

By Jim Miller

Upon moving to Philadelphia in the mid-‘70s, all the legendary old head-drummers of the Jazz scene (Butch Ballard, Philly Joe Jones, Mickey Roker, Edgar Bateman) were hidden in plain sight, but not Charlie Rice. Reclusive? A very private person? This man became enigmatic to me. As it turned out, he was neither of the above. What I mistook as reticence was the fact that Charlie Rice was a happy family man with nothing more to prove.

After finally meeting him when Jazz Bridge helped him with a legal issue, Charlie and I would frequently hang at his Camden home, first down the basement with his drums and CD player, later in his living room; and toward the end, at his care facility.

I discovered Charlie Rice was a real DIY Renaissance Man. Always a snazzy figure, Charlie was dressed to the nines whether he was going to listen and sit in during the jam sessions at LaRose in Germantown or taking his car in for a tune-up. I learned he had knocked down a wall to construct a walk-in closet — with built-in lighting — for his suits and shoes, and in fact actually made his own suits (more on that later). He’d fabricated his own drum cases and built the frames for his extensive collection of photographs.

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Starting out as a tap-dancer and later playing with saxophonist Jimmy Oliver, Charlie led the first house-band at Philadelphia’s Club 421. Influenced by drummer Kenny Clarke, Charlie worked with the “proto-bebop” big bands of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Jimmy Heath. Following those experiences, Charlie was also in the house rhythm sections at the Downbeat from 1944–1946 and then at the Showboat for four years; meaning that along with pianist Red Garland, he accompanied every big name in Jazz who came through Philadelphia.

In 1951, he embarked on a USO tour of Korea and the South Pacific with bassist Oscar Pettiford, trombonist J.J. Johnson and trumpeter Howard McGhee, and then traveled the country with bandleader Louis Jordan from 1952–1954. After performing with saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Charlie felt uncomfortable in New York City and — with daughters to help raise — returned to Philadelphia (although he did go back on the road with trumpeter Chet Baker). Still, all the stars that heard him wanted him as their drummer, because he made them sound more modern; after all, he had been there at the beginning of the “new music.”

One particularly memorable and inspirational moment for me was at Charlie’s last concert celebrating his 95th birthday in 2015. Knowing full well that the music was to end strictly at 9:00 PM, Charlie insisted on doing one more…Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (still a litmus test for musicians a fraction of his age), the full tune with solos a tempo…not just a short “break song” version.

Charlie could have done stand-up. At one concert, when asked about his “finest Jazz memory,” he answered “My finest Jazz memory is a lady that I met in Chicago…{perfect comedic pause}…I don’t think the Pope would’ve turned her down.”

His timing — in both the musical and story-telling sense — was impeccable. And what a raconteur he was! A favorite among many (and tying up an earlier thread): Being a fellow stylish clothes-horse and of similar height and build, Miles Davis admired Charlie’s self-made suits and asked Charlie to make a couple for him, offering that if Charlie bought the materials, Miles would pay him for the finished product. Well, Charlie made the suits and Miles even bragged in public and in writing about how fine the craftsmanship was, how much he loved them, how often he wore them and admitting that most of the many pictures taken of him (during this certain period) captured him wearing the suits made by Charlie Rice. Of course, the punchline is that Charlie never saw a dime from Miles.

Drummer Charlie Rice never received a proper obituary when he passed last April at 98 years old; so Jazz Bridge will present a musical tribute to him on Sunday June 24th from 2–5 pm at LaRose Jazz Club, 5531 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19144. Contributions may be made to the Charlie Rice Memorial Drummers Fund at www.jazzbridge.org