Roy McCurdy: From Cannonball To The Rochester Music Hall Of Fame

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Written by Scott Gudell

When we placed a call from New York to Los Angeles in the early part of 2021, the articulate and vibrant drummer Roy McCurdy answered and quickly connected us back to the 1950s. He told us about his hometown of Rochester, New York, his early days performing with Chuck Mangione and Gap Mangione and how he went on to play with world class jazz saxophonists, including Sonny RollinsCannonball Adderley and others. Now, as a teacher at the USC/Thornton School of Music, McCurdy is still playing, teaching and learning.

During the conversation, McCurdy recalled that his music training started in the early-1950s. “When I was going to high school, I was taking lessons from Bill Street, one of the professors at Eastman School of Music. He was the principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic. My family was able to get me in to start taking lessons from him. I didn’t go to the Eastman School of Music as a student, I just studied with him through high school. I always loved drums from the time I was eight years old…that was my passion.” After learning the basics from Street, McCurdy said that he and several of his friends confidently started playing both blues and jazz. As with other Rochester percussionists, including John Beck and Steve Gadd, McCurdy eventually went into the armed service and played in one of the military bands. In McCurdy’s case, he remembers performing in the scorching heat of Texas and the bitter cold of Alaska. He had his first official taste of life on the road.

By 1959, McCurdy was back in Rochester. It took him all of two weeks to find THE definitive jazz club in Rochester. “There was a club in Rochester called The Pythodd. It had a lot of jazz coming in there. It had a lot of the ‘main’ guys” since it was a key stop for many national jazz acts. “When the ‘main’ weren’t coming through, they had local guys playing: me and Chuck Mangione, Sal NisticoRon Carter—because he was at the Eastman School of Music at that time ….The groups kind of meshed into the Mangione group. They started writing arrangements and somehow it became the Jazz Brothers with Chuck and Gap. Cannonball had this series for Riverside Records called ‘Cannonball Adderley Presents’ where he would present young guys who were coming in. He wanted to record our group so we did. That’s how I got hooked up with Chuck and Gap Mangione.” McCurdy proudly remembers that “the album got a lot of play, a lot of recognition. It also allowed us to tour and to let people hear us outside of Rochester, New York.”

An important touring destination was, of course, New York City. At one of the clubs, “Art Farmer came in to hear Chuck Mangione play. He heard the band and he loved it. When I got back to Rochester, I heard from Art that he wanted me to come back because he was interested in me joining the Jazztet which was a big group at the time with Art Farmer and Benny Golson. I went down to New York; I passed the audition and became a member of the Jazztet.” The early 1960s also saw McCurdy work with veteran jazz master Benny Carter and then record a pair of albums with Sonny Rollins. He learned a lot, quickly. With Rollins, for example, “We would play one tune and it would last thirty, thirty-five, forty minutes” said McCurdy. When they were in a trio format of sax, bass and drums, each musician had plenty of time to present long, intricate solos. “It made me very strong as a player” McCurdy confirmed.

When asked about the universal balance between a drummer and the bassist, McCurdy remembers that he worked with some of the ‘best of the best’ right out of the gate. “Some of my favorites were Ron Carter, of course, Bob Cranshaw (and later) Sam Jones, a wonderful bassist…If you can play with bass players you’re comfortable with, you don’t have to think about anything else. You don’t have to think ‘is the time right,’ ‘is the time rushing,’ ‘is the time dragging,’ you just go ahead and play. If it’s not a perfect match, you spend the whole evening just trying to get it right” he added. McCurdy’s reputation as a reliable, spot-on drummer was growing when another call came that would change his life for the next decade—and beyond.

McCurdy had moved back to Rochester—again -to take care of some personal business and “it was 1963 when Cannonball called me and I joined him in 1964. I got a call from several different people but I really didn’t want to go back out at that time. Cannon called and, actually, my friends talked me into taking the gig with Cannon (when he) asked me to join his group. I told them this was Cannonball on the line and they said ‘man, if you don’t take this group, we’re going to kick your butt.” The subtle encouragement worked—instantly. “That group lasted for eleven years, from 1964 through 1975 when (Cannonball) passed away. In 1964, we were still playing ‘straight,’ straight ahead. We didn’t start going into the funk and stuff until about maybe ’67, ’68 when we started doing things like “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” It wasn’t that we were moving from more ‘straight ahead’ to funk, we were just expanding our horizons. Guys were thinking about writing different things, like Joe Zawinul the groups’ keyboard player and pianist. He had ideas of what he wanted to hear. He had songs that he was writing that had the funk kinda sound to them and also had the fusion kinda sound…Everybody had a chance to express their ideas. We’d rehearse them, we’d sort them out and we’d decide what we were going to play” McCurdy said but, he adds, “Cannon had the last word. We played blues, we played funk and we played straight ahead and it worked for us.”

And then there was THE album—Mercy Mercy Mercy—Live at the Club. The original liner notes of the 1966 LP announced that it was recorded live at a Chicago club. Not true according to subsequent revelations and confirmed by McCurdy. Apparently, Cannonball wanted to draw attention to the club since it was owned by a friend of his but McCurdy stated that “surprisingly enough, it wasn’t (recorded at) a real club…it was Studio A at Capitol Records. Cannon always had the idea that we should try to record in the actual studio but invite people. Capitol Records set the recording in the actual studio but invited people…They had chairs and tables…they had a little food and they had drinks. They set it up like a club atmosphere and they had a bandstand and we played. They recorded everything we played.” The idea worked so well that the group would go on to set up similar sessions. It was so popular that “there would be lines going down the street” McCurdy remembers. “It sounded big because it was big—it was in Studio A at Capitol Records—not an actual jazz club” he said with a laugh. As for Cannonball himself? “When he came into the room, he would fill up a room and you would know he was there. He wasn’t a loud guy but he had that kind of aura to him. The same way with Miles” McCurdy said respectfully. With “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” the group now had a hit on its hands as the title track rose to Number 11 on the Billboard charts. Sales, and respect, have been steady ever since. The Grammy’s, which annually induct ‘recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that are at least 25 years old,’ chose to induct the LP into their hall of fame in 2021 (along with over two dozen other timeless albums.) Yet one more confirmation how significant the album is.

In keeping with the bands professional approach, Cannonball’s group often performed new tunes on the road and Zawinul’s “Mercy Mercy Mercy” always got a strong response. When they presented it to the invited audience that day at Capitol, “it was incredible the way the reaction was. You could hear it on the record, you could hear people screaming” McCurdy recalls. And, in some ways, it was a signpost to Zawinul’s future plans. When asked if there were any early hints of Zawinul’s jazz fusion super group Weather Report of the 1970s/1980s, McCurdy’s response was quick and emphatic “Oh, yes, definitely, definitely. Joe was always talking about writing in that style and the band that he would love to form someday. We had things that we played that were kind of an introduction to what was actually going to happen with Weather Report down the line. We talked about it all the time. Knowing Joe, he was an enthusiast. ‘This is going to be the baddest band ever, you wait and see, this is going to be the baddest thing you ever heard.’ And it turned out to be one of the baddest bands ever… it turned out to be a beautiful thing” McCurdy confirms. By the end of the 1960s, Zawinul briefly joined Miles Davis and soon teamed up with future Weather Report members including Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius. Record sales would skyrocket for jazz fusion bands such as Weather Report and Return to Forever and spacious arenas would routinely sellout.

Once Cannonball passed away in the mid-1970s, McCurdy became involved in other music projects. His wife worked for a promoter who had a number of clients including singer Kenny Rankin. “She used to talk about me (to Kenny) all the time and we finally got to meet. We became friends and we finally decided we wanted to play together, and we did. We recorded together, we did a lot of tours together over the years…he was a wonderful musician—I loved the way he sang” McCurdy says with emphasis. Although known as a pop and folk-rock singer, much of Rankin’s music had a light jazz touch to it including The Kenny Rankin Album, an album focused on a mix of originals and standards, guided by the understated drum work of McCurdy. After a brief time with Blood, Sweat and Tears and Sarah Vaughan, McCurdy joined singer Nancy Wilson in 1980. “She was just an incredible person, an incredible singer. A beautiful lady. Our relationship was very close and lasted for thirty-one years. Thirty-one beautiful years, I had the best time playing with her and working with her. We went all over the world. We went to Japan, we went to Indonesia, we went all through Europe. We went through the islands—the Caribbean -South America.” And, as with the core of the Cannonball Adderley group, McCurdy remembers that many of the people who backed Wilson stayed for years.

By the late 2000s, McCurdy heard about an opening at USC/Thornton School of Music and, as he recalls, “they asked me was I interested in teaching and I said ‘I don’t know, I don’t know anything about it.’ If you teach a few individual students here and there, OK, but if you’re doing it at the school, I’m not sure.” After some consideration, he went for it. “I fell in love with it, I really liked it…it was just so nice to be able to watch all these kids come through and teach them and watch how they develop. It’s a way for the kids to be able to learn from the guys who were actually doing it on records.” Now in his mid-80s, McCurdy continues to teach to this day.

2021 is the year McCurdy will be inducted into the music hall of fame in his hometown of Rochester. The induction event was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but was delayed due to COVID. In the decade that the Rochester Music Hall of Fame has existed, it has inducted a variety of artists including Eastman School alumni Tony Levin and Ron Carter, native born giants including Cab Calloway, Steve Gadd and Lou Gramm, as well as longtime resident, the late Son House (more at “It’s a big honor for me because it’s my hometown. I grew up there, I knew all the guys there, I played with the musicians there, my relatives are still there….I always heard about it (the award) and it’s my turn now. I’m really happy about it” he says with pride.

As for the future and the glimmer of light at the end of the COVID tunnel, McCurdy is a bit worried and says “we’re just trying to play, hoping that this music is going to survive. I know we’re losing a lot of clubs around the country. I don’t know how these places are going to come back. I miss playing in person and playing for audiences and I hope that, in the future, we’ll be able to do that again. Get back to some kind of normalcy. I want to get back to school again and teach kids and teach the students in person instead of online.” McCurdy even has a few stray notebook pages that will, hopefully, turn into a book and tell us even more.