• FRINGE BENEFITS: A Conversation with Bob Gullotti

  • Author’s Note: The following is an article I conducted with the late Bob Gullotti in the fall of 2003 for Massachusetts Percussion News that went unpublished. I was a regular student of Bob's for many years, but he will always remain "my teacher". I considered him a master teacher and mentor and most importantly a great friend. I know I share this relationship with literally thousands of professional drummers and to me that is the ultimate testament to his mastery as a teacher and person. I hope you enjoy hearing his great insights and the great wealth of knowledge contained in the article below.

    Dave Fox
    February  2020

  • Bob Gullotti

    Avant-garde Jazz drummer Bob Gullotti, a first call Boston area musician, has been pushing the boundaries of Jazz drumming for almost forty years. During this time, he has worked with over five decades of modern Jazz heavy weights, the likes of which include J.J. Johnson, Eddie Henderson, Joe Lovano, Jerry Bergonzi, Kenny Werner, John Medeski, John Abercrombie, George Mraz, Miroslav Vitous, and Joey Calderazzo to name only a few. Not limited only to jazz, Gullotti is a most versatile musician and has worked extensively with rock artists Trey Anastasio and Phish and most recently the Cuban Free Jazz Project.

    Bob has spent several years developing a uniquely interpretive, yet sound approach to drumming which has garnered him much acclaim in the U.S. and abroad. Throughout his career he has performed in Europe, the Middle East, South America, Africa and Canada. However, the body of work that has gained him the most attention has been with his group The Fringe who have been a cornerstone of the Boston jazz scene for over 30 years. With bassist John Lockwood and saxophonist George Garzone, The Fringe is a four-time recipient of The Boston Music Awards #1 Jazz Act Award and has a multi-record contract with Soul Note Records, one of the world’s top jazz labels. The music of The Fringe could best be described as the pursuance of a higher consciousness through collective improvisation much in the vein of artist such as John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor.

    In addition to his work with The Fringe and his sought- after work as a freelance Jazz artist, Bob is also one of New England’s top private instructors with many working professional students. He has taught and presented lectures at many top schools such as Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, New York University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Massachusetts- Amherst, Adelaide Conservatory (Australia), Bogotá University (South America), and Ramon School of Jazz (Israel). He was asked by the French Government to help organize and operate the “Jazz is Toulon” jazz camp and has lectured and taught at the Switzerland Jazz Workshop. Bob received his B.A. from the Berklee College of music and is an endorser and clinician for the Avedis Zildjian Cymbal and Drumstick Co., Eames Drum Shells and the Remo Drumhead Co.

    I had the pleasure of meeting with Bob on a cold November afternoon at his home studio in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Mass. Like many the student before me, I’m  instantly overwhelmed by the history permeating through the modest basement rehearsal space. Like Bob, the room is welcoming and unassuming, yet with a closer look the evidence of seasoned career in music presents itself. Posters line the wall from Jazz Festivals in South America and Israel. Hundreds of old LPs, cassettes, and CD’s stacked neatly amid an old piano and stereo system cover what would seem to be nearly an entire century of American music, jazz and otherwise. Pictures of heroes John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Alan Dawson are juxtaposed against the basement bar acting as the helm of Bob’s teaching studio. Like many students I take a second and I sit behind one of his  custom Eames drum kits as Bob gets comfortable in his usual spot next to the second floor tom. He sits back, lights a cigarette and we begin.

    MPN: You’ve achieved a high level of success in area of music that is not necessarily considered accessible or marketable to a mass audience. Given the vast changes in the music industry during the last 25 years, how does one persevere in the face of such adversity?  

    BG: I think what you’re talking about is my group The Fringe- the group I’ve been with for 31 years.

    MPN: Yes, of course.

    BG: The reason it (The Fringe) has continued is because of the love of the music and the love of the players. I mean we really get along good, but the real reason the band has survived is because of the music we play. It has nothing to do with the finances or getting ahead, I mean we’ve toured all over the world but maybe not as extensively I guess you could say as more popular forms of jazz music, but to answer your question what keeps things together is the music. We’re always investigating something, and the music is always a little bit ahead of us so we’re like following the music. The music is always there to be had but in order to get to it you have to stay together and keep working it out and we’ve been able to do that because we always work: we always play. We’ve had a steady gig in Boston on Monday nights at four different locations for 27 years. That’s what really kept the band always doing something every week and of course the touring and so forth, but again it’s all about the music itself.

    MPN: Being able to play a steady gig in Boston for 27 years, would you say the audience has a lot to do that with?          

    BG: Yup, we’ve always been able to draw a good crowd

    MPN: Over this period time, I imagine the faces of your audience must change

    BG: They change but we have extreme loyalty. There are always new kids coming in and this new place we are playing, The Zeitgeist Gallery (Cambridge MA), allows more because there is no bar. Younger kids, first and second college age students, couldn’t go to the former venue because of the bar, so this is a good spot for us. As far as loyalty goes, a good example of this is just recently a guy who last saw us in 1977 before he left this part of the country, came in and saw us again. During the time he was away he has made a small fortune and he has offered to finance the groups next few projects. He claims that we changed his life and now he wants to change ours. So right now is a very exciting period for The Fringe. We just we recorded two nights at the club and it went great so now we are in the processing of organizing the mix and getting this album out on this new label.

    MPN: It seems that everything has happened pretty much by word of mouth and your recordings? 

    BG: Yeah, pretty much. I mean we are on a couple of labels. We are on Soul Note Records out of Italy which has won record label of the year many, many times in Down Beat and magazines like that so yeah, I guess the records are out there. Maybe not at the extent of more popular styles of music but people can get it, and the label is worldwide and that has kept the interest of a lot of European and Japanese people. These people in turn travel to Boston to see us live and study privately with us, which for me, has been the backbone of my career… as far as making a living (laughs). So The Fringe not only provides me with a creative outlet all of the time, but it also provides with me income due to people that want to study with me because they like what they hear when they come to see us play. It’s wonderful.

    MPN: Let’s back up a bit and talk about your beginnings, some of your first teachers, major influences.

    BG: I started when I was 12 with a local teacher here in Waltham named Dick Cutter who was, like most everybody, a former student of Alan Dawson and I studied with him right through High School. He was a good guy because he gave me a good foundation in many styles. He made me read, he made me play jazz, he made me play rock and he prepared me for entry into Berklee (College of Music). I got to study with Alan Dawson for almost six years- four years while I was at Berklee and a couple years after I stayed on with him.

    MPN: And how was Alan Dawson as an influence on you?  

    BG: Ah…. Alan was a great influence on me. Alan was a great influence on anyone who met the man, never mind studied with him, due to his knowledge of the drums, his love of the drums and his ability to teach- never mind his playing. He was a master.

    MPN: I’d say if you talk to younger drummers working today, a lot of them would have the same thing to say about you. Do you feel you gained a lot of that from Alan Dawson?

    BG: Well what Alan taught me to do was find a way to express concepts and discipline. For me, in my own teaching, those are the two things that I really try and buckle down on. I try and make people realize that when you’re alone what you’re practicing, actually what you’re playing, is secondary to the fact that you’re working in a disciplined manner. That does go on to on the bandstand- that concentration and focus. Alan taught that great, man. I guess I don’t use that much of what he gave me in a technical sense, but I do use his discipline work. He made me do my work man (laughs). There was no kidding around. He taught me not to fool around when I practice. The drums are such a fun instrument it’s so easy to waste time playing only what you know. I think it’s more important when you’re practicing to work on your weaknesses, and Alan was great at getting that across.

    MPN: The thing that’s important to note is that this is late sixties/early seventies about the time you went to Berklee correct?

    BG: Yeah it was ‘67

  • Bob Gullotti with the Fringe

    MPN: In terms of your career mentioned earlier with The Fringe, about this time we had a lot of changes in Jazz, we had the Rock and Roll movement, R & B was popular, and Funk was coming on. What made you immerse yourself in a “free” or avant-garde music scene and stay with it so long?  

    BG: When I started out in high school I was always in Rock Groups and actually, when I was in high school, I was in a very successful rock group. We performed all the time and I got a lot of experience playing at that young age. During the ‘70’s The Fringe was going but at the time it was only the one night a week and I was actually making a living playing funk. I traveled all over the country and worked a lot for the Playboy company playing in several of their lounges and whatnot but in 1977 the Disco thing hit and that changed everything. What was happening was the clubs at the level I was working at started to bring in the Disc Jockeys and the money we were making, which was really good at the time, was cut in half. Same gigs, half the bread. That’s when I decided to get out of the commercial music business and began to teach full time. At this point the creative music was now available to me full time because I started teaching and right away, I got a lot of private students. That enabled me to play what I wanted to play. I still love playing funk and I still love playing rock but I don’t get that many calls anymore mainly because I’m busy with the jazz stuff.

    MPN: So although it fed a necessity for you at first, the music of The Fringe has since kept you creatively stimulated?

    BG: Yes. It still does to this day. I’m playing with a great band that has, what I’d like to believe is a pretty good reputation in the jazz world. This, in turn, has enabled me to play with a lot of great players and it has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of great players and I’ve had my share of some good gigs.

    MPN: Let’s get a little more in depth about the other members of the Fringe. Given that the nature of the Jazz music relies heavily on freelance players and “pickup” situations, you’ve kept an avant-garde jazz group together for over 30 years- It’s pretty remarkable.

    BG: Yeah it’s pretty remarkable, not many groups have done it. You know people have said The Modern Jazz Quartet would outlive every other group and they went 30 or 40 years- which is great but I think we’ve got a good chance of doing that. John (Lockwood –bassist) joined us in ’84 and one of the main reasons we made the change was we were starting to get calls for touring in Europe and first bassist Rich (Appleman) really didn’t have aspirations to tour.

    MPN: Let’s talk about the musical kinship you have with (tenor saxophonist) George Garzone and John Lockwood

    BG: George and I started playing together about 34 years ago in an R & B band. Then I got the idea of the two of us getting together a couple of times a week to just play. We were never under the guise of being a trio, we started with quartets and quintets and we even had a Big Band for a minute, but the trio was always available- it seemed a trio always showed up (laughs). At that point, we started to develop a sound as a trio so we kept it that way. John Lockwood was a bass player we hoped we could get when Rich decided he wanted to stay in Boston and teach and do theatre gigs and not necessarily travel. Lockwood was our first call and he said, “I’d love to do it” and now it’s been almost twenty years with John. All three of us do other gigs and we’re very busy but it’s nice to have a home base musically

    MPN: And it’s very rare  

    BG: It is rare and we know that and I think we garner some respect because of it.

    MPN: Speaking of travel with The Fringe and the other projects you’re involved with, you’ve gained a great deal of popularity in places like Europe, Africa, and Israel. Let’s talk about any differences between those audiences and American ones. Are there any?

    BG: Yeah, I think there are- in sheer numbers for starters. I think the European audiences are more open- minded. Although we do have great audiences here I do think however, the European love of jazz is unmatched. I think maybe because of the culture over but the arts are really, really important even to the common man not just the music aficionados. I think in general, the people of Europe just have a love for art and they also like art to move. They’re as much into the rehash maybe as we as Americans. Therefore, there is a lot more room for open ideas. I mean, if they don’t like something those audiences will let you know too but they’re a lot more open to experimentation. Germany is incredible. They’re really open minded when it comes to art. Sometimes they don’t even want to know the past, they only want to know the future and that’s wonderful for a group like us.

    MPN: This is interesting considering Jazz is an art that is considered to be “uniquely” American

    BG: Well it was developed here, but now I’d say it is World music- no doubt about it. There are great players everywhere. But it did start here- absolutely

    MPN: What’s one instance from playing abroad that really stands out?

    BG: That’s a tough one- there are so many. Well, Israel is wonderful- The Red Sea Jazz Festival is a great gig and we got a great record out of it. For me personally, The North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland is a great gig. Also, The Moomba Festival in Melbourne, Australia is another one. They’re all great not just because there are thousands upon thousands of people it’s because the venues were good sounding venues, the response of the people, we made good bread (laughs), and just the respect that you get from people. I must also mention there were a lot of good gigs in Italy. The Fringe has done very well in Italy as well as Portugal.

    MPN: Do you think American culture, as compared to others, is used to a more processed, fast paced environment therefore musical experimentation doesn’t have the mass appeal as is in other places?

    BG: Yeah, I do agree with that. I think our culture is inundated in radio and television with what’s popular in masses. Therefore, other styles of music take a back seat whereas I think in Europe, Rock and Roll is really important and the Techno thing is big, but the jazz thing is too. So is the classical thing, so is the avant-garde thing. They just seem to like more variety and there are enough numbers that they can fill out enough venues for his variety at any time.

    MPN: Let’s get back to your teaching a little bit. Your students travel from all over and have a full waiting list. What do you think it is about your approach that is so attractive and has created many, many first-rate musicians?

    BG: Well, first of all, I think that no one can teach someone to play. I think that’s a fallacy. Anyone who comes up to you and says “study with me because I can teach you to play” I don’t think that is correct. What a teacher is, is someone who gives information. Sometimes it’s relevant to what you are playing, sometimes it’s general knowledge and sometimes its things that you would never even think about. What I’ve been able to do is to develop a program. I try and cover a lot of ground and I give a lot of work and a lot of my students are from here and a lot of from Europe and Japan and they come because they really want to get a lot of information: more than a half hour a week that they might getting at a formal school. In the Boston area, I’m playing all the time so they hear me and know I teach and approach and we take it from there and it’s really worked for me. I do have a waiting list and I think it’s just being out there playing and for me, it’s the different venues and different types of music that I play.

    MPN: Do you teach all levels? Or is it more advanced students?

    BG: I have very few beginners. I do try to keep a couple on my roster at all times because I want to be able to teach beginners. I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of advanced players study with me. To expand on what I was saying before my “approach” is to have a study cover a lot of ground over an extended period of time. I give a lot of Latin, Funk, Jazz, Rock, reading and a heavy emphasis on technique. Usually there are five to six subjects that the student is covering each week but the way I want them to practice is equal increments of time on each subject. Therefore, the result to see progress might take longer than one would expect. Personally, I like to work in three month stretches and judge improvement over that amount time as opposed to get hung up judging progress by week to week. I think of it is almost like a University style in that every three months you get a “report card” of sorts. This enables me to see the growth of a student over a couple of years and I think because I use this approach that’s why students tend to stay with me over extended periods of time. The other thing I do is make a student responsible for preparing a performing a different tune every make (usually a jazz standard) and that way over the course of year they’ve learned 50 to 60 new tunes.

    MPN: let’s break this down: what are some the technique exercises that you work on?

    BG: In a technical way, over time, I’ve developed some hand exercises that you put over ostinatos played with your feet such as a Samba or Baion pattern (See Appendix B). These exercises help build your speed, sound, evenness and control. The exercise I use most for Jazz is an exercise I discovered by mistake and that is to play through The Charlie Parker Omni Book (Atlantic Music Corp. version in the key of C) on the drum set. The reason I use this most is because the core of modern Jazz music was mainly developed with the famous Charlie Parker Quintet (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Max Roach). That language, if you learn to sing and play that language they developed then you’ll have a pretty strong foundation for which to study modern Jazz. To me, above all, Jazz is a language and knowing that language you should be able to create within that idiom and I’ve had great success with the Charlie Parker book. I also do a lot of transcriptions of John Coltrane and I also do a lot of drum transcriptions but I find that drummers tend to copy what they just learned. So, for me, I give a Max Roach solo to learn and that’s the language too, it’s just as viable as Charlie Parker, and to look at both of them on one single line it’s the same thing- they’re playing very similar rhythmically. The thing is that night you’re not going to be copying Max Roach. You might be playing a bird line or another saxophonist’s line you might be playing a little more melodically and that’s what all my students doing: playing melodically when they play.

    MPN: How exactly do you stumble upon using the Charlie Parker book?

    BG: I was teaching a professional bass player at the time and in his teaching, he uses the book for clinics and so forth and he knows the language enough that he teaches it to all of the players in his bands except the drummer. He’s a very talented guy and got together with me mainly just to learn the language or specific lingo so he could better communicate with the drummers in his bands and clinics. One day he was here and the book fell out of his case and I asked him what he was doing with the Charlie Parker book for bass. He told me it was great for bass because in additional helping to facilitate better movement around the instrument he could understand what the language that much better. So I played time for him while he read one of the Bird solos and I noticed his rhythmic accuracy was a little weak. I then I decided to read the line with him and Bingo: there it is. It then occurred to me if you learn to sing the lines while playing the rhythmic language you’ll not only improve your rhythmic accuracy, but you’ll able to execute melodic lines while improvising rather effortlessly. It’s a great tool and I’ve been using it ever since.    

    MPN: To touch on something we’ve hinted at, in today’s “processed” society, now more than ever people are able to self promote at a greater rate than ever via the internet or the other technology that is at their disposal these days. What I’ve found unique is that you’ve stayed the course and have let your music and your approach speak for itself. Do you think that has helped you?

    BG: You know I’m not good with the marketing and I’m not good with the new way of advertising. I don’t even advertise for my lessons: I just play. The word of mouth has kept me going for a number of years. I think you’re maybe you’re right about that. I mainly teach in home and it’s away from a school setting and I know that is attractive to some students as well. Mainly though, I don’t know, I guess more than anything I try and be honest with my students and maybe that has what kept so many people around. I’d like to think I take an honest approach to my craft but I really don’t have a specific answer to how things have worked for me. I don’t know why it’s worked (laughs).

    MPN: Well it has.  

    BG: Yeah it has and I’m grateful. I’ve been pretty successful in keeping a full complement of students and I’m lucky in that I get very good students. I seem to get the cream of the crop and again, I don’t know why, but I do and I like it (laughs)

    MPN: Any revelations about what you’ve discovered about your own playing recently?

    BG: Well, I always work on my hands and I always work on my technique and most importantly I try and stay open minded. The music I play with The Fringe and other colleagues I play with but in particular The Fringe is so spontaneous that you have to be prepared for anything to occur. That has helped me be more flexible in other settings. What Garzone and Lockwood could throw at me at any minute might take a whole evening with other groups. I feel as if the Fringe has prepared me for any gig.

    MPN: Your list of credentials is an impressive one, spanning almost five decades of Jazz, the likes of which include JJ Johnson, Joe Lovano, Phish and John Medeski. How does one prepare themselves for such diversity?

    BG: Like I said before it has to do with The Fringe in terms of being diversified. Again, like I try and do with students, I make sure I can cover a lot of ground: laying down grooves, playing shapes and colors, reading, odd meters, etc, etc. This way when the opportunity arises I can just play. By being in a group with a couple of musicians who are always pushing ahead I have developed as a player. Fortunately, there area a lot of great cats here in town that I play with and learn from. I play in a great group called UM with Hal Crook and another group with Jerry Bergonzi and these guys are all really tremendous musicians. I think the flexibility I have to play with all of these people comes from a lot of musical experience. I’ve done a lot of gigs since I was 15 years old and there is no shortcut to getting this experience. That’s something else I try and pass on to my students: you got to get experience and you got to be serious about it.

    MPN: What are you looking for in a musician when you put a band together? 

    BG: Quality of player, openness, seriousness and vibe. Yeah, the vibe has got to be good. Certain bandleaders sometimes can work a bad vibe situation and get positive results. Miles Davis was very good at that. Sometimes he’d have the band screaming at each other before they went on, but somehow, he used that in a positive way to get the most out of them. Generally, though, I think it’s important to have a friendship within the situation and of course, respect. Respect has to be there amongst the players or else I really don’t know how else it can work. To really create music that is, I mean really create music. You know you can go on the gig and not necessarily be best friends with the bass player or have brotherly friendship with the bandleader and due to professionalism you can have some great music, but to really create something- that is, create something in the moment- there has to be a bond and a desire to move as a unit. It has to be absolutely ego free. The music is really more important than the players. So, if you respect the music more than yourself or more than your fellow players, and treat the music as the most important thing there is usually going to be some sparks flying.

    MPN: You mention Miles Davis. Who are some other people that influenced and inspired you or still inspire you?

    BG: All the greats. Drummer-wise, all the heavies, all the masters. One guy really affected me greatly though when I was 17 years old in New York City. I had played a gig with a Rock Group in Greenwich Village for a week or so and it was the first time I had gigged in New York. We did something like four nights, had a night off, and did three or four more nights. On the night off, the guitar player and I went walking around and ended up in the Bowery at a place called Slug’s. The marquee read The Cecil Taylor Quintet. They started at 11 PM and Cecil Taylor walked in alone and started playing the piano. He played solo for about forty-five minutes to an hour. Then the bass player waked in very casually and joined Cecil Taylor and it was now a duo- for another hour. Still the same piece, it hadn’t stopped. Another hour after that at about 1AM, the drummer came in- Andrew Cyrille. Again, he was very casual and carried his kit in one piece in at a time. At this point we are plastered against the wall- it was incredible music. Cyrille finally sets up and starts bashing away. Then the two horn players came in at about 2AM and they played until 5 in the morning. We didn’t move in our chairs. That night affected me incredibly. It was like five or six hours of non-stop, absolutely creative, playing. After hearing I really started to get into Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and people like that. But Seeing Cecil Taylor, was the first time I had sat and listened to something for a whole evening and was blown away by something I had never heard. Before that I was impressed by James Brown, and I even saw The Beatles live and they were all very good but after seeing Cecil Taylor and hearing him play like nothing I had I ever heard in my life, it absolutely blew my mind. From that day on, I started to investigate all sorts of other types of stuff. That helped to develop The Fringe in the long run actually. I saw ‘Trane (John Coltrane) the year after that at The Jazz Workshop in Boston and although I was completely mesmerized, I think it wasn’t until years later that I realized how lucky I was to see him before he died. I would say those two nights are the two most influential things I have ever seen. The discipline and the concentration and the focus they all had is what got me as much as the music. They did not jive. They were into the music first and foremost- the creation. That to me was it. Whether you’re playing tunes or not, you still have got to be into the growth.

    MPN: Along those lines, The Fringe obviously tapped into that focus, but there is a whole new generation of younger people looking to find that experience and focus in music. How you seen any evidence of this?

    BG: I’ve seen a lot of it. There’s a whole new generation of very creative kids and there are some groups that I think have led those kids to the music. I think Phish is a very important band. They have thousands and thousands of fans watching a band improvise for hours on end. From that, groups like Medeski, Martin and Wood have taken things above that musically maybe but have tapped into that crowd and that crowd is hundreds and hundreds and thousands of them. That crowd is the future of Jazz- those listeners. This “jam band” scene is great for the entire music scene because those kids are willing to listen to something that is being spontaneously made rather than every song that is on the radio over and over again. That’s really important and these kids are open minded. I think in the 70’s, 80’s and ‘90’s everything though you had to sound like every other band that was out there. Now this group of kids doesn’t want to hear that as much. They’re willing to listen to all sorts of styles and now that’s why when you go to one of these “jam band” festivals they have African groups, Jazz groups, and all sorts of Rock and Roll groups. I think there are some real positive things happening in this scene.

    MPN: How does it feel that groups like Phish and Medeski, Martin and Wood cite The Fringe as a major influence?

    BG: I didn’t realize that until they (Phish) hired me. I’ve played with (John) Medeski many, many times so with him I had more of an idea. But with Phish, it was cool and I did get to do some touring and some individual nights and I often wondered why. Why would they call me? I didn’t know at the time. Apparently, it was because when they were growing up their parents had Fringe records and that wanted some of what we do in their thing for a week or so (Bob did selective shows with Phish in October 1996 and toured briefly in July 1997) and they’re very nice people and they can play.

    MPN: Given what we’ve talked about in terms of you career path in terms of teaching, performing and your work with the Fringe, what advice would you give to someone starting out today on a similar course?

    BG: Be honest with yourself and recognize your weaknesses. Get information from teachers, from listening and getting experience to work on those weaknesses. Most importantly, don’t fool around when you practice. That has to be the way you get focused. All the best players in the world, regardless of their style, they all have one thing in common: their level of concentration and focus. I can probably guarantee that every one of them was focused when they practiced. If you can do it alone, it’s much easier on the bandstand. The main goal is to create music; the second is to make a living. If you can create music, you’ll probably end up making a living.