Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Sims, Peter “La Roca”

Drummer Pete “La Roca” Sims' smooth groove, sense of swing and fantastic four-limb coordination made him ideally suited to the small-group explorations of the 1950s and 1960s. He performed with Joe Henderson, John Coltrane and Paul Bley during a transitional period for jazz, when elements of bop, hard bop, and free jazz were being experimentally combined.

Sims thrived when providing a clean, swinging groove, but he was openly uncomfortable in the worlds of outright free jazz and fusion, and was absent from jazz hroughout much of the 1970s, 1980s, through the mid 1990s. His return to the jazz scene sparked a revival of interest in his work has brought to light his fine work as a sideman and his few yet first-rate recordings as a bandleader.

Peter Sims was born in New York City on April 7, 1938, and grew up with his pianist mother and trumpeter stepfather in a brownstone in Harlem. His introduction to jazz came from his uncle, Kenneth Bright, who was a major shareholder in Circle Records and managed rehearsal spaces above the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. In a 2004 interview with José Francisco Tapiz, Sims recalled his early exposure to jazz in this way:

“I was able to hear the rehearsals of many jazz greats, like Bird, Dizzy, and Hot Lips Page, among others. Because he [Bright] was active in the jazz community, artists like Fats Waller would often play at family parties. Knowing of my fascination with jazz, he arranged for the two of us to be the sole audience at a concert broadcast by James P. Johnson and Baby Dodds. I'm sure there are others who share the privilege (maybe they'll read this), but I've never met anyone else who has heard Baby Dodds live.”

Sims studied percussion as a youngster in the New York City public schools and later at the High School of Music and Art, a famed musical training ground that was located at 443-465 West 135th Street until it merged with the High School for the Performing Arts in 1984 and became the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts and moved to West 64-65th Streets. After his high school training in drums, timpani, and music fundamentals, Sims studied at the City College of New York, where he played timpani in the CCNY Orchestra for two years.

Early in his musical career, Sims played timbales in Latin bands, and it is during this period that he created the “La Roca” surname and temporarily dropped Sims from his name altogether.

While performing on drums at a jam session at Birdland, Max Roach noticed La Roca and recommended him to tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The young drummer recorded with Rollins and bassist Donald Bailey on the afternoon of November 3, 1957 at the Village Vanguard in NYC, leading to the release of the now-classic pianoless trio recording, A Night at the Village Vanguard. While the majority of the album features bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones, the musicians who performed with Rollins for the evening set, Bailey’s and La Roca’s matinee performances of “A Night in Tunisia” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” are included on the original release.

Throughout the remainder of the 1950s, La Roca performed with Rollins, albeit sporadically, in the United States and Europe, and also performed/recorded with clarinetist Tony Scott in 1959. The most notable Scott/La Roca collaboration was a date with pianist Bill Evans and bassist Jimmy Garrison most recently released under the title At Last. Additional La Roca recordings from 1959 included a hard-bop date with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean entitled New Soil and a J.R. Monterose date released as The Message.

La Roca began the 1960s performing with trombonist Slide Hampton and pianist Steve Kuhn and soon began a brief run with newborn leader John Coltrane which included runs at the Jazz Gallery in New York in June-July 1960 and the Showboat in Philadelphia in July 1960. While the first of these performances featured Steve Kuhn on piano, most of them featured pianist McCoy Tyner, marking some of the earliest evidence of the soon-to-be-developed "classic" Coltrane Quartet. During the short lived Coltrane/La Roca partnership, the saxophonist was performing his Giant Steps material in addition to stretching out on tunes like “My Favorite Things” and “I Want To Talk About You,” both soon destined to become staples of the Classic Quartet.

In late 1961, La Roca recorded with Booker Little for his Booker Little and Friends release, featuring the frontline of Little on trumpet, George Coleman on tenor sax and Julian Priester on trombone and the rhythm section of pianist Don Friedman, bassist Reggie Workman and La Roca. A few months later in January 1962, pianist Jaki Byard formed a trio with La Roca and bassist Ron Carter on Hi-Fly.

Throughout 1962-1963, La Roca recorded some of his most highly praised recordings as a sideman. He entered the studio twice with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, yielding Footloose and Syndrome, the latter of which includes the tracks “Floater” and “Syndrome.” Both records are Bley-led trio outings which conveyed his experimentation with balancing structure and freedom that would be further developed in his subsequent trio with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian.

La Roca also performed with pianist George Russell in a band that included trumpeter Don Ellis and bassist Steve Swallow on the pianist’s August ’62 session, The Outer View.

Finally, and perhaps most notably, La Roca recorded with Joe Henderson on the tenor saxophonist’s first two Blue Note recordings as a leader: Page One, featuring Henderson, Kenny Dorhaam, McCoy Tyner, and Butch Warren on classic versions of “Blue Bossa” and “Recorda Me” and Our Thing, again featuring Henderson and Dorham, now backed by pianist Andrew Hill, bassist Eddie Khan and La Roca.

In 1964 and 1965, La Roca performed with Art Farmer’s group, which also included Jim Hall and Steve Swallow, as evidenced on To Sweden With Love and Sing Me Softly Of The Blues. La Roca also intermittently recorded with Freddie Hubbard in 1965, including a date with Hubbard, James Spaulding, Hank Mobley, McCoy Tyner and others entitled Blue Spirits, and a live date featuring Hubbard and Lee Morgan, The Night of the Cookers, Volumes 1 and 2.

On May 19, 1965, La Roca entered the studio for the first time as a leader and assembled a quartet of musicians he had worked with on various former projects. La Roca, Joe Henderson, Steve Kuhn and Steve Swallow perform fiercely on Basra, released on Blue Note records in 1965. The album contains three La Roca compositions: the title track, “Basra,” that contains only a single chord; the opening blues, “Candu;” and the up-tempo swinger, “Tears Come From Heaven.” Also included are versions of “Malaguena,” “Lazy Afternoon,” and a Steve Swallow composition entitled “Eiderdown.”

In 1965-1967, La Roca recorded with Steve Kuhn, Mose Alison, and Charles Lloyd. On May 26, 1967, La Roca recorded his second session as a leader, released under the titles Bliss! and Turkish Women at the Bath. Comprised completely of La Roca compositions, the fascinating lineup for this session included La Roca, John Gilmore on tenor sax, Chick Corea on piano, and Walter Booker on bass.

Frustrated by the emerging prominence of rock and fusion in the jazz world, Pete La Roca Sims found himself largely out of work by the late 1960s. Although most biographies insist that Sims left the scene intentionally to enter law school, he insistsed otherwise:

“Although it a common misconception, I never did, or even thought, anything remotely related to leaving music.” He continues, “Fusion has been my nemesis and put me out of business.”

Later in this 2004 interview, Sims details his struggle to find work, partly due to his refusal on multiple occasions to participate in sessions alongside rock and fusion drummers in the late 1960s. Only after Sims was forced to drive a cab to earn money for his pregnant wife did he decide to pursue a second career as a lawyer in 1968. Upon practicing law, he also dropped “La Roca” from his name and returned to using Pete (or Peter) Sims.

Sims hesitantly returned to the jazz scene for occasional gigs from 1979 onward, and arrived on the scene more openly in 1997. In two sessions on February and March 1997, Sims, now referring to himself as Pete “La Roca” Sims, assembled a band called SwingTime, which included saxophonists Lance Bryant, Dave Liebman and Ricky Ford, trumpeter Jimmy Owens, pianist George Cables, and bassist Santi Debriano. Blue Note records released the sessions, also entitled SwingTime, in August 1997.

Sims also reunited with pianist/friend Steve Kuhn for gigs in 1997, in addition to a reunion with Joe Henderson in Europe in October 1997 featuring the intriguing lineup of Henderson, Sims, trombonist Conrad Herwig, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and bassist George Mraz. Surprisingly, although La Roca and Henderson had worked in the studio together on multiple occasions in the past, the drummer believes that their gigs in 1997 marked their first public performances together.

Pete “La Roca” Sims’s two recordings as a leader and his work as a sideman with Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Paul Bley, Steve Kuhn, and Art Farmer all exemplify boundary-pushing modern jazz that always retained a traditionalist’s taste. A prideful musician who stood behind the music he played in the 1950s and 1960s but felt abandoned by some of jazz’s more modern developments, Sims preferred to find work elsewhere while the free jazz and fusion movements were at their apex. Still an underrated master, Sims’s unique placement in jazz history yields a discography grounded in conventional groove yet pushed by the music’s ever-evolving nature.

Select Discography:

As a leader: Basra, Turkish Women at the Bath, and SwingTime

With Sonny Rollins: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1

With Joe Henderson: Page One and Our Thing

With Booker Little: Booker Little and Friend

With Jaki Byard: Hi-Fly

With Jackie McLean: New Soil, Vertigo, and Bluesnik

With Paul Bley: Footloose and The Floater Syndrome

With Art Farmer: To Sweden With Love and Sing Me Softly of the Blues

With George Russell: The Outer View

With Charles Lloyd: Of Course, Of Course

With Freddie Hubbard: Blue Spirits and Live at the Cookers, Volumes 1 and 2

With Johnny Coles: Little Johnny C

With Steve Kuhn: Three Waves

Contributor: Eric Novod