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Onward and Upward: Jazz United Remembers Ralph Peterson, Jr.

Ralph Peterson, who died on March 1, 2021 at 58
Dave Green
Drummer, composer and bandleader Ralph Peterson, Jr., who died on March 1, 2021 at 58

A force of nature — that’s how many admirers memorialized drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. when he died earlier this month, at 58. And it’s easy to understand why, given the cyclonic fury of his time feel, and the incendiary drama of his attack.

But to hail Peterson in terms befitting even the most extraordinary natural phenomena is to sell him short, because he was as human as they come: courageous and fallible, sensitive and proud. He never masked his struggles — with changing tastes, with an unforgiving industry, with substance abuse — because he knew how much his example could help those coming up behind him, either as a compass point or a cautionary tale.

Peterson was prolific in his output as an independent recording artist, bandleader and educator. His impact on the current generation of musicians mirrors his own generation’s admiration of drummer-bandleader Art Blakey, who mentored him.

Both of us have revered Ralph since he first hit our radars, during the Young Lion era that he galvanized, without the slightest hint of conformity. Ralph was also Nate’s mentor and teacher for a few years in the mid-to-late ’90s, which gives this remembrance a more personal touch than most. We’re deeply saddened by his departure, but want to take this moment to honor his legacy, which reaches well past the obvious touchpoints. This one’s for you, Ralph.

Music Featured in This Episode:

  • "Further Fo," by the Ralph Peterson Fo'tet
  • "Freight Train," by the Ralph Peterson Quintet
  • "Art of War," by Ralph Peterson's Gen-Next Big Band
  • "United," by Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy
  • "Forth and Back," by Ralph Peterson and the Messenger Legacy

Jazz United is produced by Sarah Kerson. Our senior producer is Simon Rentner.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.