Charli Persip, Virtuoso Drummer Who Cut a Swath Through Modern Jazz, Is Dead at 91

Aug 24, 2020

Charli Persip, whose career as a leading jazz drummer included close associations with Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston and many others — along with nearly 40 years at the helm of his own big band, SuperSound — died at Mt. Sinai Morningside in New York City on Sunday.

He was 91. His daughter, Jean Elliott, confirmed his death.

With his crisp technical command, his granite sense of time, and his keen attunement to dynamics and tonal color, Persip had all the attributes of a pacesetting modern jazz drummer. He distinguished himself in both small-group and large-ensemble settings, and later had a long track record in jazz education, with Jazzmobile and at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

Persip is well represented on record, with an especially prolific run in the 1950s and ‘60s, when he was working with everyone from singer Ernestine Anderson to trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison, Art Farmer, Joe Newman, and Lee Morgan. Among the albums to feature his rhythmic stamp are Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller (1957), Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika (1961), Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool (1961) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s We Free Kings (1962).

With Gillespie, bebop’s trumpet exemplar and most successful bandleader, Persip appears on more than a dozen albums, including the late-‘50s landmarks Dizzy Gillespie at Newport (1957), Birk’s Works (1958) and Sonny Side Up, featuring saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt (1959). In this satirical 1958 short by animator John Hubley, we see Persip in Gillespie’s band, gamely attempting to create the right musical backdrop for an inane television commercial.

As a measure of how esteemed Persip was by the early 1960s, consider the personnel of his first band, The Jazz Statesmen, which released an album on Bethlehem Records in ‘61: Ron Carter on bass, Freddie Hubbard and Marcus Belgrave on trumpets, Roland Alexander on saxophone and Ronald Mathews on piano. The band’s uptempo version of “The Song Is You,” a bebop staple, provides an excellent illustration of Persip’s steady hand on the tiller. And the drum solo, which begins just after the four-minute mark (trading fours at first, and gradually expanding) is a master class in bop fundamentals.

Charles Lawrence Persip was born in Morristown, N.J., on July 26, 1929. His father, Frances, was a cook who established a catering business, and his mother, Doris, was a seamstress and housekeeper. He spent a portion of his childhood in Springfield, Mass., where he had a formative experience seeing Cab Calloway perform at the Paramount Theater. At age 8, he began appearing regularly on a local radio program, after winning a talent contest by singing and playing a parade drum.

The Persip family moved to Newark, N.J. in the early ‘40s, and young Charles enrolled at West Side High School. In short order he was playing in the stage band, and studying with the esteemed drum teacher Al Germansky. By his early teens, Persip was working around town; he joined Newark’s AFM Local 16 in 1945.

Persip’s first consequential gig was with the bebop pianist and composer Tadd Dameron, in ’53. In a 2010 interview with Allegro, the Local 802 AFM newsletter, Persip recalls getting the job one night at the Paradise Club in Atlantic City, because Dameron’s regular drummer, “Philly” Joe Jones, had skipped town to avoid an arrest warrant. Called to sit in, Persip sight-read the band’s book, and was promptly hired.

Later that year, Persip was working in a house band at the Piccadilly in Newark. “And one night, Benny Green, the trombonist, was the featured performer,” Persip said in the Allegro interview. “And we had a really good night, and the band was groovin’. And after the gig, Green told me he liked my playing and would I like to have a gig?” This was Persip’s entrée to the Gillespie band, where he stayed for several of the busiest years of his career.

During this stretch, Persip was routinely included in an elite fraternity of modern drummers — a fact perhaps most clearly expressed by the series of “Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland” recordings made in the 1960s. An album by that title, recorded on April 25, 1960, features Persip billed alongside Art Blakey, “Philly” Joe Jones and Elvin Jones. He more than holds his own, as you can hear in his solo on “Tune Up.”

Persip stayed busy in the 1970s, working with saxophonist Frank Foster among others. He teamed up with trumpeter Gerry La Furn to form the Superband, which released its self-titled debut — featuring players like Gary Smulyan on baritone saxophone, Jack Walrath on trumpet and Bob Stewart on tuba — in 1981.

By the time Persip released a follow-up, In Case You Missed It, on the Italian label Soul Note in ’84, he had broken with La Furn and also started going by “Charli,” without the “e.” Another Superband album, No Dummies Allowed, followed in ’87, before Persip rebranded the group as SuperSound.

As an intermittent fixture in New York, SuperSound has harbored plenty of talent over the years, as trumpeter Kenny Rampton, a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, recounted in a Facebook post this morning.

In addition to his work in the classroom and the practice room, Persip published an instructional book titled How Not to Play Drums: Not for Drummers Only, which combines technical exercises with stories from his life and career.

He had suffered poor health in recent years, and Elliott — who survives him along with a grandson, Xavier, a granddaughter, NelChelle, and a great-grandson, Nehemiah — helped organize a GoFundMe for his medical expenses.

Last year, Persip was able to attend a surprise 90th birthday celebration last year, whose admiring guest list included some of the leading drummers of successive generations, including Andrew Cyrille, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Kenny Washington, Carl Allen, Eric McPherson and Nasheet Waits.