Groovers and Shakers - Roscoe C. Blunt Jnr
Groovers and Shakers - Roscoe C. Blunt Jnr
‘Rockie’ Blunt was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on July 29th, 1925 and even though he’s certainly not the most famous drummer we’ve investigated in this series, he has an exceedingly interesting and unique story which I thought it pertinent to share with you.
Roscoe ‘Rockie’ Blunt played jazz and grew up as a Methodist in a Scandinavian suburb of Worcester, Massachusetts which is almost fifty miles from Boston. His mother Matilda, was a child prodigy as a classical pianist who wasn’t too keen on him having anything to do with jazz music but his dad (also named Roscoe) had different ideas and he arranged drum lessons for his son with a guy called Mr Jones who charged 25 cents for half an hour. Along with this he was also taken by his supportive father to see any jazz which was going on in the neighbourhood. He studied drums at the Lincoln Square Boys Club in Worcester. Having taken up the instrument he spent much of his time soaking-up what was going on in Laurel-Clayton, which was named for the crossroads of two streets in the African-American area of Worcester.
It was here that, having discovered a number of musicians who were looking for a place to jam, his father found a small store where they could play after hours. It evidently wasn’t a great venue but it became the ‘Saxtrum Club’ where jazz musicians went to blow after playing their ‘general business’ gigs elsewhere in town. Roscoe junior became a part of this even though when the club opened he was only 12 years old, still wearing shorts and his feet didn’t touch the bass drum and hi hat pedals!
After-hours the place would be packed with regulars and extremely well-known guys who happened to have been playing in town. It saw the likes of Gene Krupa, Cab Calloway, Anita O’Day, Cozy Cole, Frank Sinatra and anybody else who wanted to sit in with the locals.
He’d hardly got into his stride as a drummer before in 1943, at just 18 years of age, he was conscripted into the US army. He was classified as a bandsman and therefore due to be headed for a music unit until the army, in its wisdom put him into the infantry. He was evidently singled-out as being ‘officer material’ too although that promotion didn’t happen either. This may well have been due to his laisez-faire attitude to discipline which frequently got him into trouble. More of this later.
After his basic training for the war, when he became the US military’s youngest-ever soldier to be awarded the Expert Infantry Badge, he, like a whole generation of other young men, found himself sent-off to Europe to fight in Hitler’s war. He took part in the battle of the Bulge and fought in Belgium, France, Holland and Germany.
Now his English professor at his home town’s Clark University, which he attended for too short a time before conscription, had spotted something creative in him and instead of suggesting he took up music (as just about everybody who’s appeared in ‘Groovers and Shakers’ so far was) advised him it was imperative he became a writer. To that end from a young age he kept diaries of everything that happened to him.
So, what made Private First-Class Rockie Blunt different to most other soldiers was the fact that he took copious notes of everything that happened to him while he was in (and out) of uniform. This made things much easier for him when he finally decided to write his memoirs. I don’t know if this activity was frowned upon in the Second World War, although I’m pretty sure it was a very bad thing to do in the great War. Even if it wasn’t allowed though I doubt it would have made any difference to Rockie for the disciplinary reasons I alluded to earlier.
After his demob from the army he got on with being a jazz drummer but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that his considerable exploits during WW2 were made known in two famous books he wrote: ‘Inside the battle of the Bulge’ and ‘Foot Soldier: an infantryman’s war in Europe’. As a side-line to his other wartime activities he volunteered to disarm land-mines and was obviously successful at it. In the fullness of time he was awarded a purple-heart medal having been wounded in action. Rocky didn’t exactly escape scot-free from his wartime exploits because he was made deaf by the noise of it and eventually found it difficult to walk unaided.
In 1946 immediately after he was demobbed he started where he’d left-off, firstly playing jazz gigs around Massachusetts and surrounding states with Bob Chester’s band then with various others before being accepted as a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Here he studied the History of Jazz and three years later he graduated with honours.
Towards the end of his wartime exploits he had found himself playing in various US Army and USO bands which got him set for his return to ‘real’ life and eventually ‘The Rockie Blunt Allstars’ in 1947. He had played in various bands including one led by a chap called Bob Chester until he formed the Allstars during his time at the Boston Conservatory. The musicians, who got together in Rockie’s band at the Saxtrum and elsewhere became the first mixed-race group in that part of Massachusetts thus effectively breaking what used to be shamefully known as the ‘colour barrier’. They played at gigs with a ‘Whites Only’ policy as well as places owned by ‘African Americans’.
In the mid-fifties he was forced to break-up this band because they couldn’t find a pianist who was good enough to keep pace with the rest of the musicians. This led to a bout of freelancing and drumming in ‘general business’ groups some of which weren’t exactly playing the jazz he wanted to. Fortunately there were some that were: The Classic Swing Band, Milestones Big Band, The Cedar Swamp 7 and the Ragtime Rowdies.
Roscoe Blunt junior kept one facet of his army career quiet for almost the whole of his life. Towards the end of the war he found himself Court-Martialled for fraternising with the enemy! It seemed he was seen talking to the teenage daughter of the woman who was laundering the very uniforms his commanding officer had ordered him to find someone to wash. His belligerent attitude at his trial may not have helped his cause because it took 55 years before President Clinton pardoned him for the offence. As you can imagine, Rockie never forgave the army for this!
However it didn’t stop him reminiscing about his time during the war. Roscoe starred in an award-winning documentary mini-series for television about 12 servicemen’s first-hand war-time experiences succinctly called ‘WW2 in HD’. He himself was played by an actor and writer called Rob Corddry.
But as I said, Rockie Blunt wasn’t only a drummer, he was also a successful writer with well-respected books about the war he fought in to his name. He was also an award-winning investigative reporter for Worcester’s Telegram and Evening Gazette for three decades where his forte was reporting on fires and police incidents. He wasn’t just a drummer and writer either - he was also a pilot and a celebrated underwater photographer.
He played Walberg and Auge’s ‘Perfection’ drums during his heydays which was something of a given since they just happened to be made in Worcester where he lived. W & A made parts and stands for absolutely all the drum companies and attached these parts to their own instruments built from whatever shells they could trade them for. Looking at the photos there doesn’t appear to be anything different about Rockies’ drums unless you count the Slingerland-like floor tom cradles on the older white, single-headed set. The sizes certainly appear to be pretty standard.
Rockie stopped playing not too long before he died, not because he didn’t have the energy to swing a band any more, simply because he didn’t have the energy to carry the drums!
Roscoe C. Blunt jnr died on February 10th, 2011 and by the way the C. in his middle name stands for Crosby!
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