That Boy is a Drummer
The Rhythms & Reminiscences of Emile Latimer

By Bob Davis

Emile Latimer
Emile Latimer.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Okay, so Emile Latimer wasn’t the first three-year-old to bang on pots and pans. But he’s one of the few to break the pot.

The story: Little Emile is banging to big bands on the radio when his father and uncle arrive. “That boy is a drummer!” they say, and Dad makes the boy a practice pad and sticks.

Flash forward. About 1964. A penthouse, uptown Manhattan. Zulu—a group of African drummers and dancers who, along with Latimer, play the World’s Fair—is jamming, singing. “I got a pot from under the kitchen and I played through it, and broke the pot. They couldn’t believe it. ‘He broke the pot!’”

Flash back. High school talent show. Latimer puts together a small band. “We came off the street with a pair of bongos, maracas, a drummer that could just— chhh, chhh— keep a beat and a piano player, me, that could play the Latin feel. The whole school was dancing. We won the 25 bucks for the contest.”

Now it’s the sixties—a Greenwich Village open mike. Guys like Richie Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Jimmy Hendrix are there, as well as Richie Havens, who will tour and record with some guy banging a big blue drum—really good, tireless. His name is Latimer.

“I went to work with Richie and never looked back,” the drummer says. “We used to play damned near all night long. Six or seven sets a night. Jump from this coffee house, run over to this one, do a set, run over to that one, do a set. That’s how you pay your rent. Wasn’t easy.”

Around this time, the great singer Nina Simone is looking for a guitar player. She auditions Latimer. Simone and Latimer, it turns out, have both written a song called Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair. “You played and wrote what I wanted to write,” says Simone. “You’ll sing that in my show.”

They tour the coast. Play L.A., Montreal, Europe. Then back to New York, in 1969, with a twist: “Here’s a New York guy, only played down at 44th street,” Latimer recalls. “Now I’m with this superstar, at Lincoln Center, now I’m really scared. She never told us she was going to record that night. It was sold out. I was nervous; I made a mistake. I started all over again, and I was so determined. I can play this. This is mine. I wrote it. So I played it the second time, man, there was screaming applause. She looked at me: Take a bow. She was all happy.” The record, Black Gold, is released—with Latimer’s mistake edited out.

Over the years, Latimer also records with Gamalon, Spyro-Gyra, and one of his own bands—on the CD Emile Latimer With Abundance. He tours the world and performs at the Montreaux Jazz and Pop Festivals of the Netherlands and Switzerland and the Newport Jazz Festival. In 2000, he is inducted into the Buffalo Musicians Hall of Fame.

Along the way, he begins to teach. The secret, he tells you, is this: Listen. “If you’re playing with even one other person, you must listen, man. If you ain’t listening, then you’re really missing a lot of what’s going on. Luckily I have this mechanism that just tunes in. I’m very fortunate; I grew up with all the great drummers in my head. I listened, listened, listened, listened. All these guys are my teachers. I flood myself with music to learn. Whatever I get, I get. What I don’t get, I’ll get tomorrow. Because I’m going to play it again.”

One of his teachers tells him that if you believe with all your heart and soul, nothing’s impossible. “Never think you can’t do it, you just got to stick to it. You stay, stay, stay, stay. Eventually it will come to you. As opposed to you trying to get it, reach and grab and learn and learn and learn. You relax and you just keep playing. And it comes to you, one day, out of the blue, and you say, ‘Wow, I never did that before.’ Right. Now you know. It came to you. It just flows right through you. Sometimes you go into a solo and you’re reaching up in here. Third eye. Everything. To me it’s very spiritual.”

Emile Latimer, Papa, to some, is a drummer. And a singer, dancer, composer, actor, guitarist, bandleader and educator. When not touring with Richie Havens, Latimer plays Saturday evenings with The Jazz Trio at Uncommon Grounds, Hertel at Delaware, and with the Round Midnight Ensemble at Le Metro, Elmwood at Utica.

Come listen.

Bob Davis is a business writer and part-time jazz pianist who, when fortunate, gets to play with Emile Latimer.


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