In retiring like in his career, drummer Bill Bruford marches to his own beat

Bill Bruford knows what the world expected from him.

Over a 41-year career, the British drummer has leapfrogged from the heights of progressive, arena-level rock — providing the percussive spark for bands such as Yes, Genesis and King Crimson — to the one musical world where players last even longer: hard-core jazz.

Some top jazz names have kept performing well into their 80s. In rock, even Bruford's 60-something ex-bandmates in Yes have tried to continue touring despite health problems.

So why is he retiring now at the rather hale and hearty age of 60?

"The last record I heard from the great Max Roach before he died was unpleasant to listen to," Bruford said, with trademark honesty. "You know, drumming involves motor functions, and there was daylight between him and the bass player. They weren't even close.

"I'm unhappy with this idea that jazz guys have to go on forever, endlessly doing gigs that get worse and worse and then you die in a hotel room," he said, voice crackling on the telephone line from his home near London. "If you're a geriatric rock guy, like the Rolling Stones, you're too stupid or drunk or drugged to know when to stop. If you're a jazz guy, you're not supposed to have enough money to stop. But I want to quit right on the head. Why wait until it gets horrible?"

Which also explains why Bruford wrote his latest book, a memoir titled Bill Bruford: The Autobiography.

On the surface, the book explains why Bruford has always left a good thing before it went bad — from departing Yes right after it recorded its landmark album Close to the Edge, to bailing on Genesis after one tour backing drummer Phil Collins as he took over lead vocal duties from a departing Peter Gabriel.

But it's also a musical manifesto: Bruford's defiantly complex, articulate explanation of what it takes to follow your musical muse for 40 years, make a decent living and keep your family intact.

It's also a blueprint for the kind of musician not found much anymore in the age of American Idol and MySpace bands: an innovator who insists that fans pay him to find new sounds, not play the same old stuff they've heard before.

"If all you want to do is please other people, you're going to come unstuck . . . because you're going to spend a life chasing what you think other people want," said Bruford, who writes frankly on watching pal Phil Collins struggle with tax issues and multiple divorces after scoring pop fame.

"Look at Michael Jackson: His face says it all. His face is a testament to what we wanted him to be — half white, half black — an acceptable multiglomerate that drinks Pepsi or something. And we got what we wanted . . . but there's a sadness to it for me, because what he had was so great."

Full of originality

Sitting in his Players School of Music studio in Clearwater, bassist Jeff Berlin sympathizes tremendously with an old bandmate's words.

Back in 1977, Berlin was a hotshot virtuoso burning through New York's fusion jazz club scene, introduced to Bruford by a guitar-playing mutual friend. They quickly teamed up in a band that would become a classic of the then-emerging jazz-rock fusion genre, called Bruford.

"Bill Bruford was arguably one of the least technically able drummers in all of music . . . but from that limited drum ability, he milked every ounce of originality you could possibly get," said Berlin, 56. "That was the greatest lesson I learned from Bill, because I was technically a better player, but he was 100 percent more original on drums."

Bruford sees the explosion of popular rock and progressive jazz artists in the '60s and '70s as a singular time in music, when record sales and a bursting youth culture supported a wide range of artists pushing artistic boundaries. But those groundbreaking musicians are now packing stadium tours flagging old hits, while new artists struggle in a fragmented industry just to get noticed.

"It's partly about asking people to move over," he said. "I'm concerned about the audience; I don't think they demand enough of their performers and artists . . . (And there are) a whole bunch of guys who are now in their mid 60s who shouldn't really be in stadiums."

The music lottery

For Bruford, his early career was like getting a million-dollar scratch-off ticket.

Honing his craft in London in the late '60s with Yes, he was playing shows with Cream and watching bands such as Genesis, King Crimson and Led Zeppelin notch their early success.

By 1972, when Yes hit with Roundabout, Bruford was already chafing at the creative restrictions. But subsequent '70s stints with King Crimson and Genesis cemented the royalties and reputation he would need to fuel a career that would last decades more.

"If you've turned in the best album you're going to do with an ensemble, it's your obligation to move on," he said.

As the years progressed, Bruford's works began to alternate between jazz and progressive rock. The '80s saw him join a re-formed version of King Crimson with former Frank Zappa guitarist Adrian Belew, Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin and founder Robert Fripp. Later, he stepped full-on into jazz playing with Earthworks.

Now nursing two of his own record labels, Summerfold and Winterfold, Bruford hopes to help a new generation of artists walk their own creative paths.

"This book is the journey of a man who knew everything at the age of 18 and came to a position of knowing absolutely nothing at the age of 60 . . . Isn't that weird?" he said. "It's learning what you don't know. I try to tell this to young people; that the music doesn't exist to serve you, that you exist to serve the music. It's not a case of what you can screw out of it, but what you can give to it. And if you get that right in the first week or two, you have every chance of survival."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog, the Feed, blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Bill Bruford:

The Auto-biography

By Bill Bruford

Outline Press Ltd., $ 19.95, 352 pages

In retiring like in his career, drummer Bill Bruford marches to his own beat 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:30am]

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