I’ve just recently lost someone very important to me, that I wasn’t very close to at all. Maybe you understand the feeling—I’m not talking about an aunt or someone in the family that you didn’t like much but that you knew well; I’m not talking about the loss we feel when a Hollywood star or a famous statesperson passes and we “feel we knew them” from the many times they’ve entered our home via the television, radio, or Internet. I’m talking about someone who I was a fan of, yes! But who also did something very important for me, and gave me some great, life-long memories. Someone I knew, and who knew (or knew of) me, but not all that well. We didn’t hang-out together a lot or grow up in the same neighborhood. And he was about a decade older than me, which was only part of the picture in regards to my looking-up to him and being awed by his talent for so long. And even though we weren’t fast friends, I do have some stories. Yeah, definitely…
The Buffalo music community was shocked beyond belief Wednesday night to hear that the one and only Ted Reinhardt died suddenly and tragically in a plane crash. “One of those ‘Buddy Holley killing planes’,” as Scottish actor and comedian Billy Connolly famously said. A rock star death for someone who could have been, NO, definitely SHOULD have been a rock star, but unfortunately wasn’t; just to us fans and friends here in Buffalo, NY. Ted was not only one of the best drummers in Buffalo, but he really was a world-class player. As at-home performing and recording progressive rock and jazz-fusion with groups like Rodan, Gamalon, Spyro Gyra, and Ernie Watts as he was playing Dixieland or pop or funk or blues and rock & roll with Willie Haddath or Dave Constantino, Ted was an incredible, awe-inspiring soloist. But his real forte was playing the groove. His backbeat, with its simplicity and all of its nuances and subtleties was intense, and helped to draw you into whatever type of music he happened to be playing. His “lock” with whichever of the great bassists he happened to be accompanying (his brother Tommy, Greg Piontek, and a host of others) was impeccable, as was his timing.
I started playing the drums as a child, and quit for quite a few years before picking them up again in high school; saying “I got serious about music” at that time would be an understatement of the highest order. I also got turned on to progressive rock, jazz, and jazz-fusion right around the same time, and it was then that I happened to turn on the TV and stumble onto a local cable show with this group—“Gamalon,” playing the most inside-outside-sideways-incredible music I had ever heard, in this ladies living room (it was local cable in the 80’s—I really don’t think it was a clever set, it was her living room!). These guys were burning, and at the center of it all was Ted as rhythmic alchemist. I was entranced.
They mentioned something about playing a steady gig at a place called “Jingles” (formerly on Main St. and Hertel in Buffalo, on the same corner where Denton, Cottier, and Daniels was eventually built). I think I wasn’t even 18 at the time, but I went out that weekend and connived my way into Jingles to hear this amazing group live—things were never the same. I was more than a fan, I was a devotee (as were most fans of Gamalon).
I remember many nights watching Ted and the group at the Central Park Grill (at that time Both George Puleo and Bruce Brucato were on guitars, with Greg Piontek on bass and Rick McGirr on keys—a truly fantastic unit if ever there was one). The music of course, and the room sounded amazing (from the audience perspective-- I waited years to be able to play that legendary venue myself, and when we finally did, I realized how bad the acoustics were from the stage side of things; another obstacle that the boys in Gamalon overcame with aplomb). Following the band (and Ted) around, watching him play with other groups; standing outside venues and listening, or looking through the club window when I couldn’t get in, I was inspired to move to another level in my own playing. I eventually got up the nerve to ask Ted if he would give me lessons. He wasn’t teaching at that time (years later, I did take a few lessons with him), but he gave me a clue that changed my musical life—“Look up Louis Marino.” It was because of Ted that I met one of the greatest jazz drummers, and certainly the best drum teacher, in the Western New York area. And it was because of Ted’s advice that I spent many fruitful years gleaning sage musical (and life) knowledge and advice from Lou, and for that, I am forever in Ted’s debt.
Ted was a very humble man, at least from what I could observe. I was working in radio in the 80’s and I invited Ted in to record an interview. I had heard the story that he was “almost in Genesis,” but as good as Ted was, I assumed it was a story made up by an over-zealous fan. He would not talk about it while we were taping, but off-microphone, he did confirm that he indeed could have been in the cat-bird seat instead of Chester Thompson. It seems that not long after Phil Collins took over the lead vocal duties from Peter Gabriel, and while Bill Bruford was filling-in the drum chair for Phil himself (although he was contemplating moving on at that time), the Genesis tour came through Buffalo and someone, somehow convinced Phil and his road manager to come out to see this local progressive cover band called “Rodan” at a dingy old place at the foot of Hertel called McVan’s. The Genesis entourage was floored, and on a quick break, Ted’s contact information was gathered. A few weeks later, on a morning when Ted was catching some Z’s after a late gig the night before, someone representing themselves as management for Phil and Genesis called wanting to speak with him. He stumbled through a half-conscious conversation, found a pen and scrawled down a name and phone number, and promptly went back to sleep (and fatefully misplaced the piece of paper with the number on it). That was it; he didn’t know how to contact the management, wasn’t sure how they’d respond to a guy calling with the likely story of “No, really! Phil Collins wants me as his drummer!”, so he let the incident slide and slip into local legend. But he was that good; that’s the important thing to understand from that story.
Another lesson in Ted’s humility came when I finally had the opportunity to study with him. Ted eventually became convinced that he had something to share, and began teaching at the old Music Mart South location. I definitely wanted to get in on some of that action. He didn’t write exercises down for you; instead, he asked students to bring a cassette tape so that he could record a lick or a groove at a few tempos with a verbal explanation, then you were supposed to take the tape home and bust the material (no Mp3’s back in the day, and home CD burning was only a vague imagination). I had seen him play it live, and I asked him how he could possibly accomplish playing Billy Cobham’s intro to the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire” with one bass drum. He said “Yeah, I kind of cheat,” then tossed-off the most incredible bass drum, floor tom, and snare combination. He said “Put your tape in.” He pressed record, and said something like “Here you go, the ‘cheeseball version’ of ‘Birds of Fire;’” then again, played the part flawlessly while I re-attached my jaw after picking it up from the floor.
I did learn that Teddy could be a bit forgetful. I lent him something that I’ll never get back. I was pissed for awhile; now I just feel honored to have contributed something to his playing. I went to see him with some group at the CPG one night (Taxi? City? One of those one-word fusion groups), and there was some kind of “drum mishap;" I don’t remember exactly what happened, but he actually stood up from behind the kit , knowing there had to be at least 25 local drummers in the audience, and asked aloud “Does anybody have a drum key?” Now, I just happened to have this hip new key I had gotten as a gift. It was not an ordinary drum key mind you; it had a sweet “Pearl” logo (if I remember correctly), had exceptional heft/build quality and maybe more than one lug fixture, for some odd/non-standard sizes. I hesitantly offered my key, but said that I definitely needed it back. “No problem, I swear I’ll get it back to you.” I never saw it again. I did see Ted again many times, and would often razz him about the key a bit, but I never got it back. What I got instead was incredible inspiration from his bottomless well of musical creativity and ability, and unspeakable joy from hearing someone so entwined with his instrument that it almost looked and sounded like he was having an actual conversation with the drums. There’s a reason they call them the “talking drums” in West Africa, and Ted knew it from experience.
Ted was a big guy. I don’t know how tall he was, but I did sit-in on his kit once (well, tried to and gave up more like it). He must have been well over 6 feet (I don’t know, 6’ 4” or 6’ 5” maybe?), and I am 5’ 6 & 1/2 ” on a good day. Have you ever seen Willy Wilcox’ “trapparatus?” The drumset that looks for all intents and purposes like a chopper motorcycle? Ted’s set wasn’t purpose built like that, but it might as well have been a Harley that was 4 sizes too big for me—his legs were unbelievably long, and his foot pedals felt like they were 100 yards apart. The toms were everywhere; just out of reach. I don’t know how he did it. But dad-gum, he did it and then some.
I have had some incredible experiences in my life. I have had some incredible musical experiences at that. Many of them weren’t on the playing side, they were on the listening side. And Ted was responsible, or at least partly (largely) responsible for many of those memorable musical nights. When I think of all of the singular and impactful talents that we’ve lost in the last several years (Joel Thomas, Emil Lattimer, Jimmy Gomes, Lance Diamond, Mark Freeland, Tom Henry, Chu Nero, and now Ted Reinhardt), and when I think of all of the influential and formative people in my personal life that I’ve had to say goodbye to, one nagging thought remains. “Who will pick up the ball? Who will be able to fill these shoes?” My generation is through being “on-deck,” we’re the ones who are actually “up to bat,” and it’s a very scary feeling. Inadequacy to the task? Hard to say. But I know that I don’t feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants; more like I’m struggling to crawl up their shoe-laces. But if and when I reach the summit area, and can take a peek at the horizon, I will know what it’s like to have the kind of positive impact on others that Ted had. And I will seek to wield my talent as artistically, and humbly, as he did his. I think I’ll go play my djembe, and stop by the studio this weekend and play those drums. And it will all be for Ted.