NYC Jazz Record, August 2016
FRANK GANT: Essence Beyond the Illness
By John Pietaro
When celebrated drummer Frank Gant first moved into his Lower East Side apartment, the community had been battered by decades of neglect. These days, in the midst of arduous gentrification, the area stands among the most sought-after in a city notorious for displacing its poor. And for an octogenarian stricken with Huntington’s disease and embattled by his landlord, downtown has become a bitterly cold place.
Gant was raised in Detroit, first exposed to the drums in a school band where he quickly came to the attention of peers Barry Harris and Hugh Lawson. “The band director told me I will never be able to play professionally”, he said, with a restrained laugh. “But I practiced. I was serious. Played in my basement every day and I took lessons.”
The drummer’s words were labored, but intent on being heard. His voice, broken with coarse spastic utterances, channeled lasting memories. “Barry, Hugh and I played together, but my first record date wasn’t until 1954 with the Billy Mitchell Band. It was a 7-piece”, he stated. As he searched his memory, Gant’s eyes became riveted, indicating an excitement stifled, perhaps manacled, by illness. “Right after that, I recorded with Sonny Stitt”. This was the event that put him into the category of top-flight sidemen. Among the gigs that came along in the immediate period were several revered nights accompanying Billie Holiday.
Frank served as house drummer at Club 12, a Detroit space which hosted giants including Thelonious Monk. He quickly moved beyond local status and began touring with a wide array of musicians. During one of these road trips he crossed paths with Charlie Parker. “Bird was the man. That’s all there’s to say”, Gant affirmed. “I asked him which drummer he liked best, Max Roach or Roy Haynes”, he reminisced, citing Parker’s groundbreaking percussionists. “Bird said it was Max”. Gant, too, viewed Roach as the master, the architect of modern jazz drumming, while also honoring Haynes. “Be-Bop. That’s what I played. I don’t care who I played with, but I played Be-Bop”, he added tersely.
Other decisive factors in Gant’s career included several gigs with Miles Davis. “I met Miles in Detroit and played in his band with Red Garland and Reggie Workman”. He also performed with Lester Young and came to drive many ensembles at home or on tour. Recording dates with Harris were followed by those with Donald Byrd, JJ Johnson and Yusuf Lateef, leading names of the day as post-Bop cast new genres to a hungry listening public.
“And then in 1960 I came to New York to play a gig at the Apollo--and stayed. Every club had music then. Uptown, downtown, everywhere.” Gant rarely refused work as he was raising a young family. The drummer picked up a regular spot in Harlem with organist Bobby Foster but also performed in this period with Ernestine Anderson, George Coleman and Monty Alexander, gigging quite regularly at the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate and countless other spots. Concurrently, Gant joined Ahmad Jamal’s band, the leader he was most closely associated with over the years. Publicity photos of the day feature the dashing drummer behind a set of glimmering Sonors, indicating the level of esteem he carried. As a member of the Jamal band during a seminal period, he recorded albums such as “Heat Wave” (1966), “Cry Young” (1967), among many others. The band was also captured in concert to great effect on several other releases.
In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s—and into the early 2000s, Gant’s touring and recording schedule rarely if ever let up. In addition to the full-time gig with Jamal, he played in bands led by Al Haig, and was called back into service for major label record dates with Garland, Stitt, Anderson, Lateef and Johnson. This steady pulse that bridged decades, however, only wavered his course when his own hands came to betray him.
HUNTINGTON’S DISEASE WAS ONCE KNOWN AS HUNTINGTON’S CHOREA due to the dysrhythmia which causes arms to flail, legs to wander. This is the terrible irony for Gant. As he emoted during the NYC Jazz Record interview, he demonstrated the illness’s manifestations, reaching repeatedly into the space in front, perhaps ongoing perseveration, perhaps a means to ground himself. Beyond his chair was a small drumkit, spare pieces, really. A mini bass drum, snare drum, mismatched tom-tom, conga, and tabla stood beckoning. Gant ambled awkwardly over, his body threatening to misdirect each step. But once seated behind his instrument, spastic movements became swinging drumstick dances over cymbals and skins. His eyes remained riveted, unmoved, but a certain burning essence fought to surface from deep within.