There’s a Cleveland connection to the title track on The Beast
, the latest effort from jazz drummer Jerome Jennings. It’s based on an incident in which a Princeton police officer pulled over Jennings, a Cleveland native, while he was driving home from a gig at 2 a.m. Jennings had a tiny Cleveland Browns football helmet hanging from his rearview mirror, a potential infraction.
Jennings was held for 50 minutes before being released without incident. The intermittent solos in the swinging song reflect the way the office repeatedly interrupted Jennings while he tried to answer the officer’s questions.
“Actually, my mom suggested I write a song about the situation,” says Jennings in a recent phone interview. He performs at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights. “She wanted me to take my frustration and turn it into a song. It was disheartening that I got pulled over. I was waiting for such a long time and two other cop cars showed up. What was weird was that I couldn’t get two words in without being cut off by the police officer questioning me. I had my mom on speaker phone the whole time because I was talking to her as I was driving home. She said I needed to write a tune about it. The melody is actually me speaking and the rhythm section represents the police officer cutting off the melody. The drum roll is me driving, and the bridge is the cop going back to his car, and I feel relieved.”
Jennings played in various ensembles in high school before receiving a full scholarship to Ohio State University, where he studied with trumpeter Pharez Whitted. He went on to receive a Bachelor's Degree in Music Performance from Rutgers University and a Master of Music Degree in Jazz Studies, Performance and Drums from Juilliard.
“Cleveland is a really musical town, and I played music at Cleveland Heights High School, and it was tops at the time,” he says. “It had a popular marching band and jazz band. I had private lessons from Ralph Jackson and Dave Drotis. I could take advantage of a thriving musical program from Noble Elementary School to Cleveland Heights High.”
In 2001, Jennings set out to meet and play with as many former members of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers as possible. They included Charles Fambrough, Curtis Fuller, Benny Golson, David Schnitter , Ronnie Mathews, Javon Jackson, Curtis Lundy, Wynton Marsalis, Lonnie Plaxico, Valery Ponomarev, Bobby Watson, Frank Lacy and Sonny Rollins.
“One day I was sitting at home hanging out and my mom came in my room and dropped off a CD,” he says. “It was an Art Blakey CD on Impulse Records. I put it and was glued to the record. I got into the history and checking out the guys who came through that band, which is a lot of guys. You can check out the whole history of jazz through the Messengers. When I moved to New Jersey and was making my trek back and forth to New York, I noticed certain Messengers were still alive and playing. I thought if I could play with those guys, and they tell me I’m swinging, then I’m swinging. It was a fantastic time. They were very nice and willing to share their knowledge.”
Since moving to the New York area 12 years ago, Jennings has become one of the most in-demand jazz drummers on the scene. Currently a member of the Christian McBride Trio, Craig Handy's 2nd Line Smith, and the groups of singer Paula West and singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg, Jennings has built an impressive resume.
Guests on the CD include McBride, trumpeter Sean Jones, McBride trio pianist Christian Sands, longtime Harry Connick Jr. trombonist Dion Tucker and tenor sax man Howard Wiley. Jazzmeia Horn, winner of the 2012 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal and the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocal competition, sings a Jennings and Curtis Fuller arrangement of the standard "You Don't Know What Love Is."
"It was fantastic,” Jennings says of the recording experience. “It was a blessing to have those guys on the album. Sean Jones is an old buddy of mine. Christian agreed to come aboard and that was fantastic. They were so accommodating and played my music was so well; it was a complete blessing. I’m glad they were a part of it.”
When he's not playing drums or teaching, Jennings tries to pick up acting gigs. He had a minor role as Chuck Berry's drummer in the biopic Cadillac Records
and recently starred in Laurence Holder's one-man play The Gospel According to Max Roach.
“The only problem is that there’s a conflict of scheduling,” he says when asked about his acting career. “When I get opportunities to do more theater, I have to go on the road with Christian [McBride]. He works often. I didn’t come out to New York with the intention of pursuing an acting career, but I became jaded and it felt like I was on a treadmill. I always played in pit orchestras for different plays, and my mom knows that I love theater and the art of acting. She told me to take some acting courses to get more variety in my life. I started getting signs that this was what I should do, and I got into an acting course, and it was really cool. Things started happening, but I can’t take advantage of some of them because music has always been there for me. We’ll see what happens.”
He’s excited for the Nighttown gigs which will pair him with trombonist Dion Tucker, trumpet player Kenyatta Beasley, tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, pianist Christian Sands and bassist Elias Bailey.
“I’m elated and beyond happy to come back to Cleveland and perform with my own band and some of my friends that I’ve met over the last 15 years,” he says “My mom is super happy that I have the recording out, and I’m happy to come back as a Clevelander. I am going to show the guys in the band the streets where I grew up.”