Soul search 

Drummer Gerald Cleaver can adjust his playing to any musical scene. In a free-jazz context, he can sound like he’s wailing on two sets of drums. The snare rolls and cymbal clangs rush forward like runners competing in a marathon, and when it’s all said and done, he always snaps the tape at the finish line.

He can also ease up to play behind vocalists. Never letting his ego get the best of him, he leaves singers room to express their full dynamic range, from the whispers to shouts if they are so inclined. “Tasteful” is a word that comes to mind for Atlanta-based vocalist René Marie, who has recorded with Cleaver’s accompaniment. “His personality is humble and modest, and it comes through in his playing,” she says.

But listening to Cleaver play in these different styles, you also hear a restlessness, as if he’s constantly trying to find new musical dimensions.

“I’m always in the process of trying to find out what the nature of things is, and what the nature of my soul is. That’s what music is all about: the ability to complete your soul. For a brief moment it’s like a communion with unseen realms. I think music is spiritual because it expresses things that we cannot put into words,” Cleaver says.

As passionately as Cleaver talks about that “communion,” it took him a long time to make it his life’s focus. He grew up in a musical household but started high school thinking he’d be an auto mechanic. He pursued music for a time, generated a bit of a buzz, then quit playing for five years. Finally, the late Betty Carter inspired him to stick to his drums.

Gigs and recording sessions with such musicians as Spencer Barefield, Roscoe Mitchell, Matthew Shipp, Henry Threadgill and the aforementioned Marie have followed. Cleaver has appeared on about 20 records in the last year and has finally released his first disc as a leader, Adjust. In the ’60s, his record might have been given one of those new-cat-on-the-scene titles, something like Cleaver’s Time is Now or Make Room for Gerald. In short, things are heating up for Cleaver, who is now 38.

School days

Cleaver’s mother sang in church and his father, the drummer Larry Cleaver, played bebop.

“My father was especially influential. Although he was a die-hard bebop guy, he kept investigating other types of music. My father is one of the most curious guys that I know,” says the younger Cleaver.

He inherited his father’s adventurous spirit. Both share a firm foundation in bebop, but they always searched for nuances to spice up their playing. Before settling with the drums, Cleaver played the violin and the trumpet.

As a student at Cass Technical High School, he set his mind on becoming an auto mechanic, but later he switched to music. At the University of Michigan, his musical education continued to take shape. He met musicians who refused to be bogged down by convention. Among them were Andrew Bishop, John Douglas (now of Jazzhead) and Craig Taborn (who has toured the world with saxophonist James Carter).

“When I started at U of M, I met Craig Taborn, and at that time he was advanced in terms of what he listened to,” says Cleaver. “So he exposed me to a lot of music that I never heard before. That’s when I realized that there was a ton of music out there, and you really didn’t have to separate yourself, there were no boundaries. Craig is one of my intimate musical companions. When we’re on the stage things are always happening, that’s how I describe it. It’s always a real pleasure to play with him.” Players who shared stages with him, saxophonist Donald Walden for one, recall that even then Cleaver reminded them of such drum masters as the late Tony Williams and Billy Higgins.

Accolades aside, Cleaver questioned whether he could make it playing jazz in the early ’80s, during “some of the worst years for jazz in Detroit.” There wasn’t much live music to be heard. There weren’t many gigs. Cleaver eventually shunned music to live what he thought “was a normal life.”

“You know, get a job, buy a house and make the most money that I could,” he says; specifically, he worked in a warehouse and at a bank. “I was trying to fit into a normal American existence. But I was unsuccessful at it because in my heart the only thing that made me happy was playing music. It took me five years to realize that.”

Gradually, he began to gravitate back to the music. He blew the dust off his chops and start going to jam sessions, and performing with local bands.

Along came Betty

But it took the late Betty Carter and a night of soul-stirring music at the old Bird of Paradise in Ann Arbor to transform Cleaver into a full-time musician. Besides singing and scatting brilliantly, Carter was a major jazz talent scout who surrounded herself with young discoveries on their way up.

“Just seeing a performer like Betty Carter up close in a club that wasn’t a concert hall had a huge impact on me. Hearing that kind of amazing musicianship coming from those musicians that were younger than me. I said, wow, this is something that young people are really doing.”

It was a new musical world.

“I realized that a movement among young musicians was going on, which really started with Wynton Marsalis’ early recordings. His first albums, I listened intensely to. I saw people from my generation doing some amazing stuff. So that made me realize there was some hope that I could do it, and that was how I got back into it,” Cleaver recalls.

With that inspiration, he steamrolled back onto the scene as a sideman for both live and studio gigs. He now lives in New York, globe-trots as work calls and commutes back frequently to play and to work with music students at Michigan State University where he has been on the faculty for five years. (He fielded calls for this article from Brooklyn and Switzerland.)

Of late he’s taking on the role of leader as well as collaborator. He’s co-led a trio date titled The Late, Late Show along with Paul Keller and Ric Roe on BOPO Records. The Fresh Sounds New Talent label recently released Adjust, his debut with his band Veil of Names. It includes old schoolmates Bishop and Taborn plus New York-based musicians violist Mat Maneri, guitarist Ben Monder and bassist Reid Anderson. It’s a surprising, exploratory work that braids the electric fusion of, say, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever with today’s eclectic avant-garde; it’s at once edgy, intense and inviting.

Rather than dwell on his projects or himself, Cleaver prefers to talk about his peers and how they have enhanced his playing. Conversely, his peers jumped at the chance to brag about him.

“The fact that he’s coming out of a straight-ahead jazz tradition, and the fact he has explored so many types of music, I think is really unique these days because a lot of other drummers who have dealt with the traditional aspect of the music haven’t extended themselves as far as trying to understand other musical rationales,” says Taborn.

These days, extending himself is what Gerald Cleaver is all about. It seems his soul-searching never stops.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to

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