Ralph Peterson, Jazz Drummer

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Ralph Peterson Event

Messenger Legacy band—honoring
the enduring influence of jazz great Ralph Peterson—appears at
William Paterson University on
May 20, 2023 at 8:00 pm

Concert shines a spotlight on the iconic jazz drummer at
Shea Center for the Performing Arts in Wayne, NJ

An all-star sextet of Messenger Legacy and Jazz Messenger alumni celebrate the musical alchemy of Ralph Peterson: timeless drummer, bandleader, composer, and educator.

Count on an evening of exciting jazz when the Messenger Legacy band appears May 20 at William Paterson’s Shea Center for the Performing Arts in Wayne, NJ. The concert pays tribute to the late powerhouse drummer Ralph Peterson, who founded the Messenger Legacy ensemble to honor his mentor Art Blakey.

The sextet taking the Shea Center stage May 20 comprises a mix of former Jazz Messengers and Messenger Legacy stalwarts, including some of the best and most versatile players now on the jazz scene: tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce, trumpeter Brian Lynch, trombonist Robin Eubanks, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, pianist Anthony Wonsey and drummer Kush Abadey.

The concert will showcase compositions by Ralph Peterson and members of the forward-thinking Messenger Legacy band. The evening will include tunes from 2020’s Onward and Upward—Peterson’s 25th release as a leader, and recently penned material from band members. This new chapter in the Messenger songbook bears all the hallmarks of great jazz, including the variety of sonic colors, the polyrhythms, the harmonies, the vast reservoirs of blues and soul, and the importance of continuity and telling a story.

The concert date, May 20th, would have been the 61st birthday of drummer Ralph Peterson, who passed away in March 2021.

Peterson was a literal messenger of jazz, as shown by his lifelong drive to spread the good word of jazz around the globe. He first caught the public ear during the Young Lions jazz era of the 1980s, but even then he was far from a newbie. A third-generation drummer (following his grandfather and several uncles), he grew up steeped in jazz. Peterson knew his way around funk and rock ‘n’ roll, studied with Michael Carvin at Rutgers, and gained more than his share of on-the-job training gigging with organ bands and more in Newark.

He was barely into his 20s and already gaining a reputation as an innovator by 1983, when jazz legend Art Blakey tapped Peterson to join him in his newly formed two-drummer big band. Thus began Peterson’s tenure as Blakey’s last protégé and his chosen successor. More than 150 musicians played with the Jazz Messengers from the mid-1950s through 1990, but Ralph was the only person other than Art ever to take a seat at the drum throne. You can’t top that for an Art Blakey seal of approval!

While the hard-bop influence of his Blakey years was audible, Peterson was an original; having something of his own to say was a job requirement and a personal need. His unique style played an important role in redefining jazz drumming in the late 20th century.

Frequently described as a force of nature, Peterson led numerous jazz ensembles, large and small. He was a prolific composer, the founder of the Onyx record label, and also a well-regarded trumpeter. Peterson had a deep commitment to mentoring and teaching: MacArthur fellow Tyshawn Sorey who studied with Peterson, who he taught privately, and was also on the Berklee faculty starting in the 1980s.

The Messenger Legacy sextet set to play on May 20 brings a vast array of jazz experience to the William Paterson University stage. The lineup of stellar musicians, composers, arrangers, bandleaders and educators includes:

Tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce: As if being the former chairman of the woodwinds department at Berklee isn’t impressive enough, Pierce counts Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer, James Williams, Hank Jones, Stevie Wonder, Marvin, Gaye, Branford Marsalis, and Wynton Marsalis among the luminaries he’s performed with. He’s also released several albums as a leader.

Stints with Art Blakey and Horace Silver are on trumpeter Brian Lynch’s résumé, along with NEA Jazz Masters Phil Woods, Benny Golson and Toshiko Akiyoshi. He has released close to two dozen albums as a leader, and has recorded with Eddie Palmieri, Prince, Donald Harrison, George Russell, Tito Puente, and a breathtaking array of others.

A regular name on “trombonist of the year” lists, Robin Eubanks has displayed his chops and versatility with everyone from the Jazz Messengers to the SF Jazz Collective, Dave Holland, Eddie Palmieri, Sun Ra, Barbra Streisand, Michael Brecker, The Rolling Stones, Steve Turre, the Mingus Big Band and Talking Heads, as well as leading and recording with a variety of his own bands.

No one could accuse bassist Lonnie Plaxico of being a late bloomer: He began playing professionally at 14. He played on a dozen albums with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, led his own bands, and worked with a lengthy who’s who of jazz that includes Chet Baker, Alice Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, Cassandra Wilson, David Murray, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Woody Shaw, and more than one Marsalis, to barely scratch the surface.

Having played with Ralph Peterson, Louis Hayes, and spent five years with legendary drummer Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine, pianist Anthony Wonsey has demonstrated he more than knows his way around drummer-led bands. But that’s not all he can do: Mentored by Mulgrew Miller and James Williams, Wonsey has led and recorded with his own bands and played with the likes of Russell Malone, Clark Terry, Charles Tolliver, Phil Woods, and many more.

At age 16, veteran Messenger Legacy drummer Kush Abadey was already on the road with trumpeter Wallace Roney. He later studied with Ralph Peterson and Terri Lyne Carrington at Berklee. A band leader in his own right, Abadey has also performed with Ravi Coltrane, Chris Potter, JD Allen, David Weiss, Andrew White, Terrance Blanchard, Frank Lacy, Jeremy Pelt, and played at the Obama White House.

The upcoming concert at the Shea Center for the Performing Arts is the first in a series of performances that will keep the Messenger Legacy busy for months to come.

Show date: May 20, 2023
Show time: 8:00 pm   

William Paterson University

Shea Center for the Performing Arts 300 Pompton Road
Wayne, NJ 07470

For tickets:
For show information Laura Martínez, 503-432-9827  

Ticket pricing
$35 General Admission
$25 WPU Faculty, Staff, Alumni, Seniors
$10 All students with valid ID 

Past Shows


July 3, Blue Note at Home - 8:00 pm EST - Livestream on Facebook & Instagram - Triangular III:The Ralph Peterson Trio featuring the Curtis Brothers!
Blue Note New York

September 19, Lake George Jazz Festival, Lake George NY, w/ The Messenger Legacy 

October 22, Scullers Jazz Club, Boston w/ The Messenger Legacy

October 23-24, Side Door Jazz Club, Old Lyme Ct, w/ The Messenger Legacy


June 5, Facebook Live 3-4pm, w/ Bret Primack "The Video Guy" www.facebook.com/jazzvideoguy

May 26, IG Live 6pm, The Groove Room w/ John Benitez

May 22, Online Zoom Interview w/ Darryl Yokely for Ochi Magazine, www.ochimagazine.com

May 20, 58th Birthday, Release of "El Grito" single and video from Onward and Upward

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