When I was about 22 years of age, I used to spend many nights at the Longhorn bar in downtown Minneapolis. I was a budding jazz drummer, and the band Natural Life held down a weekly gig there and featured the cream of the Twin Cities players. When drummer Bill Berg left town to work as visual artist as well as musician in Los Angeles, the drum chair would be taken over by Paul Lagos. Although I had heard him play in various R&B groups, I was unaware of exactly who the drummer was that I was listening to. I actually didn't know who Paul was or what he was capable of musically.
That would all change in a single night. A party was held by local musicians after bar hours on a Friday night. Everybody in the local jazz community was there and the jamming went on for hours and hours. Players of all instruments took their turns on well-known standards and bop tunes. I probably played a couple numbers myself at some point, I don't really remember. What I do remember is Paul's performance. At some point late in the night a couple of the area 'heavyweights' took the bandstand. Paul sat down at the drums, and I was curious about him right away for a couple of reasons. First, I didn't recognize him, and secondly--he played a right handed drum set but he played with his hands in a left handed manner. This was odd, to say the least. Within about 16 bars the music was being lifted to a level well above what had preceded it all night. And it kept ascending. Paul was driving the band like a madman at the drums and doing things conceptually that I'd only heard from guys like Tony Williams or Jack DeJohnette. Really great, modern, virtuosic. Just then I heard the voice of saxophonist Bob Rockwell, who was leaning over my shoulder, an absolutely devilish grin on his face: "You've never heard Paul play before, have you?" I think my mouth was probably hanging open when he spoke to me. "Damn!" I said, "no..."
I approached Paul for a lesson. I think I took about 2 or 3 formally, and he only accepted money for maybe the first one, as I was scuffling. The fact that I really wanted to play was all he cared about. We soon took an apartment together and began a friendship that was to last for many years. I was so enamored with his playing style that I tried to retrace some of his footsteps, studying drums with his former teachers Fred Gruber and Murray Spivack, and taking up the study of martial arts. Eventually I would end up in Los Angeles where we both attended the Grove Music School at the same time. Paul was in the writing program which was Dick Grove's personal baby, and it was pretty funny watching Paul conduct a sort of covert cold war with Dick, whose idea of a drummer was someone who "was competent in various styles" and played fills "where indicated". There was student recital at the end of the year and Paul was invited to play by a young pianist who had a lot of talent. Paul brought in a ringer on bass, the venerable Al McKibbon, and pretty much burned down the house. I was laughing my ass off, because even though it was a very low profile school recital, Paul was playing like his life depended on it just to stick it to Grove!
While living in Los Angeles I met many of Paul's compatriots I had heard of in his yarn spinning over the years: Sugarcane "the ladies mane" Harris, Larry 'the Mole' Taylor, Richard Apalnap, Chester Crill, Billy Rogers, etc. Paul had also played in the past with Johnny Otis and he told me that Johnny was the reverend at a Baptist church in South Central Los Angeles. I replied that I loved gospel music and wanted to play at the church. "Just put your drums in your car and go down there and tell them you're there to play", Paul said. And so I did. I think they were a little puzzled at first cause I looked more or less like Potsie Webber from Happy Days, but once they heard me fall in with the grooves everyone was all smiles. Johnny Otis was a great jazz drummer in his own right and on that first day he stopped the service to personally praise me before the congregation. That meant a great deal to me, and still does. I played there every Sunday for about a year, with people like Little Esther Phillips, Papa John Creach and Shuggie Otis coming in regularly to sit in. Paul also introduced me to his friend Hector Andrade, the late, great latin percussionist. I had heard Paul speak of Hector many times over the years and always with great respect. Hector took me under his wing and began to tutor me in the basics of percussion for salsa and Caribbean folkloric music. The other salseros in his circle of friends referred to us as "Starsky and Hutch". Tragically, Hector would die in a car crash years later after settling down with a really great lady. I would eventually travel to Cuba on 5 occasions to study at the National Music School in Havana and so would come to play the music professionally that Hector began showing me in 1982. I would like to think he'd approve of what I've been doing.
Another big thrill for me was meeting the legendary Philly Joe Jones through Paul. It was about 1978, and Joe came to town to play with Bill Evans at Orchestra Hall. I was sharing an apartment with Paul at that time and we both drove to the airport in my car to pick up Joe and then put him up at our place for the week. I had listened in on the second phone extension when Paul set this up with Joe and so I was already pretty giddy. Joe liked to joke around, put on accents and generally crack people up. On the phone with Paul he spoke of his new clothes he bought in Europe: "I got me a bowler derby...when I get off the plane I be lookin' like STEED!" Now anyone that knows Paul well will tell you that as a New York Sicilian the guy could be pretty darned opinionated, and took a fair amount of relish in being sort of the alpha dog in many situations...but with Joe the tables were completely turned! Paul was completely in the role of the student at the foot of the master for a change. Joe would ask him questions---"what have you been doing?" "Oh? Why is that?" Paul was really reverent and sort of submissive and since I'd never, ever seen Paul humbled before it kind of blew my mind. Who knew?
Paul loved the drums and drumming and I learned a lot from him. He stressed the importance of establishing and maintaining a groove, first, last, always. He liked to use colorful words to describe what he was trying to do musically. "Bombardment" was one of his favorites. I loved that. He was one of a kind. Resquiescat in pace.
Minneapolis, Nov 1, 2009