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Monday, March 25, 2013

Percy Brice

The long, distinguished career of drummer Percy Brice began in the first half of the '40s when he went to work for bandleader Luis Russell. Six decades later he was still going strong, confident enough of his drumming ability to play in a vulnerable duo setting alongside pianist partner Tom Smith. While his main influences were some of the heavyweight drummers in jazz history, Brice hauls drum sets around for other purposes than swinging. He had a long run as a member of Harry Belafonte's performing ensemble and has also been a timekeeper in pit bands for Broadway shows. Brice, whose fondness for drums such as bongos and congas was no doubt especially pleasing to Belafonte, actually started out as a violinist and pianist. By the late '40s he had already established a track record with excellent bandleaders such as Benny Carter and Mercer Ellington. There was also a more rocking side to Brice, expressed in the R&B jobs he nabbed with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Tab Smith, and others. Some collaborators such as the entertaining trumpeter Cootie Williams made use of both aspects of Brice's percussive potential. The drummer himself led his own combo in the '50s, then eased into several heavily booked piano trios with maestros Billy Taylor and George Shearing. Brice freelanced in the late '50s from a New York City home base, performing and recording with flutist Herbie Mann, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and singer Sarah Vaughan. He accompanied the latter artist for more than three years, including an extensive South American tour. Beginning in 1961 he worked with Belafonte for nearly eight years, followed by engagements with singer Carmen McRae and pianist Ahmad Jamal. Another group led by Brice himself was active in the '70s, yet perhaps the somewhat anti-jazz vibe at the time was part of the drummer's decision to concentrate on Broadway work, settling in for long runs on Eubie and Bubbling Brown Sugar, to name two hot tickets. He has also been active accompanying the tap group the Copasetics. Brice has continued to be called on for jazz festivals and recording sessions. The repertoire of the Percy Brice Duo with Smith features much songcraft from the '20s through the '50s. The drummer is on screen with George Shearing, circa the late '50s, in a film with a title that sums up Brice's life: The Big Beat.

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