Drum & Drummer

Valley jazz musician Rob Schuh pounded skins, pumped iron, shot steroids, went to prison and almost died. Now the feisty trapsman has added an organ to his repertoire -- a transplanted kidney.

ROB SCHUH USED TO BE ABLE TO bench-press 500 pounds. These days, he struggles to lift a more pedestrian 150.

Schuh -- arguably the Valley's finest jazz drummer -- is only 36, but he looks more damaged than his years. His short, receding hair exposes his huge Vulcan ears and the worry lines that have formed across his forehead. A shocking purple scar runs down his left arm to his hand, a souvenir of eight years of dialysis treatment for kidney disease. His stomach displays an even more unnerving road map of flesh from emergency surgery for a bleeding ulcer in 1997.

Compare this Schuh with his younger incarnation, as profiled in a 1986 New Times music feature. In a photo accompanying that story, Schuh sits in a chair, staring intensely into the camera, drumsticks in hand, floor-tom by his side. His hair is dark, wavy, shoulder-length. His shirt is rolled up just enough to reveal Popeye forearms developed from years of obsessive bodybuilding. The 1986 Schuh looks like he's liable to bite your head off, spit it out and ask for seconds.

Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.
Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.
Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.
Rob Schuh, second from left, flexes his muscles at a 1989 bodybuilding contest in San Diego.

If Schuh looked like he was full of himself, he had good reason. By his early 20s, he'd stunned people with his astonishingly mature musicianship. He was that rare young instrumentalist whose dexterity was matched by an intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge of musical history. Already, his playing had impressed jazz titans like Jaco Pastorius, Joe Henderson and Ira Sullivan.

If you'd ever seen Schuh pulverize the drums with the Craig Render Band at the Sub Stop in the mid-'80s, you'd probably assume that he went off to New York and became one of the hotshots of that city's jazz community. Just like his childhood friend and jamming partner John Medeski, who went on to form Medeski, Martin & Wood, a hugely popular avant-jazz/funk trio that has practically defined New York's arty Knitting Factory scene for the last eight years.

Schuh always talked about going to New York. He was arrogant enough to know that his talent couldn't be contained by the Valley's small scene.

But he never made it. Obsessed with bodybuilding, he let his musical goals recede into his shadows. Bodybuilding led him to steroids, which got him convicted in a 1991 federal raid. And although he insists that steroids didn't cause his kidney disease, at the very least, they disguised his condition by making him feel unnaturally healthy. Kidney disease led to more drug problems and, eventually, a harrowing five-month stay in federal prison.

As a result, an entire decade has slipped away from Schuh. The young lion has grown into a frail veteran.

By now, Schuh should have a big catalogue of recordings to document his musical brilliance, but he has little besides a few cassettes from live gigs. He should have an international reputation, yet -- apart from a small cult of loyalists -- he's little known even in his hometown.

But Schuh is a tenacious sort, and not one to rue the years squandered by bad luck and bad judgment. Things seem to be -- slowly -- swinging his way again. Within the last year, he has put his parade of legal troubles behind him, and finally received the kidney transplant he'd long waited for. He's writing a column for Testosterone, an online bodybuilding magazine (www.t-mag.com). He's signed a sponsorship deal with Spaun drums, and may conduct drum clinics around the country. He's started giving drum lessons, and he's talking with new enthusiasm about recording projects he'd like to put together.

Best of all, he's gigging again. His vocal disdain for much of what passes for jazz probably limits his gig opportunities, but, in recent months, he's turned up at places like Modified and Inspirations Coffeehouse, revealing that the old fire is still there.

Though everyone agrees that Schuh is every bit as brilliant on the bandstand as he ever was, friends cautiously say that he's "mellowed a bit" over the years. Schuh hates the word "mellow." To him, it suggests getting soft, growing weak and abandoning your principles. Maturing, that's okay. Mellowing, that's lame.

Schuh needn't worry about getting soft. He still has the cockiness and verbal swagger that made his old musical cohorts brand him "The Animal." And anyone who's recently stepped into the cross hairs of his many guerrilla-warfare missives in Testosterone knows that he's still ornery as hell.

Consider this Schuh column, in which he denigrates personal trainers as "fat fucks."

"I have never come across so many fucking idiots in my life who merely go and get 'certified' by some bullshit or crooked organization and then pass themselves off as 'legitimate pros.' . . . Finding a legitimate personal trainer is like finding a stripper with real tits -- rare, but oh so delightful."

One local trainer punched Schuh at a Scottsdale gym because the column hinted that the trainer -- whom Schuh branded a "bung muffin" -- was using steroids and lying about it. More recently, nationally known female bodybuilder Nicole Bass made an angry phone call to Testosterone's office, denouncing a Schuh rant that proclaimed the death of female bodybuilding.

That's vintage Schuh: deliberately provocative, designed for maximum impact. It's the same way he's played the drums for the last 25 years. But for all his surface brashness, there's an unmistakable vulnerability about him, a wounded-by-life look in his eyes that belies his bluster.

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