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.

Schuh is innately talkative, but at the core he seems a loner. He can talk for hours about the merits of Zildjian cymbals or the nutritional effects of potassium. But he keeps a major part of himself locked away. Aside from his longtime girlfriend, Yvette Graser, you get the sense that he'd be perfectly fine without human company, as long as he's got his drums, two dogs, five cats and his favorite -- a green, blue and yellow macaw named Albert, whom he affectionately calls "Retard."

"He's a pretty inside cat," says Craig Render, a longtime friend and musical collaborator. "He keeps a lot to himself. Rob's candid, but he's not really outgoing."

Now that Schuh's problems seem to be behind him, the question is whether he'll finally fulfill that massive potential. To do so, he might have to conquer his most persistent enemy: himself.

Schuh bonds with his beloved macaw, Albert.
Paolo Vescia
Schuh bonds with his beloved macaw, Albert.
An emaciated Rob Schuh after stomach surgery at the federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, in 1998.
An emaciated Rob Schuh after stomach surgery at the federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, in 1998.

Robert Schuh's life has been dominated by two obsessions: bodybuilding and jazz drumming. For a while, the two worked in perfect harmony. The sculpted muscularity that bodybuilding provided for Schuh only enhanced the ferocious power of his drumming. But eventually, bodybuilding undermined his music, and nearly wrecked his life.

As a kid, playing the drums was all Schuh could think about. "From seventh grade up to about my sophomore year in college, I probably practiced really hard technique stuff about four or five hours a day, plus all my playing, which came out to seven or eight hours a day."

He was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an unlikely jazz hotbed that produced such legends as Jaco Pastorius -- probably the most innovative electric bass player in history -- and Ira Sullivan.

Pastorius was an inimitable genius, but he was also a frequently unhinged character whose bizarre behavior eventually made him a pariah in the music industry. In 1982, he was arrested in Tokyo for riding naked on a motorcycle. In 1984, he had an embarrassing crackup onstage at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood. He died in 1987 at the age of 35 from injuries suffered when he was ejected from a Santana concert in Fort Lauderdale and kicked in the skull by the club's manager. Schuh jammed on occasion with Pastorius, and particularly remembers a birthday party for the bass player in the early '80s.

"I'm this 18- or 19-year-old naive little punk. I go to this place that's just this scene out of Blue Velvet. You've got all these fucking lunatics running around, barefooted, coked out of their heads. Stuff that I'd never seen before. I'm walking around like a deer in the fucking headlights.

"Jaco comes running up and gives me a hug. He's got his arm in a big cast. He'd been in Italy and was walking on a ledge and fell off a building. He'd also gotten arrested for something and they'd shaved his head. He had these tapes of his big band in Japan, blaring on the stereo at AC/DC volume, and he's running around the place at Carl Lewis speed. And then every five minutes, he'd jump on the piano, hit a chord and shout, 'Gil Evans doesn't have shit on me!'"

Pastorius was an inspired product of South Florida's eclectic mix of cultures, and they similarly influenced Schuh. His father was an insurance salesman who dabbled with the drums, and took Schuh to see Buddy Rich at least a dozen times. His mother was a homemaker. He has two younger siblings, a brother who now lives in Dallas and a sister who still lives in Florida.

At 7, Schuh started playing drums. At 10, he began taking drum lessons at school. The next year, he got his first drum kit -- a used Ludwig set.

From preschool through high school, Schuh attended Pine Crest prep school, along with a younger neighbor named John Medeski. Schuh thought of Medeski as his little brother. They had their first Holy Communion together, they played in the school band together, and they shared ideas about music.

They also shared a precocious talent that elevated them way above their peers. In sixth grade, Schuh was moved up to the high school jazz band at Pine Crest. He also handled drums and percussion for all the musical productions at school. Medeski, the future keyboard wizard, was on bassoon.

"We got so punch-drunk doing that [musical] stuff," Schuh recalls. "There was one year we were down in the pit orchestra, and we were singing all the lyrics that the singers were doing, but we were doing filthy, nasty lyrics to it, and the people in the first couple of rows heard us. We caught all sorts of shit for it."

Medeski remembers the teenage Schuh as an "individualistic, antiestablishment, rebellious" character. He credits Schuh with turning him on to jazz. "I used to listen to music at his house, because he had a great stereo," Medeski recalls. "He played me Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and stuff like that, and that was how I learned about jazz."

In his early teens, Medeski began taking music lessons from Chuck Marohnic, a jazz professor at the University of Miami. Marohnic was also a brilliant pianist who had once played with Buddy Rich. Medeski introduced Schuh to Marohnic.

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