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 still recalls the first time he went to see Marohnic play at a Fort Lauderdale club. He was 16, Medeski was 14. The notoriously crusty Marohnic came off the bandstand during a break and walked by the two impressionable teens. He said: "You motherfuckers want to be musicians? Well, why were you talking through the whole set?"

Schuh loves telling stories about Marohnic. Marohnic is a mentor, not merely for his musical knowledge, but for his salty bluntness. After high school, Schuh enrolled in the University of Miami, but was soon disappointed by what he considered to be the slick, commercial slant that the school's jazz program had taken. In 1981, Marohnic moved to Tempe to head the Arizona State University jazz program. A year later, Schuh followed.

Craig Render was studying saxophone at ASU at the time.

Saxman Craig Render has played with Schuh since the early '80s.
Paolo Vescia
Saxman Craig Render has played with Schuh since the early '80s.
Rob Schuh at his effortless, powerful best.
Paolo Vescia
Rob Schuh at his effortless, powerful best.

"Rob was a prized pupil of Marohnic's from Florida, and he was here to visit and check out the program," Render recalls of their first meeting. "Rob was kinda fat, and he was just this smart-alecky little kid. I just remember he had that vibe, like, 'I'm bad.' And if anybody said anything remotely stupid, he'd just say, 'Yeah,' real sarcastically. And I thought, 'What a smart-ass.' But likable."

After Schuh transferred to ASU, he and Render began playing together. Although Render was seven years older than Schuh, the young drummer quickly advanced beyond Render in the music program.

"He had it from the git-go," Render says. "He had no fear, even as a kid. The music went straight from his head right out. Right away, I knew that he and I were going to be buddies."

The 57-year-old Marohnic never has been easily impressed, but Schuh's skill caught his attention from the beginning.

"Rob is a very talented young man," Marohnic says. "He always had an amazing ability to play."

While describing Schuh as "caustic," he offers that he's always been fond of him. He doesn't see a big difference between the Schuh he met two decades ago in Florida and the one he played with a few weeks ago at Inspirations Coffeehouse. "Rob always spoke his own mind, and he was an individual," Marohnic says. "He was a real individual kind of person, and he always has been."

Schuh's legend among local jazz fans took root in the mid-'80s when he joined the Craig Render Band -- named after Render because he got the gig. At the time, Render made sandwiches at the Sub Stop, a Tempe hangout near the university.

Students in the Jazz in America class were required to see a specific number of hours of live jazz. Render figured that if the Sub Stop started letting jazz students play on the patio for a minuscule fee, Jazz in America students could get in their required listening, while the bands could get guaranteed, captive audiences. "We had a built-in crowd, so there were no repercussions of offending anyone," Render says.

It was a beautiful concept, and it turned the Sub Stop into command central for improvisational music. It wasn't long before the Render Band gained a reputation for being the Valley's finest jazz band. Its modus operandi was to take standard tunes and quickly veer off on a wild tangent, converging just in time for the ending. The members never rehearsed together, so that everything they created happened in front of an audience. Their adherents were passionately loyal, but the band also bewildered some traditionalists.

"Some people thought that the way we played was sort of out or weird, but I just thought we were aggressive," Render recalls. "There's no question that we weren't mature players, because we had a hard time editing ourselves. But when the band was playing well, it was a smoking band."

Schuh was money in the bank as a drummer, but he could be a handful to work with. Whenever Render called for "Days of Wine and Roses," Schuh dismissed it as the "song of death" and bellyached about having to play it.

"If he thought somebody was wrong about something, he would go into an act, start banging the drums really hard on a ballad or something," Render recalls. "But we generally got along well, and those incidents were few and far between."

More commonly, Schuh's ideas were inspired, such as his suggestion that the band tackle Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" with a heavy, Led Zeppelin-derived beat. The band was skeptical of the idea, but it became a live favorite.

While satisfying his artistic impulses with the Render Band, Schuh covered his financial needs by playing with a crowd-pleasing Dixieland band called the Side Street Strutters. This band earned a lucrative but ultimately stultifying stay at Disneyland, a gig known in the business as the 'golden prison.' The band also appeared on The Today Show and The Jerry Lewis Telethon. Schuh's main memory of the telethon has little to do with music.

"Richard Simmons was going on before us, and he is a nasty little motherfucker," Schuh says. "He had all these pregnant women out there doing exercises, and before the thing was going on he was back there calling them pigs and lazy asses. It was repulsive. I wanted to go clock him, but the leader of the band held me back."

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