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 adamantly denies that steroid use caused his kidney disease, and Chang supports his position.

"Usually, when people get kidney disease, we don't know why they develop it," Chang says. "This particular disease can be seen in patients who abuse certain types of IV drugs -- IV heroin, IV cocaine. But as far as an association with anabolic steroids, that's not been the case. So the likelihood is that Rob would have gotten this whether he was on the juice or not."

On July 24, 1998, Schuh was sentenced on the state charges to 11 months of house arrest. Three months later, he finally got his kidney transplant.

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.

"It's made such a huge difference musically," he says of the operation. "Because all that time that I was on dialysis, it was tough to keep an emphasis on your desire for certain things, when your main concern is just staying alive. I was still playing, but I wasn't practicing. Just carrying drums to gigs was very tough. But since the transplant, it's been amazing, because there's that real fire in my ass again."

The most amazing thing about Rob Schuh's drumming is the seeming ease with which he executes the most complex drum fills. You sense that at a young age, he consciously taught himself the Zen art of relaxation as a means of increasing his proficiency.

At his weekly drum lessons, Schuh reminds his students of a common misconception about drumming: that power comes with a rigid, tight attack. One of his favorite drummers is Elvin Jones, who made his name playing in John Coltrane's classic, post-Bop quartet of the early '60s. He explains to his students that Jones -- and most other great jazz drummers -- had a loose, relaxed feel when he played, and it allowed him to be expressive. He dismisses Rush's much-hyped beatmaster Neil Peart, calling him "the epitome of tightness."

Maybe because Schuh can generate so much power with a minimum of physical effort, he was able to start playing drums again within a few weeks of his kidney-transplant surgery. By December of last year, less than two months after the operation, he played a gig at Inspirations Coffeehouse with Craig Render. "I was weak and thin as a rail, but it was fun just playing again," he says. Render recalls that it was the only time he ever saw Schuh leave the stage to get a rest.

The toughest obstacle for Schuh is finding enough local gigs where he can play the kind of undiluted jazz that he favors. When the subject comes up, he slips into the confrontational mode that always draws a laugh from his friends and an angry retort from his enemies.

"The sick thing is, as big as this city is, there's not a jazz club," he says. "Don't even call that horrible shit that they do at the Orbit jazz. If there was just one legitimate jazz club, it would make all the difference in the world.

"To show you how bad it is, the last time Medeski, Martin & Wood were in town, I wanted to get together with John [Medeski] and Chris [Wood] to play, along with [saxophonist] Tony Malaby. So I was calling all these places in town, and I had maybe three days' notice. I told them we'd play free and asked if they had any openings. Nobody wanted to do it.

"So you had this wonderful band that was willing to work for free, and we had to go to this room at ASU. We played for two or three hours, had a blast. But nobody got to hear it."

Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: gilbert.garcia@newtimes.com

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