Drum & Drummer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
Schuh had a great time playing with the Side Street Strutters, but he got fed up with the Disneyland circuit and quit in the late '80s. During the same period, the Craig Render Band split up when Render took a gig with a Top 40 cover band. By then, Schuh was up to his pecs in the bodybuilding movement.
He'd always been a good athlete. As a freshman in high school, he'd run the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds. And he'd messed with weightlifting as an adolescent. But it wasn't until he was at ASU that it became a compulsion.
One day, he noticed how flabby he'd become and decided to do something about it.
"I went on this nutso diet," he says. "I went from 190 to 140 in about four months, just from aerobics and dieting. Then I started working out again with weights, with the preconception that I was just going to be an in-shape kind of guy. But then I got back in the gym and the bug hit me again about putting weight on. So I got back up to 230."
In a way, bodybuilding replaced drumming as an obsessive physical activity that Schuh could commit to without reservation. By the time he'd reached ASU, Schuh's drumming technique was so well-established that he no longer needed to practice for hours a day. Drumming had become an afterthought, a skill as deeply ingrained as knowing how to use a knife and fork.
Schuh admits that he's "always had a bit of a problem keeping a balance," and he lost all perspective when it came to bodybuilding. In order to maintain his strength and be competitive at contests, he began taking anabolic steroids, which were legal in the 1980s.
He says he first started taking steroids in 1986. He'd use them for eight to 12 weeks at a time and then get off them for a similar period of time. He generally took an injectable steroid called decaderabolin, which was relatively low in toxins. "When I went on dialysis, they were still using it on a lot of patients to keep their red blood cell count up."
He began entering amateur bodybuilding contests in 1987, and won the Mr. Phoenix competition in 1988 and the Arizona Gold Cup in 1989.
In October 1990, he entered a national bodybuilding contest in San Diego and felt a bit run-down. Shortly afterward, he checked into a Redondo Beach hospital, thinking he had bronchitis. Through a biopsy, doctors discovered that he had a kidney disease. Weakened, Schuh moved back to Florida in late 1990, and stayed there almost three years.
By then, Congress had made possession and distribution of anabolic steroids a felony offense. When word reached federal authorities in early 1991 that steroids were turning up on Valley high school campuses, the government began planning a huge sting operation against local steroid peddlers.
A couple of years earlier, Schuh's friend Robert Clapp -- a teacher and unabashed libertarian who had long advocated the use of steroids -- asked him to accept a package of steroids shipped from Europe. Schuh says he passed the package along to Clapp and forgot about it.
On July 8, 1991, 35 people were arrested in the Phoenix area in what the feds dubbed Operation 'Roid Raid. Clapp was branded the ringleader of the Valley's steroid-smuggling ring. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and filing a false income-tax return, for concealing $282,500 obtained through steroid sales.
During the raid, authorities found the package, saw Schuh's name on it and issued a warrant for his arrest. There was only one snag. Schuh was in Florida getting dialysis treatment.
"This was right after my kidneys went, and I was sick as a dog," Schuh says. "Somebody called and said they'd seen my name in the paper, that I'd been arrested. I said, 'What are you talking about? I'm sitting in Florida.' So I called up the U.S. Marshals and told them, 'I'm not dodging you guys. What do I need to do?'
"I was too sick at first to fly out, and finally, I got on a plane and came out here. They did the fingerprint thing, and I saw the judge, and he let me go until the trial date."
Schuh eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and received three years' probation. To this day, he sounds unrepentant about his use of steroids.
"You have to remember, when I was doing that in the '80s, the legality of it was nothing," he says. "It was just like getting some penicillin for a friend. At the gym I trained at in Tempe, you'd walk into the bathroom and there'd be three guys sticking needles in their butts. It was as available as vitamins. Cops were doing it, firemen were out of control with it, because it helped them on the job."
In 1993, Schuh returned to Phoenix after three years in Florida. He says that while in Florida, he had begun experiencing "restless leg syndrome," a condition that created unbearable tingling sensations in his legs and caused them to maniacally kick in every direction when he was asleep or resting. His Florida doctor had prescribed a painkiller for him, which had helped him deal with the condition.
When he got back to Phoenix, his local doctor refused to prescribe the painkiller. But Schuh says he had become hooked on the medication, and couldn't cope with the condition without it.
He began falsifying prescriptions by making fraudulent phone calls to drug stores. On March 12, 1994, he got busted, and was convicted of attempting to obtain dangerous drugs by fraud or deceit. He received three years' probation. The prescription charge also violated his federal probation, and he was put under house arrest by federal authorities.
Schuh says by 1997 he was sinking into a deep clinical depression. Six years of going through dialysis -- four and a half hours a day, three days a week -- had worn him down. He'd also come close to dying on the operating table, he says, when a doctor had cracked his ribs open to do a lung biopsy and discovered a rare lung fungus. Apparently, his renal failure had devastated his immune system.
Schuh was also depressed because his band couldn't get any solid gigs. He began sleeping all the time and lost weight at an alarming pace.
He began falsifying prescriptions again, this time for Valium. But this time, he wouldn't slide by with probation. He was sentenced to five months in a federal penitentiary.
The U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, has been something of a magnet for high-profile criminals over the years. White-collar Wall Street types mix with Mafia bosses and political prisoners. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more eclectic bunch of inmates in any federal prison than in Springfield, once dubbed "the hospital for defective delinquents."
Springfield is where John Gotti had his cancer surgery last year. It's where Robert Stroud -- the legendary Birdman of Alcatraz -- and Colombo crime boss Alphonse Persico died. It's home to Native American activist Leonard Peltier and terrorist Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. It's where former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and porn publisher Larry Flynt were sent for medical care.
All the prisoners there have health problems that require medical attention that they couldn't receive elsewhere.
Schuh was sent to Springfield because it was the only prison in the United States that could provide dialysis treatment. "If I'd been healthy, they would have sent me out to a country club, a minimum-security place," he says. "But because I had the bad kidney, they sent me to this maximum-security place.
"Springfield is one of the most frightening places on the planet. You have a gene pool there that's so shallow that it's frightening. I think three-quarters of the people in that prison, their parents were brother and sister."
Though he was in bad physical shape, Schuh's drumming ability was still sufficiently impressive to win him respect in prison.
"We talked to one of the recreation guys about signing up to use the music room," he says. "There was this scumbag asshole who was walking around with sticks talking about how great he was. So he heard me say I played drums, and he came up to me and said, 'Hey, motherfucker. Let's hear you play.'
"So I sat down and just played some typical drum shit, but it was light-years ahead of whatever he could have done. So five minutes later, he was on his knees ready to blow me. He said, 'Hey, man, can you teach me?' It was one of those weird buzz things, where you get respect in there for stupid things."
It wasn't long before his prison stay took a grisly turn. Schuh's feet had started hurting him, so the medical staff gave him aspirin. But aspirin often causes problems for dialysis patients, because they have trouble excreting it. In Schuh's case, it burned a hole in his stomach.
A specialist at the penitentiary discovered a bleeding ulcer. He took Schuh to the hospital that night and cauterized the ulcer. Hospital records indicate that the next day, while on dialysis back at the penitentiary, Schuh was given heparin, an anti-clotting medication regularly used on dialysis patients. But because of Schuh's ulcer, heparin was the wrong treatment for him.
"It can cause bleeding for people with potential bleeding sites," says Dr. Doug Chang, who has treated Schuh for the last three years. "Typically, after surgery, particularly interabdominal surgery like that, we probably wouldn't even use heparin for a series of treatments after that."
By that afternoon, Schuh had lost so much blood that he was experiencing severe heart pains. He believes that emergency stomach surgery saved his life. A crooked scar runs down the middle of his stomach from the procedure.
Schuh says he recuperated from the surgery with his legs shackled to the hospital bed. He couldn't eat without bending over in pain for hours. He dropped to 122 pounds. He says the bones in his face were sticking out so far that he couldn't shave without cutting himself.
Schuh was released from the federal prison medical center in May 1998. When he got back to Phoenix, more legal troubles awaited him.
The state wanted to pursue charges against him in connection with his second fraudulent prescription bust. In their pre-sentence report, prosecutors suggested that Schuh had caused his own kidney problems through steroid abuse, and that his sentence should therefore be increased.
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.
"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: email@example.com
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.