Tonight may be the last opportunity to see one of Philadelphia’s great jazz drummers.
Charlie Rice, 95, has played with giants including John Coltrane, Louis Jordan and Chet Baker. The Thursday night gig at the Collingswood Community Center — coordinated by the nonprofit Jazz Bridge that helps cover musicians’ medical and legal bills — will be his last, he said.
Rice started out as a tap dancer, performing as a teenager at what used to be the Lincoln Theater at Broad and Lombard streets. When that gig dried up, he moved to the drums.
“I used to go to Roseland, on Arch Street near 54th — it’s still there,” said Rice. “I knew a lot of drummers, and learned how to play the drums. That’s where I started out.”
Since then, he has kept his ears out for gigs. Rice was tipped to an opening for a drummer at the Downbeat, the legendary club on 11th Street. “That was the best club in Philadelphia for jazz,” he said. “Guys in New York used to go there, ‘This is like heaven, you know?'”
Louis Jordan ask him to sit in with his Tympany Five band in New York. And Rice later toured the southern states with John Coltrane and Red Garland as part of the Eddie Vinson Band. Art Blakey told him he was not going to take a USO gig performing for soldiers in Korea for four months, and would he like it?
In the 1960s, Chet Baker took Rice on a tour through Europe. Afterwards, Rice decided he’d had enough of traveling and stayed put in Philadelphia.
“I loved being around Philadelphia — this is when things were bright and good,” said Rice from his Camden rowhouse. “It used to be a pleasure to go to Atlantic City, go to New York and mess around. I could go to 52nd Street and see everybody — Dizzy, Art Tatum — for free. All of that’s gone.”
Rice was finding steady work, but the life of a traveling musician wore at him. Looking for health insurance, he took a job pumping gas into school buses for Camden County’s Board of Education. He kept the job for more than 40 years, playing gigs on the side.
“Wasn’t bad, you know? I enjoyed it,” said Rice. “I was playing at the same time.”
Now 95, Rice has slowed down. He’s on a dialysis machine three days a week. He keeps a drum kit in his basement, trying to coax his 9-year-old grandson to take up the sticks.
“Right now, you know what he’s doing? Playing football,” said Rice. “I told him you can get hurt bad playing football. He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, grandpa, I know.’ Kept on walking.”
While the Collingswood show will probably be his last, Rice never says die.
“A friend of mine called me and asked it I might make a job with him — Bootsy Barnes, a very popular saxophone player,” said Rice. “I might do that. You know, I’m just talking off the top of my head now. I have to see how I feel.”