Tom Rozum - A Rhythm Rascal's Varied Influences
By Bob Loomis
But for two band mates' clash over travel, Tom Rozum might still be playing and living in Flagstaff, Arizona, instead of in Berkeley, California, where he now creates transcendent vocal harmonies and plays mandolin and mandola with bluegrass superstar Laurie Lewis.
"I really liked that town," says Tom of Flagstaff. But, he adds, when one Flying South player said he would stay with the band only if it did not travel and another said he would stay only if it did, the writing was on the wall. "Flagstaff was a great place, but there just weren't enough good musicians there to form a new band."
Tom's musical path has always been slightly off the beaten bluegrass path. If he were to draw up a musical family tree, it would include such main branches as his own parents and an uncle, the Beatles (especially George Harrison's idiosyncratic guitar), Kenny Hall and the Sweets Mill String Band, the Stanley Brothers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bob Wills and Milt Brown, Norteo music, and, like a lot of contemporary players, David Grisman.
He always was aware of the Beatles influence, but hadn't always recognized the effect of Dawg music.
"It didn't hit me until recently that I owe a lot to the Dawg," says Tom.
"While I don't think I really sat down and tried to figure out exactly what he's doing, I certainly have listened a lot to his playing, especially that Rounder record (since reissued as The David Grisman Rounder Compact Disc) and the first Quintet recording (Kaleidoscope F5, reissued on CD as Rhino R2 71488).
"I recently played on a recording by a Bay Area group, Free Peoples. They're a really good group with electric funk, rock and jazz backgrounds. They've known each other for years and write their own, very interesting material.
"I was listening to the CD they sent me and I was amazed at how much of David's stuff was in my playing. Granted, it was mostly on the swingy songs in minor keys, but even his double stop tremolo influence is very obvious. It's become so much a part of my playing that I overlook where it came from."
The first influences, of course, were at home. Raised in Prospect, Connecticut, Tom had an uncle who would visit the family almost every Saturday and gather the family around the piano for a sing-along. Joining in would be Mom and Dad, Al and Mary Rozum.
"My Mom and Dad both sounded great." he says with affection. "I don't think there's anything sweeter than when my Mom's singing."
When Tom picked up his father's old fiddle and began learning to play in about 1973, his father surprised him by playing some fiddle tunes such as Red Wing quite nicely.
"He definitely has musical talent; he just left it dormant for a really long time," says Tom. "It wasn't until I started playing music as an adult that I learned of my Dad's listening history. For example, when I'd sing something for him, he would spontaneously break into some arcane musical quote, like Bob Wills,' 'Ahhh, twin guitars!'
"Only after I mentioned to him that I played in Wheeling at the same theater that hosted the WWVA Jamboree, did he tell me that as a youth he used to listen to it a lot because the radio waves carried farther at night.
"My dad is a mechanical genius who never finished ninth grade, but rebuilds and restores his own cars and airplanes." says Tom. "He worked his way up from being a maintenance man at Lea Mfg. Co. (a Connecticut-based firm that makes buffing compound and electroplating solutions) to a vice president of the company in charge of running the Connecticut plant. He retired five years ago."
Tom credits his parents for his feeling that singing is a natural act, not something to be afraid of. "To me it's like drawing, just something I've always done," he says.
His artwork is displayed on the Laurie Lewis Web site with the work for his independent CD label, Dog Boy Records, and his T-shirt designs. Like Tom, the designs show a wry, whimsical sense of humor and touches of the graphic styles of the 20s and 30s.
Tom is quick to state that he's primarily a vocalist who also learned to play mandolin. The route is one familiar to many a mandolinist. He started on guitar, but left it home when he went off to college at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1968. He and his brother, Alex, on piano, would play rock n' roll together during Tom's college vacation and holiday breaks.
"I had played closet rock guitar since about 1965 but in 1969 I went to the Woodstock festival and afterwards I noticed that the music that I liked had become commercialized so I started looking for something different. I bought a small Gibson acoustic guitar and it wasn't until 1973 that I took up the mandolin. Someone turned me on to the Holy Modal Rounders and that made me want to play fiddle.
"Then I went back to the music store and asked the guy if he had anything like the Holy Modal Rounders. He said not exactly, but he turned me on to Kenny Hall and the Sweets Mill String Band. So I got into that, and it wasn't as wacky as the Rounders, but was still a great thing."
It was in that period when he took up fiddle. "Then someone told me the fingerings were the same on mandolin, so I went to a music store and got an old Kay. I bought a Mel Bay chord book and tried to teach myself. Ended up trying to make it sound like clawhammer banjo!
"I helped pay for college working in various hospital operating rooms and a surgical research lab at Massachusetts General Hospital," says Tom. "Even at that time it was obvious where my passions lay. While in full sterile operating room getup I fought hard to repress the urge to bang out rhythms using surgical instruments."
In 1973, biology degree in hand, he went to Tucson, Arizona, with a friend and ended up staying, working at a research lab at the University of Arizona medical school and beginning his immersion in music.
He frequented a place called the Cup Coffeehouse where he went to a workshop and met Chip Curry. Curry asked him to join the Summerdog Bluegrass and Mariachi Ensemble as a mandolinist and singer.
"We were just about the only bluegrass band in town, so there wasn't anybody to learn from," he recalls. "So I just learned off records. It was pretty daunting at first. Chip gave me these two records, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bill Monroe Live at Bean Blossom, and he said, "This is all you need to know.'"
"So I listened to Bean Blossom, and it was way over my head. But the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was kind of like bluegrass minus one; there was no mandolin on it; it was kind of cool. And I listened to the New Lost City Ramblers and eventually Chip loaned me Buck White's first album. That was a lot more accessible. Buck has a swing background that was a lot easier for me to relate to."
Tom stayed with Summerdog from 1974 to 1977, learning to play on the job, during a dancing craze that had college students turning out in large numbers. Summerdog played bluegrass, swing and Mexican music and Tom's main job on mandolin was to be the drummer, using bluegrass chop chords to keep the beat.
"My soloing style was, I would say, a little unusual," he adds with a grin. "In 1974 we got to play at the first (and last) Bill Monroe festival in Payson, Arizona. So at my first festival I got to play between the Ralph Stanley and Lester Flatt bands! Not bad for a neophyte!
"While in Tucson, I also got to play in three musical productions that featured our band doing some acting and playing a lot of old time and bluegrass."
He then moved to San Diego, attracted by the San Diego Folk Festival and the lively music scene there. Two California musical friends, Jay Waelder and Agi Ban, whom he had met at the festival, asked him to join them. Their group, the Rhythm Rascals, specialized in music of the 1920s and '30s, with Tom playing mostly mandolin and some fiddle and tenor banjo.
Waelder, usually a mandolinist, switched to guitar and Ban played fiddle, with various musicians playing bass and tuba. Lou Curtiss, the San Diego Folk Festival promoter, owned a rare records shop and provided many a tape of vintage music from which the group drew much of its material. The group also played under a government grant at various public institutions. Finally, Tom moved to Flagstaff in 1979 for the stint with Flying South.
Two major events in 1984 led to Tom's current career. First, he got into a music program at Mesa Community College in Phoenix and played five nights a week with a group of veteran country players at the Handle Bar J club. Second, he moved to Berkeley. That move came when Flying South hit its travel impasse.
Tom discussed the situation with his girlfriend at the time and they decided it was between Boulder, Colorado, and Berkeley. Several things pointed west.
"I'd never lived anywhere where there was more than one mandolin player in town. Berkeley was fraught with great mandolinists --Grisman, Mike Marshall, John Reischman, Butch Waller."
In addition, Tom already knew a few musicians in the Bay Area, including Laurie Lewis, Mike Wollenberg, Dix Bruce, Bob Alekno (since deceased), Eric and Suzy Thompson and Marc Silber. And Wollenberg's parents had an apartment available to rent, always a scarce commodity in the university town.
Ultimately, it was the connection with Laurie that paid off. "She was the first person I contacted when I got here because I had met her when I was with the Rhythm Rascals. We had come up and played in San Francisco and played for (FM radio station) KPFA. But our bass player couldn't make it. We asked if there was someone who could sub for the half-hour radio show, and Laurie, who at the time was playing bass in a traditional jazz band showed up, played the gig, and we kept in touch after that," Tom says.
After Lewis put out her first solo album on Flying Fish, Restless, Rambling Heart, she put together a band to promote it and Tom became a band mate, in January 1986.
"I've managed to stay in the band," he says. "I realized early on that this was a special thing. When you sing with Laurie what hits you right away is her intensity. There's so much depth and feeling in her singing that at first it scared me. You're not going to be able to just phone in a duet part with her; you're going to have to mean it. But the more we sang, the easier it got."
Given the fact that his vocals have always been in the forefront, how does Tom view his mandolin playing? "I've played so long now that it's just a part of me," he says. "I'm going to contribute somehow to the music no matter what I'm playing. I've had to use the mandolin in so many different ways --I play differently in a duo, a trio or a larger group.
"I think one of my strengths is that I've never really been a virtuoso player," he modestly adds. "Except for a few occasions, I've never really put in a lot of time and effort trying to learn how to string together sixteenth notes. I really find that to be exciting, but it's not me. I get into more of a rhythmic thing, trying to help the ensemble and support the singing because I'm more vocally oriented and I think of myself more as a vocalist who plays the mandolin."
Of the virtuosic players, whom does he admire? "The newest guy whose technique hits you right in the face, of course, is Chris Thile. I've always admired Mike Marshall, Dawg, Jethro, Sam, Big Mon --the same ol' guys. You know, I can sit here and name 15 more whose playing I really admire, and I'm sure I'd be leaving out a bunch. Let's just say there's a growing number of great players out there, and I think it's about time they thought of something else to do," he says with a grin.
As to gear, he prefers D'Addario J74 strings, Neumann KM184 microphones, Waverly tuners and Jim Dunlop 207 picks. He owns three mandolins --a 1924 Lloyd Loar, a 1999 Gilchrist F5-style, and a recently acquired John Sullivan A-style, purchased amid fears that airlines' attempts to combat terrorism might force him to check his instrument when flying. "There's no way I'd check the Loar or the Gilchrist.
"I really have been enjoying playing the Sullivan a lot," he says. "It's so responsive. It's a new mandolin, but I find myself picking it up all the time just because it's so effortless to play. It also has a great, clear tone. Now I realize I'd be hesitant to check it as well."
He has owned numerous mandolins over the years, and currently also owns a mandola, a 1924 Gibson H-1 that he calls "Nelson." "It's pretty beat up but it sounds incredible. Laurie's really responsible for me using it so much. She just loves the sound of it and the idea of having a different texture than a guitar. It works really well backing Laurie up on fiddle."
There is also a new octave mandolin from Steve Gilchrist. "I feel very lucky to have this," he says of the F4-style instrument. Tom ordered it just before Gilchrist announced he would concentrate on making only F5-style mandolins, "and apparently I just got in under the wire. It's a beautiful instrument, shaped like an oversized F4 but with a Cremona stain as opposed to the more prevalent red mahogany for which F4s are known."
While he admits to a history of being bitten by MAS (Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome), Tom has mixed feelings about the issue of multiple mando ownership. "I finally realized that you only play one or two. I think too much emphasis is put on instruments when ideally it's the music that should be stressed."
Tom advises beginners or those interested in making real progress, to take lessons and learn to read music, something he is still trying to learn to do himself. "The lessons help you avoid forming bad habits."
Along that line, he thinks classical lessons might be a wise path. "It seems to me they have this whole teaching model in which there's only a certain way to do things, and the thing is, it works. The classical players I know really have their chops together and I think anything you can do to get a bunch of technique under your belt frees you to play whatever you hear in your head."
Also important, he says, is playing with others and using a metronome. And when using the latter, he says, it's especially important to slow down. "Not only does it help your timing, it helps tone, too. And a lot of people know how to play a flurry of notes, but don't ever really slow down and find out what they're actually doing."
Health has become a major concern for Tom since he began suffering from Meniere's disease, an inner ear ailment that began almost eight years ago. Although no one knows the cause, the symptoms are vertigo, tinnitis and hearing loss. It "has affected my life quite a bit," Tom says. The vertigo attacks last for about three hours and occurred about twice week when they began.
While exhausting the Western medicine routes, he has also tried almost all of the alternative medicines available and is concentrating on eating only healthy, organic foods and on getting regular exercise --he is a cyclist --and plenty of rest, not an easy regimen for a traveling musician to maintain.
"A lot of my time is spent just trying to stay healthy," he says. His ailment also has caused the loss of most of his hearing in one ear, making trying to tune quickly on stage quite , a problem.,
"With my compromised hearing, even someone talking over the microphone can prevent me from hearing the oscillations between the out-of-tune unison strings. I've resorted to using an Intellitouch tuner that I can slip out of my pocket and onto the peg head pretty quickly."
But, he is not about to quit music. "Mostly what I'm trying to do is help the whole overall sound, whatever type of group I'm in." His fans agree that he is succeeding admirably.
Selected Discography:, Tom Rozum, Jubilee, Dog Boy/Signature Sounds (1998), Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, Winter's Grace, Dog Boy/, Signature Sounds (1999), Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, The Oak and Laurel,, Rounder (1995), Laurie Lewis, Bird Song, Spruce & Maple (2001), Laurie Lewis, Laurie Lewis and her Bluegrass Pals, Rounder (1999), Laurie Lewis, Seeing Things, Rounder (1998), Laurie Lewis, Earth and Sky, Rounder (1997), Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick, Together, Kaleidoscope (1993), Laurie Lewis, True Stories, Rounder (1993), Laurie Lewis & Grant St, Singing My Troubles Away, , Flying Fish (1991), Laurie Lewis, Love Chooses You, Rounder (1989), Various Art