Gary Hobbs: from Kenton to goat hooves

Drummer travels through styles and time zones to find there are no limits

by Nancy Barker
Reprinted from Jazz Scene, published January 2008 by the Jazz Society of Oregon)

Gary Hobbs became a legend in his own time as the drummer who joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra right out of college, following such class acts as Gene Krupa and Shelley Manne.

At 59, with 38 years of gigging behind him, he is still the guy who drives big bands, undaunted by tempo changes or polyrhythms. But with smaller groups, Hobbs is also the guy on the cajon set, who coaxes organic Latin rhythms from wooden boxes and goat hooves.

From Kenton to goat hooves, Hobbs has ridden the great creative river of jazz — not just the main stream, but the little-known tributaries that have led to the unexpected.

"You don't push the river," said Hobbs, who lets himself be drawn into different directions as the spirit moves him.

"Everything that has happened in my musical life was just sequences of things," he added. "It's just been cool watching it happen instead of making it happen."

"All that music ... just captured me."
Hobbs didn't touch the drums until he was a senior in high school. After his best friend told him their high-school band needed a drummer, he dug out his family's old big-band records, and when he heard the Kenton albums, he was hooked.

"All that music, especially Stan's, just captured me — I listened to this old stuff with Krupa and I got to the point where I really wanted to do it," said Hobbs, who got his grandfather's drum set out of the basement. His mother let him set up in the living room and turn up the stereo as loud as he wanted.

"I would make time to play drums, and I just didn't notice time passing," recalled Hobbs, who was encouraged by his father, Larry, who had been a drummer like Gary's grandfather, Harry.

A friend of his dad's, Hal Malcolm, came over to the Hobbs' Vancouver home to give Gary lessons. Seven years later, Hobbs was on the road playing with the Stan Kenton orchestra.

"Hal was one of the best conceptual creative music educators ever," said Hobbs of Malcolm, a left-handed drummer. "He was one of the two most influential people in my life," added Hobbs, who made other important connections through Malcolm, a jazz instructor at Mt. Hood Community College.

One connection was with Michele Mariana, who sang with Hobbs in Malcolm's vocal jazz group. Mariana recently wowed audiences in the recent Portland production of "Cabaret."

After high-school graduation, Malcolm encouraged Hobbs to attend MHCC, where he played in the jazz lab band under the direction of Larry McVey, another Kenton alum. He won the outstanding performer award at the Olympic Jazz Festival, something that got him the notice that led to his career.

"Gary is a wonderful human being and just a solid player," said Malcolm, who last heard Hobbs play at the college with the Mike Vax Big Band Featuring the Stan Kenton Alumni. "I was so darn proud of Gary for fitting in so well with these players."

Another student of Hal Malcolm's was John Moawad, who later ran the jazz program at Central Washington University, where both Malcolm and McVey had gone. They encouraged Gary to transfer to Central. The only problem was Hobbs hadn't learned to sight-read music very well.

"I taught Gary the rudiments and various types of rhythms," said Malcolm, who also plays piano, "but I didn't teach him note reading. "I never learned to read a note until I went to Central," he added. Hobbs followed in Malcolm's footsteps.

"I had been able to B.S. my way through before," Hobbs recalled, "but then John told me, ‘You've got two weeks before auditions to learn to read.' We worked three to four hours a day during that time — we compressed two years of theory into that two weeks."

Though he had tried to write some music while at MHCC, Hobbs really didn't get going with that until he was forced to learn note reading.

"I didn't have the right tools until I got to Central," said Hobbs. He played in the jazz band there, and met his wife, Marcia, also a music major. But before he could finish his last few credits, he got the opportunity to play with Kenton and join the "brotherhood."

Kenton had high standards
"There was this phenomenal camaraderie," said Hobbs, who worked with Hank Levy, Bill Holman, Dick Shearer and the legendary Kenton himself. It was also a phenomenal challenge with odd time signatures such as the "Kenton ‘76" cut, "Time for a Change," written in 9/8 time.

Kenton had high standards.

"We were on the road 48 weeks out of the year, and there were no rehearsals," he recalled. "We were expected to play something different every night and not be redundant.

"It was the perfect band for someone like me — it fostered creativity," said Hobbs. "But the best part was hanging with these players. The music just took me over, just the drumming and the people."

The Kenton influence is evident in the title cut of Hobbs first CD, "Low Flight Through Valhalla." Hobbs was also inspired by the players he worked with, such as Bud Shank, John Clayton, Joe La Barbera, Richard Cole, Jim Widner and Randy Brecker.

"I've played with Gary many times throughout the years," said Brecker, "and always he is a fresh and invigorating drummer and presence, always reaching out to new horizons. I always look forward to our gigs together, he is truly unique — and oh yes, he swings mightily!"

To Hobbs, the definition of jazz should not be limited.

"In the beginnings of jazz, there are all these ingredients form different places, from Europe, Africa, Latin America," said Hobbs. "It never was pure. What Kenton taught me was that it was a perpetual growing experience.

Hobbs has tried not be affected by people who admired him for playing straight ahead jazz, but who would avoid his more experimental work.

"I hate jazz Nazis," he declared about people who want to place limits on jazz. "As soon as you put handcuffs on it, you kill the process."

In 1977, Kenton had an accident that left him impaired. It was clear to Hobbs that it was time to leave.

"I had this sense that I needed to take everything off the bus, all my stuff," he recalled. "I had no home, no car. This was my whole life."

"I didn't stunt my own growth"
He headed back to the Portland area, where his wife, Marcia, spent several evenings taking him to local clubs to check out the jazz scene here.

"I was dumbfounded," he said, "There were 20 clubs where people were playing original music — fusion, Latin — really forward music, kind of like the Kenton vibe. It was a remarkable time to move back.

"The whole Portland scene per capita was just unbelievable!"

At that time, there was no lack of gigs and Hobbs settled in Vancouver, where he and his wife raised their daughter, Britta. There was no problem getting together a big band then. He was one of the originators of the Mt. Hood Kicks band played with many other bands in Portland.

"I was working seven nights a week," he said. "We were playing noncommercial, very inventive kinds of music. Now you can't field a world-class big band here."

Hobbs does play with the Mike Vax Big Band Featuring the Alumni of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Once a week, he teaches in the University of Oregon jazz program. and works with students in clinics and adjudicating at festivals. Now that his daughter is grown, he has gone back to traveling.

"To play the stuff I do best, I can't do any of that in Portland," said Hobbs," who goes on the road with bands such as the Vax band, and has performed in many US cities, as well as in Europe. He performs in smaller groups, with local musicians such as Ron Steen, David Friesen and Bill Beach.

For the latter, he digs out the cajon set which he also uses with Lynn Darroch's "Beyond the Border – Stories of the Latin World." Hobbs and guitarist, Alfredo Muro, provide the accompaniment to Darroch's narration.

Also featured on his latest CD, "Of My Times," the cajon set looks like a couple of wooden boxes with a few small drums, some cymbals and the cascading goat hooves, which produce a soft rattle.

Hobbs' daughter, Britta, is a middle-school teacher who sang on his last CD, "Of My Time." Working with her has made him aware of the challenges faced by women in the business. He cites jazz orchestra leader, Maria Schneider, as his hero. He has changed his attitude about vocal work too.

"When I was just an instrumentalist, I was a jerk," admitted Hobbs, who now has written songs with lyrics. His latest, "Holy War," available on his website,, is a sort of jazz rap, narrated by his old friend Michele Mariana, with a backup chorus by daughter Britta.

"I think I'm fortunate that I am open to lots of things, that I didn't stunt my own growth."


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