With little more than 100 minutes to riff through a century of jazz history, Ralph Peterson Jr. addressed some 20 incoming Berklee College of Music freshmen a few years ago, his questions as sharp and rolling as the beats on the drums he had played in an illustrious career as a musician.
The foundations for what would become jazz arrived in North America in a circuitous route via the slave trade, he noted as he posed a question to the classroom filled with young Black musicians: “Now, what was the first thing they took away from us when we got here?”
When a student called out “drums,” the jazz writer Bill Milkowski wrote in a 2018 profile for DownBeat magazine, Mr. Peterson replied, “Yes, the original cellphone: drums.”
Mr. Peterson, who had taken his own place in jazz history years ago when drummer Art Blakey picked him to join Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers as a second drummer, died March 1 in his North Dartmouth home of complications from cancer that had metastasized.
He was 58 and in the DownBeat interview, Mr. Peterson had discussed his treatment for Stage 4 liver cancer.
“I’m grateful to be alive,” he said. “And the focus and intensity and pace at which I’m now working and living is directly related to the spiritual wake-up call that tomorrow isn’t promised.”
Along with mentoring countless students at Berklee, Mr. Peterson recorded more than 20 albums leading ensembles, and appeared on many more as a sideman.
In a 1989 review, New York Times critic Jon Pareles praised “V,” Mr. Peterson’s debut album as an ensemble leader.
The album “makes hard bop sound daring again,” Pareles wrote.
“Where mid-1960s composers put new kinks and stretches into be-bop, Mr. Peterson’s quintet puts kinks in the kinks,” he said. “Tempo changes and eruptive crescendos are built into the themes, while the soloists’ determination to play at the edges of tonal harmony and — even more important — to create melodies while they’re out there gives the music a sense of danger courted and conquered.”
That success was due in no small part to Mr. Peterson, who “boots his quintet along; his drumming is strongly influenced by Art Blakey, but he responds to everything he hears without smothering it,” Pareles wrote. “His quintet honors the 1960s style but takes nothing for granted.”
In a 2012 interview with Atlantic City Weekly, Mr. Peterson recalled that his “first gig with Art Blakey’s two-drummer big band was ironically at the Berklee College of Music,” where years later Mr. Peterson would become a professor.
And though Mr. Peterson would leave his own substantial musical legacy as a composer, performer, band leader, and educator, he also wanted to ensure that his mentor was remembered.
“If I were king of the world, everybody would celebrate Art Blakey all the time, every day, all year long,” he once told JazzTimes.
The importance of aspiring performers having and emulating musical heroes was something Mr. Peterson stressed as a musician and an educator.
“I think if you don’t know how to play like somebody else first, you can never arrive at what somebody can identify as your own style,” he said in a 2011 interview with George Colligan for the Jazz Truth blog.
Ralph Peterson Jr. was born on May 20, 1962, in Pleasantville, N.J., where his father, Ralph Peterson Sr., was the city’s first Black police chief and its first Black mayor. His mother, Shirley Jones Peterson, was an aviation research center manager.
Drumming ran in the family. Mr. Peterson’s father, grandfather, and four uncles were drummers, and he was 3 when he began following their drumbeats.
There were other instruments at home, too, and he played trumpet in the junior high school marching band “because they were in need of a trumpet player,” he told Atlantic City Weekly.
But his principal interest was drumming, which he pursued at Pleasantville High School and at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., a couple of hours north of his hometown, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
He joined the Jazz Messengers as the second drummer in 1983 and went on to perform and record with a pantheon of jazz musicians before recording his own first album a few years later.
Mr. Peterson was among a peer group of musicians known as the Young Lions, and he went on to lead ensembles such as the Ralph Peterson Sextet, Fo’tet (clarinet, bass, vibraphone, and drums), the Unity Project, and Triangular (a piano trio).
To all his musical projects he brought energy and range.
“Some jazz drummers convey the sensation of floating through a groove. Ralph Peterson Jr. specializes in a more urgent and pressurized momentum: a runaway freight train, a bronco bolting out of the chute,” Nate Chinen wrote in a 2016 New York Times review of the album “TriAngular III.”
Reviewing a 1990 performance by Mr. Peterson’s quintet at the Knitting Factory in New York City, Pareles wrote that his “compositions aren’t content with one good tune; they stretch to two or three or four varied melodic lines. Like Mr. Blakey, Mr. Peterson socks his drums hard, giving up-tempo tunes a danceable momentum even when they’re taking labyrinthine turns.”
Mr. Peterson’s classes at Berklee could be as dynamic as his performances.
“My teaching style is energetic, intense, and no-nonsense,” he wrote for his college Web page.
“I try to encourage interaction and to inspire my students to push their own limits,” Mr. Peterson added. “Beyond the obvious areas of technique and reading, one of the most important things I teach is total musicianship. This involves hearing and playing beyond the drum set. Understanding form, melody, harmony, and phrasing all have a profound effect on what a drummer plays.”
Mr. Peterson leaves his wife, Linea McQuay Peterson; and Sonora Slocum, his daughter from a previous marriage to Melissa Slocum, which ended in divorce. He also leaves two stepdaughters, Saydee McQuay and Haylee McQuay.
His family held a private memorial gathering and will announce a celebration of life to honor his music, after pandemic limitations on the size of gatherings are lifted.
As a musician who had benefited from mentors, Mr. Peterson took seriously his own role as a guiding force and a father figure to some young musicians, among them the drummer Jazz Robertson, whom he considered his spiritual daughter.
“I think that having a family redefines our purpose,” he told Colligan. “It redefines the purpose of your life, and when that happens, the purpose of your heart transforms.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.