Pete La Roca Sims, dynamic postbop drummer, 74

NEW YORK — Pete La Roca Sims, a powerful and distinctive drummer who created the pulse for some of the leading figures of jazz from the late 1950s through the 1960s, died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 74. The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter, Susan.

With an effervescent time feel and an alert style that could turn an accompanying role into a running commentary, Mr. Sims was well suited to the dynamism of the postbop era.

‘‘He was for me very, very easy to play with,’’ the pianist Steve Kuhn, a regular collaborator in the early 1960s, said last week. ‘‘His influences were what they were, but he synthesized them. His conception was unique.’’


Working as Pete La Roca, Mr. Sims appeared on a handful of classic albums of the period, notably by tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. ‘‘Basra,’’ an album he made for Blue Note in 1965, leading a quartet with Henderson, Kuhn, and bassist Steve Swallow, is itself widely regarded as a classic.

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Mr. Sims also recorded memorably with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, trumpeter Art Farmer, pianist Paul Bley, and others. His second album as a leader, ‘‘Turkish Women at the Bath,’’ released in 1967, featured John Gilmore of the Sun Ra Arkestra on tenor saxophone and Chick Corea on piano.

Peter Sims was born on April 7, 1938, in Manhattan. He grew up in Harlem, surrounded by jazz: his stepfather was a trumpeter and his uncle managed a suite of rehearsal studios. Mr. Sims had his first professional experience as a timbale player on the Latin dance-band circuit, where he adopted his stage surname, La Roca (“the Rock”).

He transitioned to the drum kit at 17. Two years later, on the recommendation of the pioneering bebop drummer Max Roach, he played what he would later recall as his first jazz engagement, with Rollins. Part of that performance would be immortalized on Rollins’s ‘‘Night at the Village Vanguard,’’ one of the bedrock live albums in jazz, though the drummer on most of the tracks is Elvin Jones.

During the spring and summer of 1960, Mr. Sims worked in an early iteration of the John Coltrane Quartet. He was similarly a short-lived founding member of Stan Getz’s early 1960s quartet. (His replacement in the Coltrane band was Jones; in the Getz ensemble, it was Roy Haynes.)


Though he brushed up against experimentalism, free jazz held little appeal for Mr. Sims, and jazz-rock even less. This, combined with his growing impatience with sideman work, gradually resulted in dwindling opportunities. He drove a taxi for five years while studying law at New York University, and then became a contract lawyer. (When ‘‘Turkish Women at the Bath’’ was reissued without permission under Corea’s name, as ‘‘Bliss!’’ he successfully sued.)

Mr. Sims bristled at the widely held perception that he had abandoned music to become a lawyer. The truth, he said, was that he would have continued to work as a musician if there had been more opportunities to play the kind of music he wanted to play — and that as soon as it became economically feasible to balance his music and law careers, he resumed performing.

He began playing semiregularly again in 1979, using his real last name and mentoring younger musicians, notably, saxophonist David Liebman. And he doubled down on his stubborn adherence to swing rhythm. The name of his working band was Swingtime; that was also the title of his final album, released on Blue Note in 1997.

Mr. Sims’ marriage to the former Margo Burroughs ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, a blues singer and drummer, he leaves a son, Kenneth Harvey; and brother, Michael Morgan.