Legendary, Grammy Award-winning drummer Ernie Durawa brought his favorite band – Los Jazz Vatos – to the Roots Music series last weekend. Photo by Phil Houseal
by Phil Houseal
Over his 50-year career, Ernie Durawa has played drums for such music legends as the Texas Tornados, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, and Delbert McClinton.
But given his druthers, Durawa would play Latin Jazz.
That’s what he did last weekend at the Roots Music concert at the Pioneer Museum.
I managed to stick a recorder in his face for a few minutes before his set. As one drummer to another, I wanted to talk about the art of drumming - not the glamour of gigs.
Durawa - who will soon turn 70 - has been drumming since he was 11. He described it as “just a passion” that he has followed ever since.
The San Antonio native trained under legendary drumming teacher Roy C. Knapp, who taught him technique.
“He told me to practice single strokes, and double strokes, both right-handed and left-handed. He said to me the whole secret to playing drums is having control of single strokes and double strokes and then building up the left hand.”
Like all drummers, his evolution as a musician has included shedding instruments. “Yeah, I used to use a lot more equipment,” he said. “I got tired of carrying it around. Then again, the kind of gigs I’m doing don’t call for all that stuff. This band here, I use a basic set.”
“This band” is Los Jazz Vatos, the group he brought to Roots. The band features a horn section, and they play polkas, blues, Latin, soul, and swing. They play salsa, but it “is really not a salsa band,” according to Durawa. “This is jazz with a Latin feel. It is a whole other style of playing, and it just feels good to me.” Sometimes he adds in another percussion player, which opens up even more rhythmic possibilities.
Coming off a two-hour polka gig myself, I had to ask Durawa about the boredom of playing drums for 50 years. By definition, drumming is keeping the beat. All the other players in a band get to switch between rhythm and lead. They can even stop playing in the middle of a song to sip a beer, and the song won’t fall apart. Drummers can’t quit until the final note.
That’s not an issue for Durawa.
“I have to be playing with different people all the time,” he explained, “so I do not get into a boring situation. Most of the time I play with the Tornados, and we play the same tunes for the last 20 years over and over. Sometimes it becomes automatic pilot, but at the same time, we play for huge crowds, so the energy they are giving to you is going back and forth. It just feels good to play that stuff, and it just keeps you going.”
Durawa excels at all styles. Still, he would choose that classic format of piano, bass, and drums: the jazz trio.
He did that in Chicago. Setting aside for the moment that the gig happened to be at The Playboy Club, his satisfaction came from the music.
“I just loved it,” he said. “I love jazz, and deep inside my heart I always have. Jazz makes me think; makes me use my head. It’s not just ‘boom chuck, boom chuck, boom chuck.’ That can get you bored. Jazz is creative music.”
Amazingly, Durawa – the most in-demand drummer in the Austin area – still works the road. Hard. In the single week following his Fredericksburg show, he was off to Lubbock, El Paso, and New Mexico, after a Sunday gig at the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin where the Tornados were being honored with a Grammy display.
And why not? He sees no reason to quit.
“Hey... it’s all I know how to do.”
One more thing: