Monday, January 5, 2015

Tommy Ruskin

This is what I remember first:  Saturday afternoon at The Phoenix, with Milt Abel on bass and Tommy Ruskin on drums. I can still see Milt mesmerizing the audience with his take on Big Wind Blew in From Winnetka. And then Tommy drumming on everything in sight for Caravan. What amazing fun.

2015 opened with a harsh jolt. The morning of January 1st, the Kansas City jazz community lost an anchor when drummer Tommy Ruskin passed away.

Others worked with Tommy and learned from him and knew him better than I did, and their memories can better pay proper homage. Following is a collection of accolades, mostly posted to Facebook, in honor of Tommy Ruskin. Mixed in are a few photos of Tommy that I’ve been fortunate enough to capture over the last few years.

“Just heard that drummer Tommy Ruskin died. When I first got to Kansas City, everyone told me if I really wanted to find out what KC swing was all about, go see Tommy. Every time I saw him play, I had a better understanding of why. Every time he saw me play, he made sure to throw some encouraging words my way, even if it was weeks later. As hard as KC has always and will always swing, it’ll swing just a little less without him.”

— Drummer Zack Albetta

Tommy at The Blue Room

“The news of Tommy Ruskin's passing has stopped me in my tracks. He was the quintessential Kansas City jazz drummer, a huge influence to several generations of great KC jazz musicians in spite of his eternally youthful appearance and demeanor. The times I played with him I was in way over my head, but he never even remotely let on about that. Tommy leaves behind a family of truly great Kansas City artists. All I can do is wish miz Julie and Brian peace, as soon as they can have it. We love you, like we love Tommy.”

— Pianist Larry van Loon

“Tommy was one of the first KC guys I got to play with and know — what a positive mentor he was to so many, just by setting such a good example of being a great musician and a nice human. I always thought one of his greatest skills was to make everyone he played with sound better. Honored to have made music with this man, and wishing his family peace.”

— Pianist Jo Ann Daugherty

Rod Fleeman and Tommy

“Hearing of the passing of Tommy Ruskin saddens many of us very deeply. Obviously he was a marvelous musician, as someone called him the Dean of KC drummers. But by far the greatest thing about Tommy was how kind hearted he was. Always a smiling face and an engaging personality, Tommy was a one of a kind guy and we will miss him greatly!”

— Saxophonist Brad Gregory

“Man.... We truly lost one of the nicest, most sincere people I’ve ever met not only in Kansas City, but anywhere! I was blessed to play with Tommy many times and hang out with him and get to know him beyond music! I strive to be half the man he was when it came to the true outright love of music, and professionalism! Thank you, Tommy, for all the knowledge and wisdom you graciously shared with a hard-headed 20 year old (myself). It will never be forgotten!”

— Bassist Dominique Sanders

“I always looked forward to playing with him. He was humble, but he had tremendous pride, and it showed in everything he did. It’s hard to speak his name without using the word ‘great’.”

— Pianist Wayne Hawkins

Left to right: Pat Metheny, Tommy Ruskin, Mike Metheny, Bob Bowman, Paul Smith

“So very sad for Kansas City and the world. So fortunate to have been touched by this true jazz legend.”

— Bassist Steve Rigazzi

“I'm hurting. Tommy Ruskin died this morning. He was a constant and true friend, always supporting and encouraging. Tommy was the swingingest drummer I ever played with. He was a mentor to so many musicians, not just drummers. Countless were his minions and admirers, including some of the top drummers in the world. For decades, Tommy set the example for all players as to what laying down a groove was all about. He was so easy to play with! Many times on gigs I would see drummers kneeling at the foot of the master, learning by example. He was the template by which all other local jazz drummers were compared. He always had time to give advice to those who asked for it. With Tommy, you always knew where you stood, musically and personally. I loved that about him. He was smart, generous, witty and charismatic. Oh, and did I say handsome? We all lost a true icon of the jazz world today. My heart goes out to Julie Turner, who has loved him so dearly for 52 years. They always seemed like the perfect couple. Life goes on, but for me it will never be the same. See ya later, Tommy.”

— Trumpeter Stan Kessler

Tommy Ruskin


  1. Tommy Ruskin was the first jazz musician I met when I came to Kansas City. Tommy encouraged me to start my own jazz trio, which turned out to be great advice. I had just come out of the Army Band, and didn't own a drum-set. Tommy advised me not to go into debt. He invited me to his house, and let me purchase one of his drum-sets fro a steal. I still play that set, and get lots of compliments on the sound. I hadn't seen Tommy in quite a few years. Fortunately, I ran into him playing with Mike Pagan and Seth Lee at the Majestic about a year ago. He invited me to sit in. We also had a good talk during his break. As always, he was encouraging to me, and sounded fantastic. I will definitely miss him, but will continue to think of him when I sit down and play the Ludwig drums I got from him

  2. Is his music online? I am trying to find it but can't. If you have a link or video please post it.

    1. with his wife Julie Turner singing.


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