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Catching up was so hard to do

Kenny Aronoff

WORKING ON HIS EVERYTHING: drummer Kenny Aronoff ’75C. (Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Star/Kelly Wilkinson)

The man often called the best drummer in rock ‘n’ roll traces his career path from the John Mellencamp band to John Fogerty, Melissa Etheridge, Smashing Pumpkins, and beyond. But he traces his roots to UMass.

     “When I got to UMass in 1971, I felt very behind in my skills,’’ says Kenny Aronoff ’75C, who’s recorded with the Rolling Stones (Bridges to Babylon), Bob Dylan (Under the Red Sky) and hundreds more. “I got there and I worked my butt off. I was starting at 7:30 in the morning and ending at 2 in the morning. I felt I had so much catching up to do.”

     Aronoff grew up in Stockbridge, where he played drums in a local rock band. In high school, he noticed another local drummer could match him beat-for-beat. That drummer had been studying with Arthur Press, principal percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Aronoff figured he’d do the same. He auditioned for Press, who told him, “Son, you need work. You need to work on your technique, your time, your groove, your everything.’’

     So Aronoff began developing the skills he’d need to get into UMass. In his senior year of high school, he auditioned for Peter Tanner of the university’s percussion department. Tanner recognized his enthusiasm and raw talent. The next year, Aronoff moved into the Brown unit of Sylvan dorms and began his development.

     “Every Wednesday was recital day, to get people comfortable with performance, which was such a great idea,’’ Aronoff remembers. “Tanner had me working hard on marimba – in six weeks, I was giving a recital in front of the entire school. I was so terrified.”

     In that first recital, he performed with a keyboard player. “I walk out, he starts playing, I look at the marimba, I look at him and I suddenly realize: I don’t know how to start this piece. I was completely mentally blocked.” He can laugh now. “Now it’s time for me to play the first note. My hands just drop down and hit it. Had to go to something.”

     But the year went well. When he wasn’t practicing or playing with the jazz band and the orchestra, he’d watch another great player practice – Julius Erving. “I loved it there,’’ Aronoff says.

     He would have stayed, too, but stuff happens. When a graduate student suggested he attend the Aspen Music Festival, Aronoff sent an audition tape; when he didn’t hear anything, he figured he’d spend the summer back home, playing in a local band and studying with Press. As he was leaving school, he turned around to check his mail, and found the letter accepting him to the festival.

     Aronoff studied at Aspen with an Indiana University professor who convinced him to transfer. He finished his studies at Indiana, and soon after, joined Mellencamp’s band and began compiling the amazing resume you can read in full at www.kenny He’s still Bloomington-based, but gets back to Western Massachusetts occasionally to visit his family and is hoping to return to UMass soon to work with the marching band.

     If you run into a guy you think is Kenny Aronoff, though, look closely; it may be his brother, Jonathan, a Stockbridge psychoanalyst who is Kenny’s identical-twin.

– Marc Allan

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