For Kenny Aronoff, music and sports are all about teamwork

Kenny Aronoff

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 18, 2002) – It makes perfect sense to Kenny Aronoff that he would return to his former high school in his capacity as a rock ‘n’ roll drummer to raise money for the school’s athletic programs. For one, Aronoff was a varsity athlete at Monument Mountain Regional High, where he was on the soccer, lacrosse and ski teams.

But more than that, Aronoff sees a direct relationship between his high school career as an athlete and his adult career as a musician.

“The way I play the drums, there’s definitely a connection in the physicality of it all,” said Aronoff -- who is known best for the hard-hitting playing style that powered John Cougar Mellencamp’s signature rock hits like “Jack and Diane” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” in the 1980s and ‘90s -- in a phone interview earlier this week from Los Angeles.

“And the adrenaline rush and the excitement of a sports game, it’s the same for playing a concert,” said Aronoff, who returns to Monument Mountain for a combination concert/master class in the Kathleen McDermott auditorium on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available in advance at Tune Street and at the high school. Proceeds from the event will benefit the school’s athletic programs.

For Aronoff, who grew up in Stockbridge with his twin brother Jonathan and younger sister Nina and who joined his first band at age 10, the mind and body work together as a team in both music and sports.

“Both require a tremendous amount of self-discipline and practice,” he said. “But what’s most important is that you’re on a team. You have to work as a unit. No matter how good you are on your particular instrument or as a player in your position, you have to integrate that with the other people on your team.”

Aronoff knows first-hand whereof he speaks. In addition to his work as a team-player in Mellencamp’s band for about 15 years, he has been a member of bands led by Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger, John Fogerty and Joe Cocker. He has also toured with rock groups Smashing Pumpkins and Jefferson Airplane, and recorded with a who’s who of rock, blues and country royalty, including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Iggy Pop, B.B. King, Garth Brooks and Willie Nelson.

Aronoff doesn’t get these gigs because he’s a ball-hog or a scene-stealer. Rather, it’s his hard-work ethic, the refinement of his technique, and his commitment to making the band sound the best that it can that puts him at the top of the list of drummers for hire in Los Angeles, Nashville and elsewhere, and that makes him a perennial chart-topper in the annual reader’s polls in Modern Drummer and Drum magazines.

One advantage Aronoff had is that he knew early on what he wanted to do. He played with local bands throughout junior high and high school in the late-1960s and early-‘70s, performing alongside such well-known Berkshire musicians as John Sauer, Rob and Peter Putnam, Rick Feddick, Bob Williams, Dave Obanhein, Steve Ide, David Grover, Dave Carron, Terry Hall, Mark Pappas, Harry Smith, Ed Locke, Gary Pitney, Peter Wilson, and his brother Jonny, who played keyboards.

At age 16, Aronoff began studying classical percussion with Arthur Press, principal percussionist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After high school he studied music at the University of Massachusetts and at Indiana University, where he won first place in a concerto competition on marimba and was awarded the prestigious Performer’s Certificate. During summers, he participated in the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals, where he played under conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Aaron Copland, Gunther Schuller and Arthur Fiedler.

After graduation, he continued his studies and began playing jazz and fusion music in Boston and New York. He returned to Bloomington in 1977, and a few years later he joined Mellencamp’s band. When he’s not on the road, he still calls Bloomington home, which he shares with his wife, Liz. His 18-year-old son, Nikolai, lives in Switzerland, where he is studying in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

Just a few months shy of his 50th birthday, Aronoff is well-aware that rock music is often thought of as a young person’s game. But staring down the half-century mark, he’s hardly ready to throw in the towel.

For one, he takes inspiration from his elders, people like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Willie Nelson, who are a decade or more older than him and still on the road hundreds of nights a year.

“I just saw the Stones and it was the best concert I’ve seen in ten or twenty years,” said Aronoff. “Rock ‘n’ roll is still the biggest thing for my generation. They still need to live that dream and see the Stones, Dylan, the Who. And those groups sell more tickets than anybody.”

And in spite of the great physical demands he places on himself over the course of a two-hour rock concert and the accumulated stress of a season-long concert tour, Aronoff says he feels fine.

“I’m still able to do it the way I like to do it,” he said. “You get a little smarter and a little wiser, but there’s nothing I struggle with. I’ve always tried to stay in shape and eat right. I might be a little more conservative with regard to the late nights and in not celebrating the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. You do feel some changes, but not anything that’s placed any limitations on what I do. Not yet.

“Ten years from now, I don’t know. I’ll definitely still be playing. It will be interesting to see. Things may have to be adjusted. Maybe I won’t be hitting as hard and playing as fast, but what replaces that is wisdom.

“In the meantime, I still have the passion for it and I feel real fortunate that I’m able to still be able to do the thing I love the most. It gives me great pleasure and makes me happy, and that happiness spreads to the people around me.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 19, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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