Legendary drummer Rod Morgenstein on Winger, The Jelly Jam, Northport, and more
Rod Morgenstein is one of those musicians that five people may know from five different projects. To one person, Rod may be thought of as the drummer of Winger, whose first two albums each sold platinum and yielded multiple hit singles. To another person, Rod was voted "Best Progressive Rock Drummer" for five years in a row in Modern Drummer, likely rooted in his playing with The Dixie Dregs. Someone else may know him as a faculty member at top music school, Berklee School Of Music, where he has taught for nearly 20 years. And those are only a few of the prominent projects he has been associated with in his decades as a career musician.
However you first encountered Rod, he remains active as ever in 2016. Winger is still touring all over the place and put out Better Days Comin' in 2014. Jazz Is Dead, a jazz-influenced Grateful Dead tribute project, is also active and played in Westbury last year. The Rudess/Morgenstein Project, a collaboration with Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess, still does live dates from time to time. The Jelly Jam, as formed with Dream Theater bassist John Myung and King X's Ty Tabor, recently regrouped for its fourth studio album, Profit. Meanwhile, Rod still makes commute practically every week to Berklee.
In support of Profit, The Jelly Jam will be headlining B.B. King's on July 26. Rod Morgenstein, a Northport resident with Plainview roots, spoke to No Place Like Long Island about L.I. living and plenty more. For all things Rod, click on over to www.rodmorgenstein.com.
Where was the first gig that you ever played? Was it on Long Island?
RM: The first gig I ever played was at a party in Plainview on March 13, 1966. I only remember this because I have a framed note I had written to my parents telling them how terrible our band played. We were all of 13 years old, and terrified. But that is where this long musical journey began for me. My first serious, professional gig on Long Island was with The Dixie Dregs in '76 at My Father's Place in Roslyn opening for a southern rock band by the name of Wet Willie.
Do you have a favorite venue on the Island to see shows at?
RM: There have been several cool venues to see bands on Long Island, but I do not have a personal favorite. But a few that come to mind are The Boulton Center, The Paramount, Westbury Music Fair, and Jones Beach.
Having gone to college in Miami, lived in New York City, taught in Berklee for years, and traveled around the world plenty, do you still identify as a Long Islander?
RM: I totally identify as a Long Islander. I think parts of Long Island are of the most beautiful places on Earth, my town of Northport being one of them.
You're known for having played in a variety of hard rock, jazz, and fusion projects. Were you ever part of a punk band?
RM: I, unfortunately, never played in a punk band, although The Dixie Dregs have a song called, "Punk Sandwich." (laughs)
How do you manage to play in so many bands at once? Last time I checked, you were an active member of Winger, The Dixie Dregs and The Jelly Jam...
RM: Winger is an active band, playing gigs every year and releasing new CDs every three years or so. I also play in a jam band called Jazz Is Dead, which most recently played Westbury Music Fair this past November with Jefferson Starship and Quicksilver, as part of a 50-year anniversary tour of these San Francisco bands. I also have a duo with Dream Theater keyboardist, Jordan Rudess, called The Rudess Morgenstein Project. In any given year, one to two of these bands are active. So, between the weekly treks to Boston, and touring, it makes for an interesting life.
How does it work in terms of your scheduling? Do you have your work schedule at Berklee and then plan everything around it?
RM: Part of the high profile of a music college like Berklee, is that it has quite a few staff members who continue to "live the life." What better way is there to inspire young musicians by having them study with active recording and touring musicians?
How did you wind up being part of the faculty at Berklee?
RM: The Rudess Morgenstein Project was hired to perform at Berklee College of Music in the summer of '97. I received a call from the chairman of the Berklee percussion department a few days after the concert to see if I had ever thought about teaching on a college level and, if so, did I have any interest in filling an open position for the coming year beginning the fall of '97. I decided to check it out, and that one-year position turned out to be a nearly 19-year run, which continues to this day. Teaching at a college was never a part of the "plan," it just happened as a result of playing a concert.
What's coming up for your career-wise for the rest of 2016?
RM: The Jelly Jam will release Profit on May 27, and the band will tour beginning mid-July. It will be the first time John Myung, Ty Tabor, and I will be performing on stage together as a band. I'm really looking forward to the experience. Winger will most probably tour in the fall and begin recording a new CD. I will also be back at Berklee come September. In addition, I teach an online class called Rock Drums, which I created for Berklee's online division. It is a three-credit college course and I believe it to be the only course of its kind in the world of cyber teaching.
When you're not busy with your work, how do you like to spend your free time?
RM: The nature of being a traveling musician is that you are away from home a good deal of the time. When I am in town, I love hanging at any number of beaches and water settings in this area. And there are quite a few spots to choose from, whether its downtown Northport by the harbor, or at one of the beaches. I love riding my bike to these destinations, as I try to do some kind of physical activity on a regular basis. I am also involved in musical projects outside of the teaching and my bands. And so these activities take up much of my free time. But the thing is, anything music-related to me is more like a hobby, as there is still so much enjoyment involved in creative activities.
Do you have a favorite restaurant on Long Island?
RM: I have so many favorite restaurants because I enjoy most cuisines. So it would be really difficult to choose one favorite. Northport alone has a handful of great places -- the one I'd like to mention, because it has special meaning to me, is The Sweet Shop. Owner Pete Panarites, who is the ex-mayor of the town, makes the most amazing blueberry pancakes.
Finally, Rod, what do you wish more people knew about Long Island?
RM: This is a double-edged sword, as Long Island has so many beautiful destinations, yet there are so many people living here -- probably 5 million or so. And so, in answer to your question, sure, I wish everyone could experience some of the magic Long Island has to offer, but the last thing I think it needs is a larger population.
My family moved to Plainview just before my first birthday in '53. I moved in '73 when I went to the University of Miami, FL. There, as a music major, I met Steve Morse and The Dixie Dregs who, when we left the college, moved in and around Augusta, GA to get the ball rolling. I moved back up north in '86 when the Dregs and Steve Morse Band went on 'hold until further notice'. In search of the next musical project to get involved with, I moved to NYC, eventually meeting what became Winger. I then moved back to Long Island - Northport - in the fall of '91, where I still reside, because it is the most beautiful town on earth!