Talking Swing with Richard Rolfs, S.J., Drummer
Richard Rolfs, S.J., traded the drum kit for a collar when he entered the Jesuits in 1948.
Published: September 18, 2012
Richard Rolfs, S.J., professor emeritus of history, had a career as a professional drummer for years before he entered the Jesuits in 1948. He was a studio drummer and also played in bands led by James “Kay” Kyser, Horace Heidt and others. Although he gave up a music career when he entered the Society of Jesus, Rolfs continued to play drums and formed a band with Tom Higgins, S.J. In recent years, Rolfs’ combo, The Holy Cats, has become a staple of the Alumni BBQ. As professor, Rolfs taught European history, and he is the author of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: The Life of Franz von Papen,” who was Germany’s chancellor in 1932 and Hitler’s ambassador to Austria and Turkey. Rolfs was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.
How did The Holy Cats form?
Tom Higgins, S.J., and I formed the group to play for Casino Nights for students. He was our singer. We played every year for about three or four years in the late ’60s. I asked some guys I had played with professionally to join us: Bruce McDonald, Bobby Stone and a few others. We called it Tom Higgins’ Jazz Band. Then the alumni office invited us to play at the alumni BBQ a few years back. That’s when we renamed the band The Holy Cats. We’ve also been invited to play at Sweet and Hot Jazz Festivals at the Marriott Hotel near LAX on Labor Day weekends.
When did you learn how to play the drums?
I started when I was 8 or 9. I learned by just hacking it out my own way. I came to the West Coast from Wisconsin in 1939 and became a professional in 1940 and joined Local 47, a musicians’ union. I began to take official lessons then. From 1941 to 1948, I played professionally as a studio musician with Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. I also played with Barney Bigard, Stan Kenton, Tommy Reynolds and Pinky Tomlin.
Did you give all of that up when you joined the Jesuits?
I did. Sure. I wanted to come in to the Jesuits. When I quit playing, I thought I’d probably never play drums again, because we do other things. So I gave the drums to a kid I knew, Jimmy Owens, a poor black kid who didn’t have much money. I don’t know how he turned out.
What’s your favorite part of drumming: the performing, the musical relationship that a drummer enjoys with a bass player or the feeling that you’re the rock — the foundation — of the band?
It’s a combination. In a big band, you have to hold the whole thing together. You have 10, 12, 15 people playing, like Kenton’s band, and you really have to hold that band together. You have to be physically strong. Rock drummers today are physically strong guys, because they have to hold those bands together. I like playing with a good bass, a good guitar and a good piano. So if I have a good rhythm section, the motor of the band, I like that. But don’t get me wrong: I also appreciate a good tenor sax or a good trumpet player who plays good jazz.
What makes you good drummer?
I’m a good rhythm man, I’m not a good solo man. I never concentrated on that. But I am a very good rhythm man, very steady. In fact that’s why I was hired. I never missed a beat. No matter how fast the tune was, I was on the dot.
Does The Holy Cats’ membership change or is it steady?
Pat Chartrand ’56, on tenor, and Wally Holmes, who plays trumpet, have always been with me. They bring me guys who they know. Last time, I had Richard Simon, he’s a good bass player. When Higgins sang, I had a piano man, a bass man, a trombone and a trumpet. They were steady for about three or four years.
**Do you do what other bandleaders do: Go out and find the 19-year-olds and work them hard for 10 years, then let them go?
No, no, we don’t do that! I take the old guys, because the young guys don’t play this kind of music. They play rock. I want guys who can play jazz of the Swing Era: Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman. That’s the music we play.
So, what do you pay your guys when they play the BBQ gig?
Well, they play for two hours …
I was kidding with that question! Do you actually pay them?
Yeah, for sure. I don’t want them playing for nothing. That would be taking advantage of them, frankly. That’s the way they make their living. We talk about justice, and this is a justice issue. So I pay them between $150-$200 an hour. That’s not much when you consider what people pay rock bands. C’mon, they pay rock bands thousands. And I think we’re better than a rock band, myself.
Will you be taking requests at the BBQ?
Oh, sure. We take requests. These guys can play anything.