Ari Hoenig, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown Friends School and then Central High School, has become one of the world’s foremost jazz drummers.

by Len Lear

Ari Hoenig, 44, who grew up in Mt. Airy and attended Germantown Friends School and then Central High School, has a feather in his musical cap that not many other musicians can claim.

Hoenig, known for his unusual and intense approach to drumming, emphasizing complex rhythms, will be performing with two other musicians at Chris’ Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St. on Feb. 23 and 24 with shows starting at 8 and 10 p.m.

This is definitely not Ari’s first musical rodeo. In fact, in May of 2013 he received the BMW WELT (German for “world”) Award at a competition hosted in Munich. The theme was drummers who lead bands. He performed his own compositions with his own combo, the Ari Hoenig Quartet.

Ari began to get serious about music at Central High, then studied music performance at the University of North Texas until 1995, when he transferred to William Paterson University in New Jersey in order to be closer to New York. After just one semester at Paterson, Ari moved to New York in 1997.

“I gave up the piano and violin in favor of the drums,” he told us in an earlier interview. “It was much more fun and lively. It kind of gave me more of an opportunity to be less constrictive. Both my parents were classical musicians, and the drums were an instrument they didn’t really know. With the drums I found something that my parents couldn’t tell me what to do.

“I don’t play jazz because I love the music more than any other music. Within jazz I have the ability to improvise, which means you can play whatever you want. I can play rock, hip hop, ska or samba, and it’s still all considered jazz. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Existing in that freedom musically is really the point.

“Once you’ve mastered something, you can really do things that are creative and unique. Sometimes people talk about style like it is some mysterious thing. But like a good writer knows what makes a sentence, a good drummer knows what makes a good beat … The basics really apply to all styles of drumming and music.”

Is it getting harder or easier (or neither) to make a decent living as a full-time musician? “A little bit harder,” he said last week, “because of the downfall of the recording industry. It hasn’t affected me as much as some people, but the days are over when musicians can make a good profit from selling jazz records. Downloads and streaming are good from a technological point of view, but paying for music is becoming a thing of the past.”

Ari’s parents, Lynn Mather and Larry Hoenig, still live in Mt. Airy. (Lynn is a violinist/violist, and Larry is a retired music faculty member from Germantown Friends School with a fine reputation as a choral conductor and tenor soloist.) In 2009 Hoenig married Tracy Appleton. They now have a daughter, Lyric (great name for a musician’s child), 4, and Alana, 3. and they currently live in Brooklyn.

“New York is pretty much the center of improvisational music, I would say, in the world,” said Ari. “I liked living in Philly, but for what I do New York is much better. But I still play in Philly a few times a year.

“The place I feel most comfortable in is Smalls (Greenwich Village). I’ve been playing there with a Monday night residency for many years, and it just feels like home. We play on Mondays at 7:30 p.m.”

Are audiences different in different clubs and/or different cities? “It really depends. Some places you could get more respectful audiences, like in Japan and Europe, but sometimes the audience is interactive, like in the US. I like both.”

What is the hardest thing Ari has ever done? “Just trying to give active thought to the kind of person I want to be and the things about my life I want to change. Then making choices that can make these changes happen.”

What is Ari’s biggest pet peeve? “Exclusivity deals which limit where you can perform. Also, festivals who think it’s cool to pick random musicians to play together because they can sell tickets, even though it’s much better to get an actual band. This is a popular practice in France and Germany, and the music suffers from this. I could go on, but I’ll limit myself to two pet peeves.”

More information about Ari at www.arihoenig.com. More information about his performances at Chris’ at www.chrisjazzcafe.com.

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