Drumming to the beat of his own drum

my son came clean with his new plan: 'I'm going to take fall semester off and tour with The band.'

My son has arrived at the halfway point in his freshman year of college and is wrangling with the urge to start living the life he imagines for himself versus continuing merely to prepare for it. He would start now as a journeyman drummer, rather than endure four more seasons of a liberal arts college and his life as a music performance major. He wants to bop now - not take piano and vocal training en route to becoming the all-around percussionist.

When he regales me with his workload, his voice has the tone of the proud to be overworked. He ticks off all the exotic music parts he is under deadline to learn for the orchestral and percussion ensemble: vibraphone; marimba; glockenspiel; snare drum solos; and split-second transitions among cymbals, tom-toms, and hand percussion. To me, it sounds like such stuff as percussionist dreams are made of.

Nonetheless, he's questioning the dues he's paying versus the blues he wants to be playing. The required courses conflict with his aspirations.

"They're trying to turn me into a pianist!" he says, "What I want is to be a jazz drummer." The required keyboard course was not working any charms on Buddy Rich Jr.

He prides himself on his ambidexterity with cymbals and all manner of musical styles, from funk to bossa nova. He can twirl his stick with one hand while playing the clave beat with the other and doing minisolos with his feet on the bass drum. Every time I hear him play, I hear astounding new tricks that I can't quite decipher, as if he's following a rhythmic mobius strip through the tune and turning inside-out and rightside-in simultaneously. He's even been playing professional gigs with the local "heavy cats" for several years.

"He's a monster," said Stan Levine, jazz afficionado, as we stood watching Spencer and his calypso band play an outdoor gig last summer. Stan has drummed with Woody Allen and studied African drumming in Gambia. "You've got to dig it, to dig it," said Bobby Macomber, the trumpeter, another local hepcat.

And clearly Spencer can dig it, man. While he may still be a new recruit to percussive-arts boot camp, bemoaning the preparatory courses leading him away from the kind of drumming he envisions as his métier, I can only affirm those feelings.

Who doesn't recognize those impulses, whatever our vocational aspirations were? Who doesn't want to bop straight to the gig, metaphorically, rather than marking time at the back of the orchestra where no one can see you twirling your sticks? Who doesn't want to be the monster soloist? Who doesn't want to major in improvising; tour with the big boys, dig it?

These wranglings entered a new phase a few weeks ago. Spencer had been recruited by an area band called The Funkizon. This dedicated, serious crew had a rhythmic niche to be filled and my man answered the call. After hearing about their recording, performing, and touring plans for a while, I finally got to attend a gig.

By 10 p.m., the band's mojo was definitely workin' in the small club near the university. Nigel set a great harmonic and rhythmic overlay on his old Fender Rhodes piano (he owns two: one is for parts), while Roderick filled out the bottom end with a fantastic, rumbling bass from behind his signature wraparound shades. Kyle, on the drumset, kept the groove crisp and flipping. Anthony's guitar sent liquid rills up and down the band's original tunes. The crowd of college students - fans who knew the names of all the tunes - swayed or jittered to the chord progressions and bridges.

And Spencer found places in each tune for conga and timbale "fills" and improvisations - interstices I didn't know were there. He was having fun, doing his thing.

What a challenge to my allegiances, then, when he came clean with his new plan: "I think I'm going to take fall semester off and tour with the band."

The angel on my right shoulder said: "You go, dude!" The angel on my left shoulder said: "What about finishing college? Earning a living? Supporting your mother and me?"

Since becoming the parent of a college student this year, I have maintained that college is wasted on the young. Touring campuses with Spencer, as he looked for academic life after high school, only served to tantalize me with how much better use I could make of a library, professors, and stimulating classes now that I've had a little life experience. It's the professor in me: the part that values learning, preparation, practice.

And now that Spencer wants to press "pause" and have some life experiences before finishing college, I realize that this, too, is wasted on the young. It is I who should tour with the band, while he finishes classes and his obligation to become liberally educated. Let him send me, his surrogate, on the road with the groove meisters while he works out a grade point average among the music-performance majors. He's just not qualified yet to assume the burden of professional funk performance.

It's so hard to figure out in what order one must pay those dues!

I realize an old archetype is at work. All fathers must play the role of The Professor; all sons the role of The Jazzman. The roles are not separate-but-equal parts of our character, and we can only play one role at a time. It was my turn to be the professor.

The difference is, good professors remember what it was like to hear that wild drummer within. Fortunately, our funk sons and daughters keep us in touch with our own footsteps, but it's hard to explain our footsteps to them. It's an old "tune," as it turns out, but it sounds different each time it's played. And if you have to ask for a definition, "you can't be told," as another hepcat once said.

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