Designated Drummer

The guru of groove, Ernie Durawa

Who You Calling Vato, Vato? Los Jazz Vatos: (standing) Terry Bowness, Freddie Mendoza, Brad Taylor, (seated) Ernie, Jimmy Shortell, Steven Vague
Who You Calling Vato, Vato? Los Jazz Vatos: (standing) Terry Bowness, Freddie Mendoza, Brad Taylor, (seated) Ernie, Jimmy Shortell, Steven Vague (Photo By Scott Newton)

Designated drummer.

If you're going to hang a tag on the able shoulders of Ernesto "Ernie" Durawa, that would be the one. For almost 50 years, playing in absolutely every conceivable configuration, Durawa has put muscle to music in such a way to make his fellow players swing and shine.

That's hundreds of thousands of hours of playing, never taking his eye off the sonic prize that comes from the perfect beat. Not a master of flash, the San Antonio-born drummer instead has become a guru of groove.

When anyone in a 100-mile radius of Austin needs a professional sitting dead center behind the bass drum, like a wisened Buddha of the beat, chances are Durawa's going to get the call. It's been that way for a very long time. Call it the Durawa Way of Knowledge.

Flashback No. 1

Austin, 1976: Joe "King" Carrasco is in a state, which is nothing new, but nevertheless entertaining. He's cutting his first album, and has somehow hit the musical equivalent of the state lottery by having Rocky Morales, Charlie MacBurney, Sauce Gonzales, and Augie Meyers onboard. Thanks, mostly, to Ernie Durawa.

"I first met Joe through bass player Speedy Sparks," Durawa recalls. "I was renting the house on South First which is now known as Jovita's. Richard 'Eh Eh' Elizondo was my cook, butler, and live-in babysitter. One day Speedy brought Joe over, and he asked me if I wanted to do a gig at the School for the Deaf.

"No kidding," laughs Durawa.

"And when we did it, they told us we were too loud! That's Carrasco. ...

The Return of Doug Saldaña: (l-r) Ernie, Doug Sahm, and Atwood Allen in Durawa's living room, circa 1969
The Return of Doug Saldaña: (l-r) Ernie, Doug Sahm, and Atwood Allen in Durawa's living room, circa 1969

"Then, he told me he wanted to make an album, so I told him about a studio called Zaz about a mile from where I grew up in San Antonio. We got all the Westside vatos down there and cut the album. That's the day [the band] El Molino was born. It's funny, because to this day, Joe always says I'm the guy that launched his career with those sessions."

The late Seventies were high times in Central Texas music circles. Steadily throughout the decade, the club scene had grown in Austin to the point where it was ready to pop. Outlaw country was grabbing a lot of the headlines, but the blues crew down at Antone's and over at Rome Inn were burning ears with their murderous attacks. The punk population at Raul's and beyond had gotten a foothold.

It was all a swirl, at that precious point where creativity was the password and the pursuit of fame and fortune, for most anyway, was still a shimmering mirage down the road. El Molino was a bit wack, even by Austin standards (The Ballad of El Molino ), but it gave Durawa a crash course in the local music trade. That, and his other introduction to reality: T-Pee Tom & the Southside Band.

"It was 1975, and I had decided to come down here from living in Chicago," remembers the drummer. "It was tough times when I first got here. I was working with T-Pee Tom, and we went to play at this club called Spellman's. After the gig, he paid me $3.

"I said, 'What's this?'

"He said, 'We played for the door, and that's your share.'

"I knew I was in trouble then. Now T-Pee is the star in the new Alamo movie they're making, so you never know."

Durawa isn't doing so bad himself, riding tall with the release of a new album as part of Los Jazz Vatos and playing with a half-dozen other aggregations, not to mention teaching a full load of students. His beginnings might have suggested otherwise.

Who You Calling Vato, Vato? Los Jazz Vatos: (standing) Terry Bowness, Freddie Mendoza, Brad Taylor, (seated) Ernie, Jimmy Shortell, Steven Vague
Who You Calling Vato, Vato? Los Jazz Vatos: (standing) Terry Bowness, Freddie Mendoza, Brad Taylor, (seated) Ernie, Jimmy Shortell, Steven Vague

Born Ernesto Saldaña on San Antonio's Westside in 1942, his mother died when he was 1. He went to live with an aunt and took her married surname when he was adopted at 10. His new parents ran a small bar, which is where the youngster first found the drums.

It was a hard world, in many ways, but there was always a Mexican conjunto playing, and finally, the drummer-to-be got handed a pair of maracas. It was a $75 stretch to his first set of red-sparkle Ludwigs. Once he got his hands on those, Durawa knew he'd come home for good.

Flashback No. 2

The Ebony Club is on San Antonio's Eastside. Blowing tenor saxophone, bandleader Spot Barnett is running through a blazing set of jazz standards to get the crowd's blood flowing. Blues, shuffles, ballads -- whatever the audience moves to.

On this night, the 18-year-old drummer ends up on the bandstand and is offered the job. Also hanging out and playing at the club is another homeboy, a skinny, fast-talking guitar player named Doug Sahm. Durawa already knew Sahm; they'd met downtown at the Tiffany Lounge a year or two earlier, trying to sneak in to hear singer Johnny Olenn.

Sometimes they'd blast over to the Eastwood Country Club, near where Sahm lived, to see some of their heroes like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown. It wasn't really a country club, but rather a big building out in a field that was open all night. Sounds drifted out over the land like a warm, sexy blanket you could pull up over your head and get lost in.

"Man, there was so much music then I couldn't keep up," reminisces Durawa. "I was discovering jazz, like Sonny Stitt, Clifford Brown, and Charlie Parker, along with drummers like Max Roach, Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich. I loved that sound. I got in bands like Charlie & the Jives and the Dell-Kings.

"In high school, I had a band director named Sebastian Campesi, one of the best violinists in the world [Roadkill: Sebastian Campesi], and he became a mentor. San Antonio was a great melting pot of music when I was young, and music was everywhere. My sister was a huge country-music fan, so I was always listening to her Webb Pierce and Hank Williams records.

"There weren't any musical barriers at the time, which is why guys like Doug, Augie, and I always played all styles. That's how we were brought up. We wouldn't be happy doing it any other way."

If there was one musical constant in Ernie Durawa's life, it was Doug Sahm. Starting in the Fifties, when they met, straight through 1999, when Doug died, the two were practically a two-for-one deal. It was just one of those flukes of timing that the drummer didn't end up in the Sir Douglas Quintet in the mid-Sixties, but in the long haul, even Ernie says he has no regrets over missing out on the San Francisco madness that shook even the unshakeable Sahm down to his hand-tooled cowboy boots.

Un Poco Loco: Ernie, 1951-52
Un Poco Loco: Ernie, 1951-52

"I met Johnny Perez, who ended up drumming in the Quintet, back at Ray's Jazz Gallery and Ice House," explains Durawa. "We both worked there selling ice and groceries during the day, and in the back room, there was a jazz club where my drums were set up. J.P. would go back there and mess with my kit, and I would show him a few licks. I was still new to jazz, too, so we both were learning.

"Then Doug called and said he was moving to California and asked if I wanted to go. This was around '63 or '64. I was happy with the gig at the jazz club, so I told him about J.P. and off they went. They recorded 'She's About a Mover' a year later and had a big hit. I felt pretty bad missing out on that, but that was just the way the breaks were, so I accepted it and was really happy for their success.

"After that, I ended up a few years later in Chicago studying with Roy C. Knapp, one of the best teachers you could ever find. He taught Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson, Hal Blaine, and a lot of other drummers. He was 83 when I met him, and I spent nearly four years with him working on fundamentals and playing all kinds of gigs at the Playboy Club, Sears Tower, and the Drake Hotel."

Flashback No. 3

Chicago, 1974: It's bitter cold. Hard not to think about Texas sunshine and the enchilada's at Garcia's in San Antonio. Or how your mom's getting old and wants her son closer. Then there's the national magazine that's raving about the music scene in Austin as "the new Nashville."

The phone rings and it's Doug Sahm, talking a mile a minute about a week's worth of gigs at a place called Soap Creek Saloon right outside the city on Bee Caves Road and a blues club called Antone's on Sixth Street downtown. Durawa doesn't need to be asked twice.

"I had such a great time that week," he laughs. "I went back to Chicago, packed up everything I owned, and moved back to Texas."

Working with Sahm could be tricky, though. He liked keeping a deep bench when it came to players, and it wasn't always the most steady job in the world waiting for the bandleader to put you in the game.

"One night I was on a gig with Doug at the Austin Opry House," recounts Durawa, "and Chris Ethridge was the bass player in the band. After we were done, Chris said we should go over to Soap Creek because Delbert McClinton was playing there, and he'd heard Delbert was looking for a drummer and bass player.

"We ended up sitting in, and Delbert asked me for my number and said, 'I think we can make each other rich.' I just laughed, but about three months later, he called and hired me. I stayed until '81, and it was great.

The Birds and the Bangs: George Gobel (center) and Ernie Durawa (r)
The Birds and the Bangs: George Gobel (center) and Ernie Durawa (r)

"We did Saturday Night Live with the Blues Brothers horn section and Bonnie Bramlett on harmonies, Austin City Limits, and shows at the Lone Star Cafe in New York where it seemed like the biggest stars in music would show up. Sometimes I wish I was back. I saw Delbert in Switzerland once after I left, and he offered me the gig again, but I was just tired of the road."

The Eighties wound around in Austin like a long weekend. Lots of small jobs in tons of clubs, getting constant calls from Sahm and probably, once in a blue moon, wondering where life was going. Then, like a storm front blowing in by surprise, magic struck again in 1989 with the Texas Tornados.

"All we did was laugh with those guys," chuckles Durawa of his decadelong gig with Sahm, Augie Meyers, Flaco Jimenez, and Freddy Fender. "They were all so funny, and musically, it was intense. We went all around the world. A lot of times I was mistaken for Freddy. People would ask for an autograph and wouldn't believe I wasn't him, so I'd sign his name just to get away. Everywhere we went we had fans. It was a wild ride.

"I'll never forget the night we got a Grammy. Doug called me from New York and said, 'We won, brother.' I knew right away what he meant. We got to play President Clinton's Inaugural Ball in D.C., at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, and just about everywhere else. I don't think there will ever be another band like the Tornados. Doug always called us the Tex-Mex Beatles, and he was right."

Ernie Durawa, the soulful epitome of the Texas musical work ethic, has never been one to watch the grass grow. After Sahm's death, he played shows with Esther's Follies, started teaching private lessons, and joined the faculty of the National Guitar Workshop. Still, he always had the jazz itch, something that never goes away if you catch it young enough.

Enter Los Jazz Vatos (, a group that was born of necessity when Durawa got a last minute gig on a San Antonio riverboat. With an initial split of San Antonio-Austin musicians, the group soon morphed into an all-Austin group, with Jimmy Shortell (trumpet), Steven Vague (saxophone and flute), Terry Bowness (keyboards), Brad Taylor (bass), Freddie Mendoza (trombone), and special guest Russ Scanlan (guitar), and sessions at San Marcos' Fire Station studio. The resulting album is as inspiring and sophisticated a jazz release as Texas has seen in years. The inventive arrangements let the horn players show their strengths, soloing like players set free, while the rhythm section pushes and pulls in all the right places, Durawa drumming up a storm -- as usual.

"I go back to my early gigs with Spot Barnett at the Ebony," explains the head Vato, "where our first song was a Jimmy Smith or Charlie Parker tune. Jazz has been a part of my life all these years, even though I'm also a roots player. I have the best of both worlds, because I appreciate all styles of music from oldies triplets to modern, odd-meter jazz tunes. To me, it's all music. It's all related."

Related like his other jobs in the Austin Jazz Workshop, with Johnny Nicholas' Texas All-Stars, or John Arthur Martinez's group. The South Austin Marimba Band, the National Guitar Workshop summer music camps, and doing shows with Groove Labs. Producing albums for singer Mary Welch or Los Tejanos from the Alamo project. It never ends. It's an endless pursuit, like perfecting the single- and double-stroke rolls, the paradiddles, and flamacues he's been playing since he was barely old enough to reach the bass-drum pedal.

All the while, Durawa passes on his knowledge and his soul to the students who stand next to him holding a pair of drumsticks for the very first time, in awe of him -- or "Murphy" to his best friends, who probably still don't know how he got the nickname.

Final Flashback

It's hot and humid in Houston on this August afternoon in the early Sixties, but my mother has taken me downtown to the Metropolitan Theater on Main Street for a matinee. The Birds and the Bees is playing, but even better than that, the star of the film, comedian George Gobel, is going to be there.

You don't get to see many movie stars in Houston, not unless you're hanging out with millionaire Glenn McCarthy at his new Shamrock Hotel out on South Main. A sixth-grader doesn't get invited to those parties, I'm afraid. And Gobel is funny, with his goofy crew cut and deadpan delivery.

As an added bonus, when the star takes the stage there's a drummer with him, a young, cool cat with a red-sparkle kit, dropping bass-drum bombs and rim shots in all the right places, pushing the comedian along like a man with a mission. I wonder who that drummer is and how in the world you end up with a job like that. Fortysomething years later, I finally find out. It's Ernesto "Ernie" Durawa, and you get the gig because you have a heart big enough to handle anything.

Life reveals everything if you have the good fortune to keep your eyes open and wait long enough, listening to those who have found the endless secrets of sound and are willing to share them. end story

Aspiring to be a designated drummer? Contact Ernie Durawa at 447-4036 and/or for lessons.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Bill Bentley
Beyond the Horizon with Denny Freeman
Beyond the Horizon with Denny Freeman
Austin lodestar offered the theories of life through a guitar

April 27, 2021

The Half-Century Psych of Shiva's Headband
The Half-Century Psych of Shiva's Headband
13th Floor Elevators weren't the only act exploring Austin's outer limits – and still doing so

Dec. 1, 2017


Ernesto Saldaña, Ernie Durawa, Joe "King" Carrasco, El Molino, Rocky Morales, Charlie MacBurney, Sauce Gonzales, Augie Meyers, Richard 'Eh Eh' Elizondo, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Delbert McClinton, Ebony Club, Spot Barnett, Texas Tornados, Los Jazz Vatos

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle