Jamey Haddad, Percussionist


When he was four years old, Jamey Haddad pointed to a musician playing a Lebanese drum at a church picnic and told his father, “If you get that for me I can play it.”

He stuttered and was terribly dyslexic, but that didn’t matter. This kid could hold a beat on a darbuka.

Today the attic studio in his Shaker Heights home is filled with an amazing array of drums, cymbals, tambourines—you name the percussion instrument, he’s got 10 of them.

Throughout his career, it was the teachers who saw past his problems and focused on his talent that made him what he is today: an internationally renowned musician who often composes, like many jazz musicians, in performance, a teacher, an expert in and inventor of international percussion instruments and now a Cleveland Arts Prize winner.

“I made up my mind I was going to be a musician in the second grade,” Haddad says. “Nothing else made sense.”

As a youngster, he grew up with Cleveland’s contemporary music scene.

“It’s no mistake the Rock Hall is here,” Haddad says.

One of his first teachers was Howard Brush, who had played with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Instead of paralyzing Haddad by asking him to read music—reading wasn’t young Haddad’s strongest talent—Brush played songs on the marimba and invited him to play along on the drums.

Later, when Haddad was 14, his grandfather, Fred Thomas, took him to Cleveland’s Theatrical Grille to see greats like Buddy Rich and Cozy Cole. But it was life-changing when he saw and heard Bob McKee, the house drummer of the club.

“He was a complete musician, not just a drummer,” Haddad says.

Haddad took drum lessons from McKee. He paid for one lesson a week, but McKee gave him five. Haddad was in awe: “He knew the jazz world of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.”

His parents, concerned that Haddad’s boyish charm would not last forever, put him to work in the family business—a grocery store. In the Lebanese community, choosing a career outside the family business wasn’t an option. But that changed when Haddad cut his hand on a meat slicer.      

They sent him to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he met musicians from all over the world.

“I always felt I had a natural tendency to play with people from other countries,” he says.

After a chance meeting in Cleveland with Ramnad Raghavan, a master South Indian drummer, Haddad started studying under him. He spent four years with Raghavan, including time in India on a grant from the Council for International Exchange of Scholars.

“It was not at all as much fun as moving to Brazil, but there is not a day I regret going there,” Haddad says.

Today, at 58, he plays with bands led by Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee Paul Simon and Panamanian pianist/composer Danilo Perez. He regularly collaborates with Simon and Garfunkel, Yo Yo Ma, Nancy Wilson and Brazil’s Assad Brothers, just to name a few. He has won three performance grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Haddad teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin College and his alma mater, Berklee.

Passionate about Cleveland’s cultural scene, he recently worked with the Cleveland Orchestra’s Fridays@7 program.

He lives in Shaker Heights with his wife, Mary Kay Gray, director of development at the Oberlin Conservatory, and their daughter, Georgia, 17.

—Susan Ruiz Patton

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org