%297%left%Back when he was the heartbeat of a jazz trio at Colby, Jeff Potter '78 didn't imagine he'd someday play drums behind such varied luminaries as Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, Carole King, Sarah Jessica Parker, Joey Fatone and Phyllis Diller. He didn't think he'd appear in a feature filmthe recently released Campor in the pit of a show that brought rock to Broadway, Rent.
Potter started banging out rhythms as a kid in Rhode Island. "I saw A Hard Day's Night and thought drumming would be a great job," he said. At 16, he was playing gigs four nights a week with rock, blues and even Dixieland outfits.
When Potter was an incoming Colby freshman, President Robert E.L. Strider gave a speech on the importance of serendipity in learning. "I found it to be absolutely true," he said. "I got waylaid into a lot of things." Potter majored in English and music, ran a film festival and performed with the jazz trio on and off campus. "I wasn't a great music student at Colby," he admitted. "I worked harder at English."
After college, Potter spent four years in Boston, including a year studying with famed jazz drummer Alan Dawson. It was there that he met Anita Flanagan, a dancer and actor and now his wife. In 1982 the couple moved to New York, where Flanagan joined a New York City Opera production of The Music Man; Potter threw himself into the city's competitive music scene, where reputations are ruined in a missed beat or two.
%298%right%Serendipity again lent form to Potter's life. He was playing at wedding receptions and Irish festivals in the Bronx, in hula reviews and behind unfunny comediansanything to circulate and make moneywhen his wife was cast in a national tour of Evita. He had never been interested in musical theater but decided to come along and join the band. "We schlepped around to small cities for ten weeks," he said. But the job, Potter discovered, was a good showcase for his eclectic talents: "To play for theater, it's necessary to know a lot of musical styles." In 1987 he toured with a big-budget production of Big River and embraced life on the road. "It was a year of great hotels and beautiful theaters."
A few years later, Potter was accompanying the high-kicking Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall when he got involved with a production in its infancy at the New York Theater Workshop. "It was a labor of love," he said of Rent, a play about a tribe of young artistic types facing harsh urban realities.
The audiences were wildly enthusiastic. "It caught fire with the papers," Potter said. In April of '96, the producers moved Rent to Broadway. Potter went along for a thrilling ride as the young cast was thrust into the spotlight. "We played on the Today Show, David Letterman and the Tonight ShowI grew up thinking that you'd arrived in show business if you were on the Tonight Show."
The gold CD of the show's soundtrack, which since has surpassed double-platinum, hangs in Potter's Manhattan apartment.
Seven years later, Potter isn't bored with the Rent gig. "The drummer affects so muchit's called the Œhot seat' on Broadway," he said. And he takes time to pursue other projects, like filming Camp, about teenagers at a musical theater camp. Potter, naturally, plays a drummer who accompanies the kids.
He also has spent time putting his English degree to practical use, writing profiles and reviews for Modern Drummer magazine. An avid scuba diver, he's traveled to New Guinea, Micronesia, Palau, Honduras and South Africa.
"I have a much-enhanced sense of professionalism," Potter said of his musical evolution. "I've learned to give the music only what it needs. When you're young, you tend to show it all. My trio at Colby was called Less Is More, and twenty years later, I really know that is the truth."