A Local Life: Walter Salb

Drum Teacher Was Scurrilous, Rude -- and Greatly Admired

Walter Salb, a longtime musician and drum teacher, had an abrasive but endearing personality, friends say.
Walter Salb, a longtime musician and drum teacher, had an abrasive but endearing personality, friends say. (Family Photo)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Here are a few things people have said about Walter Salb in the recent weeks:

"You know he's crazy, right?"

"Part of his facade was a very caustic personality, with a very caustic tongue."

"People who met Walter, they either loved him or hated him."

And these are the comments of his friends.

Walter Salb was acerbic, profane and quick to give offense. He humiliated people in front of parents, colleagues and lovers, and if you didn't see things his way, he was happy to explain them more clearly at the point of a gun.

Yet, in spite of more than a few serious personality quirks, he collected a devoted cadre of followers and friends.

"He alienated everyone," said Phil Trupp, a novelist and musician who knew Salb for 50 years. "Yes, he was abrasive. Yes, he made people cry. But everybody got over that. He got to be a monumental character in this town."

Salb was that rare Washington creature, a denizen of the urban night who avoided politics, except to heap scorn on whoever was in power. He was a jazz drummer, bandleader, composer, teacher and talent agent, leading a life that implicitly mocked the city's earnest, early-to-rise sense of self-importance.

"He believed there was only one 8:30," said Jimmy Proctor, a longtime friend, neighbor and student. "He never woke up early. He said, 'Nothing good ever happens before noon -- ever.' "

Salb was born in Washington, where his father and uncle were pianists who played in theaters and at society gigs, including at the White House. The younger Salb -- whose full name was Thomas Walter Salb Jr. -- graduated from St. John's College High School, then left George Washington University to be a professional drummer.

He worked as a sideman, led groups and played in show bands for touring singers. He performed everywhere from the Kennedy Center to strip joints. In 1998, he led his band, the Walter Salb Orchestra, in the recording "When Time Stands Still."

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