Jazz music, woodworking and the pummeling sounds of thrash metal.
To the casual observer, one of these things is not like the other, but to Nick Menza, they had one thing in common: He loved them.
The former Megadeth drummer collapsed on stage Saturday at the Baked Potato, a small Studio City, Calif., jazz club, while playing with his progressive jazz trio OHM. The 51-year-old reportedly suffered a suspected heart attack, according to the AP.
Many casual fans of Megadeth, the band that came to define Menza’s career, might find his presence in a jazz club confounding. After all, Megadeth is a hard-charging, thrash metal band known for albums such as “Rust in Peace,” “Youthanasia” and “Countdown to Extinction,” all of which Menza pounded his drums on like they were punching bags. They might find it even more confusing that he was playing jazz music.
It’s in his blood, though. Long before recording “Symphony for Destruction,” the drummer came up under the instruction of his father, German-born jazz saxophonist Don Menza, the Associated Press reported.
Don joined Buddy Rich’s big band as a jazz tenor in 1968 and spent years as a member of “The Tonight Show” band when Johnny Carson still helmed the show. His career introduced Nick to a genre of music that would continue to influence him even after he found heavy metal. According to industry publication Ultimate Classic Rock, Nick Menza first played for an audience when he was two and someone placed him on the empty stool of Jack DeJohnette — who drummed for Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock — during an intermission.
Buddy Rich, who performed with Count Basie, even tutored Nick. That tutelage shined through even in his work with Megadeth. Dave Mustaine, Megadeth’s frontman, said in a statement, “As a player, Nick had a very powerful jazzy flair, unpredictable and always entertaining,” according to the Associated Press.
TELL ME THIS ISN'T TRUE! I woke at 4 AM to hear Nick Menza passed away on 5/21 playing his drums w/Ohm at the Baked Potato. #nickmenzarip
— Dave Mustaine (@DaveMustaine) May 22, 2016
After several years of playing as a studio musician, Menza was asked to serve as a drum tech by Megadeth’s then-drummer Chuck Behler. When Behler left the band in 1989, Menza joined. With them, he recorded several of the band’s most popular records, including “Youthanasia,” which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts in the U.S.
Rust in peace! Nick Menza
In 1998, he discovered a benign tumor in his knee and was forced to take time off to recover. The band replaced him, and when he was finally well enough to play again, Menza shifted his focus to raising his two sons and his interest in woodworking.
“I took about ten, twelve years off to raise two boys,” Menza told Metalholic. “And there’s really where I’ve been this whole time, raising two boys. I love them to death, they’re my kids, and it’s a job, man, it’s a 24/7 job with these guys.”
He supported himself not through drumming but through woodworking by making and selling hundreds of cajóns, he said in an interview with Pitriff. They’re box-shaped Peruvian percussion instruments often seen in Latin-tinged jazz. Players sit on the box and slap the front of them, much like with bongos.
“I don’t want to be Nick Menza, the drummer from Megadeth,” he said. “That chapter of my life is closed.”
That isn’t to say Menza didn’t sometimes exhibit the behavior expected from a heavy metal drummer. In 2007, he nearly lost his arm in a power saw accident. He required reconstructive surgery, and metal plates were inserted in his arm, according to Blabbermouth. Six years later, he auctioned off the bloodstained circular saw blade, which was placed in museum-quality glass with an x-ray of his mutilated arm, Loudwire reported.
He recovered from the accident and went on to play with several bands, including the eponymous Menza and his jazz fusion band OHM.
Next month, his autobiography, co-written with longtime friend J. Marshall Craig is set to hit shelves.