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30 May 2013


I am in a bad mood today. Sorry, but if you read on, you will have to put up with an old crabstick getting something off his chest.

In 2016 I have heard so much traditional jazz being messed up by bad drumming that I can stay quiet no longer.

The rôle of the drums - or any kind of percussion - in traditional jazz is to inspire the rest of the band by providing a pulse that stirs and stimulates the musicians and audience alike.

Drummers need highly-developed skills, sensitivity and an understanding of the structure of the music. It has been said for many decades that good drumming should be 'felt and not heard'. I think that is exactly the effect percussionists should strive for in every performance.

Some of the finest drumming occurs when it provides a sparing, dainty colouring (for example, behind a clarinet solo). Therefore, drummers should treat their kits delicately, rather than as items to be thrashed.

They must also pick up immediately and correctly the tempo at which the Leader 'beats in' the tune; and they should learn to maintain it like clockwork.

Unfortunately these things do not always happen.

A drummer has power. He can use that power to spoil a performance in a number of ways. One of them is failing to maintain the tempo correctly. I have attended performances where the drummer 'dragged' the tempo, while the front line fought to keep the tune moving. This internal battle was horrible to witness and ruined any chance of making good music.

I saw a leader giving a signal for a quiet chorus and the whole band responded well - apart from the drummer, who continued thrashing everything in sight!

Several of the drummers I have watched in these last few months have been insensitive to what the melody instruments were doing. A typical example was the drummer who was constantly using heavy offbeat cymbal crashes, even when the clarinet was trying to play a delicate, pretty solo chorus.

Quite often I have heard drummers failing to stop during a clarinet's two-bar 'break', thereby horribly spoiling the intended effect.

I could give more examples. But I think I have made my point.

I have occasionally listened to a six-piece or seven-piece band and thought they would actually sound better if they got rid of the drummer, leaving the 'rhythm' to the banjo or guitar and the bass or sousaphone.

The trouble is that anyone can buy a drum kit and call himself a musician. He doesn't need to study music or learn to read it. He simply has to bash various bits of kit and all will be fine. That's how some see it.
You hear bad drummers complain that they are short of gigs. It's no surprise.

Drummers should study closely the work of the greatest percussionists. And fortunately there are plenty of these.

Observe that fine young drummer Justin Peake in this video - CLICK ON TO WATCH. You need watch only the first few minutes (they are playing Climax Rag) to get the point. Justin uses a full range of equipment but he does not thrash it. Note the economy of his wrist movements. Blending with John (banjo) and Tyler (string bass), he maintains a rock-steady four-four beat; and he listens carefully to the front line, stopping at the right moments, and using a cymbal gently but effectively to punctuate. He also shows how to support other players really quietly, for example during the banjo solo chorus and during the 'quiet' chorus that Marla signals.

Another tasteful and sensitive drummer based in New Orleans is Benji Bohannon. You can watch him (also with The Shotgun Jazz Band) by clicking on THIS VIDEO. I hope you will enjoy it.

And for another example of how important well-played percussion can be, listen to an extraordinary, historic recording in which the drummer is only eleven years old - BY CLICKING HERE.

And, although this final example is not exactly traditional jazz, try any recording by the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Orchestra of the 1920s (plenty are on YouTube) and listen to their drummer Carleton Coon. His playing is always discreet, never obtrusive; and yet it propels the band along. That's the way to do it - 'felt and not heard'!
Reader Carsten Pigott in England has written to recommend Bill Harty (you can hear him in Lew Stone 1933 recordings - on YouTube). Bill could play robustly and  energetically in a fast-paced piece but could adjust his style and technique when playing slower numbers, such as Al Bowlly ballads with Ray Noble's Orchestra of the same era.  Carsten says 'Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer since 1963, is on record as saying that Harty was the best percussionist Britain ever produced'.

Reader Barrie Marshall (Lancaster, England) wrote:
Hi Ivan,
An interesting piece about drummers, Just one thing to say about one particular drummer who was in a band I played with: the effect was opposite, an ex-dance band drummer, I sometimes think they fit in with New Orleans jazz bands better than those who think they know. Anyway, this particular drummer used his brushes all the time and played them gently, so gently sometimes I could not hear him at all, and don't get me started on piano players who tinkle away as musicians do a solo instead of giving them chords and rhythm!

Reader Bob Andersen of San Diego wrote:
Reminds me of Baby Dodds line, something like,'' the drummer should be like an idling engine"...