Jazz drums: Rules of Engagement

Marquee of The Lighthouse, Hermosa Beach, California -- June 1979 -- photo by Mark Weber

Marquee of The Lighthouse, Hermosa Beach, California — June 1979 — photo by Mark Weber

The Elite Syncopations Jazz Radio Show

w/ guest MATT WILSON – March 6, 2014 – Jazz @ Noon every Thursday (starts at 12:07 after the satellite news) Host MARK WEBER – KUNM Albuquerque, USA – 89.9 FM (Mountain Standard Time) also streaming on the web > KUNM.orgUNM.org – Current time zone offset: UTC*/GMT -6 hours (*Coordinated Universal Time)/Greenwich Mean Time)

JAZZ DRUMS: RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

I don’t believe any of us think jazz drumming is easy. But there is one misconception about drums that was dropped on us when we were in music appreciation class back in grade school, and that is that drumming was the first musical expression. You know, cave men banging on rocks and pounding their chests. I always remember what the cellist Fred Katz told me (he taught college-level anthropology) that even the idea of counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, is of such extreme sophistication that sequential patterns of rhythm is staggering in its implications, it had to be much later down the line in musical terrain.

Flutes were probably the first. (You sometimes see that plucked bows were first, as hunters lay in wait, they plucked — this is doubtful simply because bows & arrows arrive in the human story around 30,000 years ago and certainly music existed previous to that.) Consequently, the jazz trap set is only a hundred years old, maybe 120 tops, it’s origins in Vaudeville. And yet there are times that I think that we should give the cave man more credit

I think drummers have more fun than anybody. Today on the Thursday jazz show we’ll have in-studio guest Matt Wilson who is in town to play at the Outpost Performance Space this night with his Quartet: Kirk Knuffke, cornet; Chris Lightcap, bass; Jeff Lederer, tenor saxophone & clarinet.

Matt Wilson is one of those drummers that builds up such a rich swirling vortex of sound that there isn’t a band alive that couldn’t sound better with him on the tubs —

multiplicity, adaptability,
judicious accommodating manner —
drums like summer rain
making and breaking Time itself —
underlying ultimate pulse . . . .

I asked Bobby Bradford what the role of drums has been in small ensembles since Max Roach. He responded:

“The fire under the kettle from simmer to boil. My best to Mr Wilson.”

I asked the drummer Cal Haines what’s the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of Max:

“His solos were melodic and he played patterns over the bar lines. His right hand time on the cymbal was loose and poppin’ at the same time.”

I asked bassist Mark Dresser to tell us a little something about Matt Wilson:

“Matt Wilson is an extraordinary musician! He is one of the most musical drummers alive. He hears the whole band and has a big picture about shaping the music. With Matt it’s not about the drums per se, it’s about lifting the music, making the choices that empower those around him. He’s remarkably selfless in that way. At the same time his gifts of communication of being able to project what Ed Thigpen, called “the Feel good” in not only in everything he plays but also with his public. He’s both artist and entertainer. There is an authentic spiritual core to his being that flows through everything he touches.”

Burt Korall wrote two essential books about jazz drummers: Here’s what he was saying about Dave Tough that is also relevant to Matt Wilson:

“Tough combines exterior time and the inner pulse in a meaningful way. Exterior time is firm, somewhat automatic, straightforward, and obvious. What comes from inside is more subtle. Interior time depends on instinct and ability, particularly the capacity to adjust to the difference among players, while creatively blending and controlling them. A drummer’s positive inner time impulses make possible performances that are flexible, human, and communicative.”

Bow down to her on Sunday,
Salute her when her birthday comes.
Bow down to her on Sunday,
Salute her when her birthday comes.
For Halloween give her a trumpet,
And for Christmas, buy her a drum.

— Bob Dylan

Original 6th Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band ---- New Orleans ---- July 4, 1982 ---- photo by Mark Weber

Original 6th Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band —- New Orleans —- July 4, 1982 —- photo by Mark Weber

Papa Jo Jones being chauffeured by Billy Higgins at Watts Towers Day of the Drum -- September 23, 1984  ----  Papa Jo has an honorary plaque in his lap that was presented to him -- photo by Mark Weber
Papa Jo Jones being chauffeured by Billy Higgins at Watts Towers Day of the Drum — September 23, 1984 —- Papa Jo has an honorary plaque in his lap that was presented to him — photo by Mark Weber

  Max Roach at Howard Rumsey's club Concerts By The Sea, Redondo Beach, California ---  January 8, 1977 --- photo by Mark Weber -- that's Billy Harper standing behind Max as a member  of Max's quintet (Reggie Workman, Sulaiman Hakim, Cecil Bridgewater) (Max playing a set of  Hollywood Drums)
Max Roach at Howard Rumsey’s club Concerts By The Sea, Redondo Beach, California — January 8, 1977 — photo by Mark Weber — that’s Billy Harper standing behind Max as a member of Max’s quintet (Reggie Workman, Sulaiman Hakim, Cecil Bridgewater) (Max playing a set of Hollywood Drums)

In between takes at the Billie Harris Quintet recording sessions --  April 29, 1980 --  Horace Tapscott and Everett Brown Jr switch places --   HT on drumset ----- United-Western Studios, Hollywood, California -- photo by Mark Weber

In between takes at the Billie Harris Quintet recording sessions — April 29, 1980 — Horace Tapscott and Everett Brown Jr switch places — HT on drumset —– United-Western Studios, Hollywood, California — photo by Mark Weber

Check out Donald Bailey's trap set ----  Lighthouse Cafe, Hermosa Beach, California -- December 3, 1981 -- with the Joe Albany Quartet:  Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Jimmy Knepper, trombone ----photo by Mark Weber

Check out Donald Bailey’s trap set —- Lighthouse Cafe, Hermosa Beach, California — December 3, 1981 — with the Joe Albany Quartet: Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Jimmy Knepper, trombone —-photo by Mark Weber

  Philly Joe and Billy Higgins ---  July 15, 1984 ---- Watts Towers Jazz Festival,  Los Angeles -- photo by Mark Weber
Philly Joe and Billy Higgins — July 15, 1984 —- Watts Towers Jazz Festival, Los Angeles — photo by Mark Weber

Max Roach nominated Connie Crothers for a MacArthur Genius Award and I’d nominate her, too (Max was a 1988 Fellow, and I gather only Fellows can nominate).

Here’s what she said when I asked to comment on Max’s drum style and approach to drums:

“Max created every note deeply. You can hear this. No matter what the context–fast, multi-level, loud, soft, any sound quality or any instrument in the set–every note is deep within the instrument. He played each note with tremendous heart.

He didn’t feel that the drums must be playing continuously. He could create solos that had what we call rests which were absolutely riveting in their intensity (these moments are NOT rests, nor are they spaces or silences–we simply don’t have a word for them).

People described his playing as melodic. Max objected to this description, for a reason. He profoundly identified with percussion. He did not feel that the essence of percussion is to create melodically. Possibly this could be because we associate melodic playing with pitches. His own conception of creating music he described as the creation of “organized sound.” It was “sound” rather than “melody” to him.

Max was a master of counterpoint. He understood the drum kit as being intrinsically contrapuntal and loved this. He talked quite a bit about four-limb playing and the independence of the limbs and of the lines they create, all the time, in time playing as well as solos.

Max loved the quarter note. Once, at a gig with his quartet, I heard him play time behind the soloists as four-limb quarter notes all night long! (He played that with me once, at our rehearsal for our duo recording. Amazing.) True four-limb unisons.

Max conceptually identified with pulsation, rather than traditional concepts of meter. (He said the very same thing to me as Lennie did, in the exact same words: “It’s a steady one.”) Given that, he was the innovator of odd meter time signatures. They swung so hard because the underlying feel is “steady one.”

One of Max’s missions in life was to bring the drums out of the back of the band and into the music in a genuine interchange with the other instruments. When he arrived at his first recording session, the drums were placed far back into the corner, with blankets all over them. He objected and kept objecting to this kind of treatment from then on. People used to feel that audiences couldn’t handle more than four bars at a time of a drum solo. Max broke through that completely, performing solo drum concerts, not with extended percussion instruments, but with just the kit. The audiences at these concerts were enthralled throughout the concert. He founded a percussion band–M’Boom–which was a collective, the point being that percussion instruments could be the entire band. Audiences loved it.

Max did not accept the confines of a “style.” From being professionally on top during the 1940s, he did not hang on to that “style” of performance (I don’t think he used the word), but began evolving early in his performing life and continued to evolve all through his life. He was one of the first free improvisers (an example is the duet he did with Charles Mingus, “Percussion Discussion”), and he became one of the greatest free improvisers of all time, although not sufficiently heralded in this capacity. He accepted no limits to his musical imagination.”

Kenny Davern & Han Bennink ----  backstage at Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque -- October 25, 2004 --- photo by Mark Weber -----   Kenny was asked to join the Instant Composer's Pool and did indeed perform with them in Albuquerque the following year when they came back

Kenny Davern & Han Bennink —- backstage at Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque — October 25, 2004 — photo by Mark Weber —– Kenny was asked to join the Instant Composer’s Pool and did indeed perform with them in Albuquerque the following year when they came back

Matt Wilson ---- Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque ---- March 29, 2o12 ---- photo by Mark Weber

Matt Wilson —- Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque —- March 29, 2o12 —- photo by Mark Weber

Trio M @ Outpost Performance Space ---- March 29, 2o12 --- Myra Melford, piano; Mark Dresser, bass; Matt Wilson, drumset ----- photo by Mark Weber

Trio M @ Outpost Performance Space —- March 29, 2o12 — Myra Melford, piano; Mark Dresser, bass; Matt Wilson, drumset —– photo by Mark Weber

Now he's really cookin !  ----  master jazz drummer Cal Haines on his auxiliary drumkit -- Santa Fe,  June 10, 2012 ---- photo by Mark Weber
Now he’s really cookin ! —- master jazz drummer Cal Haines on his auxiliary drumkit — Santa Fe, June 10, 2012 —- photo by Mark Weber

Mark Weber and his briefcase at KUNM ----- December 29, 2010 ---- photo by Nick Lyons

Mark Weber and his briefcase at KUNM —– December 29, 2010 —- photo by Nick Lyons

14 Comments

  1. Again, Mark has given me a way to think about things I never think about — drums, in this case. And brought up my memory of admiring the back of Max Roach’s very old head in the audience at a Connie Crothers and /Mark Weber concert in NYC.
    By the way, they have finally admitted that some of the oldest cave paintings are by women. When are you guys going to start thinking about cave women and musical instruments?

  2. After you hear this group, you will go away with one main thought: tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Jeff Lederer is the most underrated jazz musician in America.

  3. I love playing with Matt because he has a great sense of humor and, although he cooks and swings hard, never plays too loud. Jeff Lederer has the same concept on sax: from cornball put-ons to primal-screaming raging Ayler channeling, to King Curtis funk. Sounds like one of my students, because he WAS.

  4. That photo of Cal with his BBQ is remindful of stories we’ve heard of the first New Orleans jazzers to move north to Chicago in the early 20s and the jobs demanded that they not leave the stage for hours (possible because of their color) and so they’d set up a little oven and be cooking a pot of rice & beans, each taking turns at the oven, while they played.

  5. Great article here, Mark, as usual: informative, poetic and evocative (especially with the images you’ve chosen).
    I might disagree with one assertion however. I don’t think that drums were the first form of musical expression. Rather, it was the human voice. Scientific research is pointing to the real possibility that music preceded language as the first form of communication, and that because the voice is there since birth, it’s probably where the music began.
    At any rate, the drums are a deep communicator and are certainly essential to so much music.

  6. great pics, Mark, and, for what it may be worth, the drummers with whom i have most enjoyed making music are Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Elvin Jones, Billy Osborne, William Jefferey, Sonny Greer, Arthur Trappier, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, Billy Elgart, Vinnie Colaiuta, Algie Hill, Hopkins Rudd, Jim Keltner, Jimmy Cobb, Denis Charles. sorry i never got to play with Mr. Wilson, but when i hear him play on the radio, i really admire his ability as an orchestrator with them drums, almost as good as Philly Joe !

    keep up the great work Mark, and Thanks !

  7. Steve Schmidt

    March 3, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Enjoyed this very much even tho I’m mile away and will miss this one, just like the last time with Myra and Mark. Hate missing these great shows, but enjoy keeping up with these happenings back home.

  8. NOTE: “Billy the Celloist” = Buell Neidlinger

    ALSO: Yes, to cave women! It would have been damn lonely in that cave without cave women.

    ALSO regarding anthropology: Yes, voice would be first. And the first instrument is anybody’s guess but the last I heard we were thinking it was a bone flute. A very interesting book along these lines is THE SINGING NEANDERTHALS (2006) by Steven Mithen. But in 2001 we were all reading the compilation THE ORIGINS OF MUSIC — that tripped me out. As well, there are a couple books on birds that will give you pause: THE SINGING LIFE OF BIRDS (2005) by Donald Kroodsma, and BIRDSONG (2005) by Don Stap.

  9. Loved It . . . Beautiful Mark . . . Sublime Heartbeat!

  10. a. obviously, the voice was the first instrument…
    but, strangely, most folks don’t include that…

    we all start out singing the same blues
    (unless your parents read dr. leboyers “birth
    without violence”)

    and ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny…

    so perhaps all music really in a way
    comes from the voice, from singing…

    to me, all musicians are singers on some level,
    or they’re not musicians…
    maybe a metronome or something…

    and perhaps we imitated
    natural and animal sounds and then found other ways…
    instruments.. to do that…
    maybe one of the first was
    a blade of grass.. the forerunner of reed instruments…
    or a flute-like animal bone…
    and sticks and stones and bones to imitate thunder and animals
    running… i also think dance was more related to
    imitating animals and therefore with music than
    it may be now…

    that 4/4 pulse scene in american music is thought to have
    originated in the native peoples music… but where did
    they get it from? from the feeling of walking/ running?

    b. i agree with what miles said: ‘you can sum up jazz
    in 4 words; louis armstrong,
    charlie parker’ but the question becomes ‘then what?”

    to me , the answer is tristano’s scene
    and few are really hip to what he did…
    a complete awareness and connection to
    every note…while really stretching out the
    melody, harmony and rhythm intuitively …
    and
    that is really coming out of the tradition!

    people listen to *line up* or *note to note*
    and think it’s ok but really get what is going
    on there… just try to sing the original melody
    along with the improvised one…

    i mean, all music is great but lennie’s scene flows from
    pops, pres, lady day, roy, charlie c., bird, bud, et al…

    Of all the drummers today, i would nominate roger mancuso as
    the great one of all this and therefore the great
    drummer to me… humor, framing, orchestrator, whatever…
    none of these things mean
    as much to me as what roger does on the drums…
    a hip linear jazz line that is heard and felt and goes
    beyond the typical yet is from the tradition of jazz…
    but ,
    you pay yer money and
    ya takes yer choice

  11. correction:
    people listen to *line up* or *note to note*
    and think it’s ok but DON’T really get what is going
    on there… just try to sing the original melody
    along with the improvised one…

  12. 2nd correction:
    humor, framing, orchestrator, whatever…
    none of these things mean
    as much to me as what roger does on the drums…
    *i’m not saying that roger doesn’t do all that; but
    he goes beyond that in a way i’ve never heard anyone
    else do…

  13. Carol Tristano

    April 4, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Great interviews and photos! I want to make a comment about what Max Roach said about percussion and melody. I can identify with the idea that the drums are a complete expression without the need for melody. But I also want to point out that the pitches in the drums (particularly the snare) and the cymbals are infinite! But I feel they must be accessed intuitively. So I’m making a case for the drums as an intrinsically melodic instrument. When I heard Max for the first time, which was as a soloist, I felt I heard the soul of the drums on every level imaginable!

  14. Hey – you really have a way with photoing people – you capture them so candidly. I keep looking at the one of Billy and Jo Jones – it is just so beautiful – each of their expressions are so personal.
    I love seeing Billy and Philly sitting so naturally there together.
    And Max’s aura playing which I came to know so well having had the great opportunity of seeing him play many times in New York.
    Thank you for sharing all this with us.

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