The Recorded History of Jazz Drumming

By Ed Pias

This article discusses the recorded history of jazz drumming. Ed Pias may be contacted through email; feel free to send comments.
The drum set is an instrument without a large body of composed repertoire, as there is for piano or violin. There is no standard tuning system, set-up, or standardized notation key. The drum set has developed throughout the 1900's in an improvisatory manner, with certain functions of the instrument being accepted as stylistic norms, meaning that certain "beats", or "grooves", such as the Bossa Nova, the Swing or Ride pattern, and The Rock Beat, all represent a particular, commonly accepted sound on the instrument. The main source for tracing these stylistic idiosyncrasies has been through the use of recorded documentation. The role of the Jazz drummer changes with different jazz sub-styles or genres. In the New Orleans jazz bands of the early 1900's, the drummers role was to keep the momentum of the music moving by playing patterns that were outlining the beats and forms of the music in a clear way, as well as to add excitement to sections in the music that had a change of mood or energy. This role of the drummer as time keeper continued in the swing bands of the '20's and '30's, and proponents of the swing style in large as well small groups still see the role of the drums as that of "keeping time". During the 1940's, due largely to Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist who was a founding father in the Be-Bop movement, came a change in the drummers role. The drums became a more equal part of the ensemble, interacting with the melodic improvisations that the other musicians were playing.
During the 1950's and '60's, the role of the jazz drummer kept expanding, and even drummers who were in more time keeping roles began to shape the music that they were playing in a more melodic and interactive manner. Drummers such as Paul Motian of The Bill Evans Trio, Connie Kay of The Modern Jazz Quartet and Sam Woodyard of The Duke Ellington Band were still involved in their time keeping roles, but in a way that allowed them to play more interactively and expressively. Also during this time the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, along with others, began to demand that the drummer play a very interactive role in the ensemble, even abandoning the role of time keeper altogether and creating a palette of interactive rhythmic texture, stemming from a place of spontaneous improvisation within the moment, reacting to the overall emotional and musical entity known as free jazz, a term which is now out dated, being replaced periodically by other terms that don't do the music justice either. This music is a place where the drum kit player may exercise a wealth of creative expression. Under the umbrella of Improvisation Based Music, which includes jazz and the outgrowths thereof, including Swing, Be-Bop, Hard-Bop, Post-Bop, Cool, West Coast, Free Jazz and Jazz-Rock Fusion, as well as the advent of techniques and aesthetics from 20th Century or New Music, the drummers role varies from strict time keeping, to complete and equal interaction...and a variety of what's in-between. A Recorded History of Styles and Influences With the invention of the phonograph, various tape formats and compact discs, it is possible to hear how certain patterns and styles developed, and were developed upon, by drummers throughout the 20th Century. Through the existence of this recorded history, it is possible for one to trace the evolution of the Swing pattern, from the swing and big band drummers of the 20's and 30's, like Sonny Greer, O'Neil Spencer, Baby Dodds and Papa Jo Jones to the be-bop and hard bop drummers of the 40's and 50's, such as Big Sid Catlet, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones and Kenny Clarke, to the post-bop drummers of the 60's, like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, to the avante-guarde or free drummers of the 50's and 60's, such as Dennis Charles, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell , Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Rashied Ali, and Milford Graves.
One may trace the fusion of Jazz and Rock in the late 60's and early 70's on the drum kit by listening to the recorded history of drummers such as Lenny White, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Al Foster, and into the '80's and '90's through the recorded work of drummers such as Steve Gadd, Alex Acuna, Vinnie Colaiuta, Omar Hakim, Dave Weckl and Dennis Chambers. One can also trace other hybrid styles, such as the combined influence of the avante-guarde and funk in the styles of Cornell Rochester, Calvin Weston, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Denardo Coleman. The influence of the music of India may be heard in the drum kit playing of Trilok Gurtu , the influence of the music of Latin America on Alex Acuna and Airto Moriera, the influence of West African and New Orleans second line drumming on the playing of Ed Blackwell. There is the influence of 20th Century Classical music on drummers such as Paul Lyton, Han Bennink, Paul Lovens, Gunther Sommer and Tony Oxley, not to mention drummers who utilize many influences, like Jabali Billy Hart, who is at home in a straight ahead jazz context, a freely improvised context, or a large ensemble, with a recorded history of over three hundred albums and CD's as a side man and leader demonstrating this.
These influences not only include particular patterns and phrasing styles that all of the above mentioned drummers apply in their own unique ways, but also in their actual drum kits, which range from the standard four piece Jazz kit ( 1 bass drum, 1 snare drum, two tom-toms, hi-hat, ride and crash cymbals), to kits with 2 bass drums, many tom- toms and cymbals, to kits with electronic percussion triggers and pads, to kits with tabla and other assorted hand percussion included, to kits with orchestral and junk (non- pitched items such as metal pipes or old metal bowls, etc.) instruments included. All of this is documented on recordings, and all of the aforementioned is just scratching the surface. As a brief summary, I will present a few major points of interest in the development of the Swing pattern through three different styles of Jazz drumming.

The swing style of Papa Jo Jones:
Jo Jones brought a 'smoothness' to the swing pattern which had previously been 'chunky' or 'two-beat' in it's feel. He was one of the first to develop what is now known as the "ride" cymbal pattern, and also began to move the hi-hat from just playing on '2 ' and '4 ', to playing on '4 ' only, or '4 ' of a measure and then on '3 ' of the following measure, as illustrated in the musical example Sweet Georgia Brown,("The Jo Jones Trio")

The evolution of the swing style through the four limb independence of Elvin Jones:
Elvin Jones gave the four limbs equal prominence on the drum set. On Afro-Blue,( John Coltrane "Afro Blue Impressions") he sounds like he has more than one rhythm going on at the same time. Elvin uses his four limb independence to play rhythms that can follow the soloist, similar to contrapuntal melodies, or create a contrasting line.

And The freeing up of the beat-oriented Swing rhythm into the Pulse Oriented rhythm of Sunny Murray:

Sunny Murray took the advances of Jo Jones and Elvin Jones and went one step further by creating an element of 'Swing' without bar line and meter constraints. He plays "pulse". On The Wizard, (Albert Ayler; Spritual Unity")Murray still uses the same components of the drum set as Jo and Elvin, the snare, bass drum, hi-hat and ride cymbal, but uses four limb independence primarily as a means of creating texture, and to play an equal role as an improviser within the ensemble. Providing support using these techniques was a new approach to the drummers role, and made it easier for drummers to re-define the role of time keeper, and become more of an equal member of the group improvisation.