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Raised by Drummers - Guest Blog by Chuck Israels

Chuck Israels

When things are going right, drummers and bass players are natural allies. When I started playing the bass in Boston in 1954, a well developed rhythm section culture was already in place. You could hear bassist, John Neves, and drummer, Jimmy Zitano, every night at the Jazz Workshop at The Stables. They were solid and dependable models. Even when I had been playing for only a few months, John would invite me to sit in with the quintet, and I’d get the chance to experience playing with a first class drummer. Jimmy Zitano was a fine player — one among quite a few in Boston at that time. Alan Dawson was there, Peter Littman came back from touring with Chet Baker to play in town from time to time, Jake Hanna was there as was Floyd “Floogie” Williams, a young, gifted player who’d been out playing with Lionel Hampton.

 

When I began playing with Steve Kuhn, our drummer was Arnie Wise, a student at Massachusetts School of Art, gifted with his hands in more ways than one. Arnie had a lovely, balanced and blended sound at the drums — swinging, propulsive and always at a transparent volume level. He was the first drummer with whom I developed the kind of relationship that makes a bass player want to play with a musical partner over and over. And Arnie was easy to be with in other ways too. His family was from the, then largely Jewish, London suburb of Golders Green and always welcomed me into their Brookline home where Arnie and I talked about music and listened to recordings for hours at a time.

 

Of course, there are opportunities for complexity in bass playing and jazz bass parts, but most of the time, the role is restricted to playing one note at a time, two half notes or four quarter notes per measure. The drummer is almost always doing more, — using four limbs to draw sound from several cymbals and at lest two (usually four) drums. Jazz drum parts can create complex textures, a ride beat on a cymbal, a foot-operated high hat cymbal pattern, accents on the bass drum and chatter on the snare — a lot to balance and coordinate. The interaction of these elements within themselves is already enough to create an uplifting feeling of musical movement — or destroy the possibility — even before the drumming intersects with the rest of the band. And drummers often have personal ways of playing and blending these patterns — so much so that many are instantly identifiable by hearing them play only a few measures. I developed an early appreciation for the way Arnie managed these things in his role in our trio.

 

Good drummers can allow you to feel comforted and stimulated at the same time. Arnie was a champ at that, and he was empathetic to whatever nuance of rhythm happened in Steve’s piano playing or my bass playing. Some drummers contribute to the rhythmic texture by instigating new patterns. I didn’t know it at the time, but Arnie’s playing was unusual in that he rarely started anything new in the music but was impeccable in his response to the rhythms in other parts — acting like an adhesive that grabs those elements and binds them into a coherent whole. It’s a special skill, and while Arnie is not the only drummer with the ability to make that kind of contribution, it is a special characteristic of his playing and a powerful part of his musical personality.

 

One evening, as I was sitting in the audience at the Jazz Workshop listening to Jimmy Zitano play with the Vardy Haritounian/Herb Pomeroy Quintet, Floogie Williams, came in and shook my shoulder excitedly, almost pulling me out of my seat to tell me I needed to come across the street with him to Storyville to hear a drumming genius. I was more than a little surprised by Floogie’s friendly assault. I had no reason to think he’d taken much notice of me, a relative newcomer in the Boston jazz community, let alone that he’d take the trouble to single me out and insist that I had to hear what he had just heard. And he was demonstrating appreciation of another drummer’s accomplishments, generously sharing his recognition of the playing of someone in potential competition with him — one drummer telling me I had to hear another drummer because his playing was so impressive.

 

That was my introduction to Donald “Duck” Bailey. He was playing with Jimmy Smith’s organ trio and I could hear why Floogie was impressed. The first thing that hit you as you came in to Storyville, even from the entrance at the back of the room, was how loud the music was, loud, but beautiful — not harsh or distorted. You could feel the pressure of it on your body — the depth of the organ bass and Donald’s overpowering swing. I’d heard quite a few drummers on recordings: Kenny Clarke, May Roach, Louis Hayes, Art Blakey, maybe even Roy Haynes, almost all of whom I’d get a chance to play with later, but none of those giants seemed to have anything on Donald — at that point, a relatively unknown player. What struck my ear was the churning variety in his playing. Donald played the eighth notes in the cymbal ride pattern straighter than other drummers, closer to an 8/8 feel than the usual 12/8 division, but the left hand snare drum accents were solidly in triplets, creating a compound metric texture that had so much activity — so many subdivisions of the pulse, that anything Jimmy Smith or the guitarist, Thornell Schwartz, played found a direct connection to something in Donald’s drum texture. It was so busy, and at the same time, so balanced and propulsive it reached into your consciousness, gathered you into its sound and wrapped you in its swing. It was sensational in its ability to make it seem as if your whole body and its biological rhythms were in synch with the music. Floogie Williams probably has no idea of the profound effect of his generous gesture  introducing me to Donald’s music. It changed the way I heard jazz drumming.

 

I didn’t meet Donald then. I was too shy and maybe intimidated. But I had chances to play with other good drummers, including Jake Hanna, whose playing stands in polar opposition to Donald’s. Jake played simply, steadily and reliably, with nothing extra in the drum part not required by the basic jazz rhythm section style of the time. He had a lively cymbal ride beat, played the bass drum more often on the four beats of the measure (not too loudly) than on arbitrary accents and used the snare sparingly. It’s another idea of what the drums can do to propel a jazz band. And I loved Jake’s strange humor. He called to hire me for an out of town job and had me write down his phone number in case I needed to contact him before the gig. “You got a pencil?” Yeah. “Ready?” Yeah, go ahead. “OK, AC 2 — got that?” Yes Jake, I’m listening. “OK, AC 2-34, got it?” Sure. Jake, “AC 2-34 98… (slight pause) 72 37 49 21 30 95 28…” I was in stitches. Years later, after Jake had moved to Los Angeles to play in the Merv Griffin show band, someone asked him, “Hey Jake, so you’ve moved here. What part of L. A. do you live in?” Jake, without hesitation, “L.”

 

Written language is an impoverished version of spoken language. Jake’s jokes lose something without his inflection and timing. The spoken word is richer than the written word. It’s more immediate and carries more emotional impact and nuance. Written music notation suffers from the same limitation as the written word. The one advantage of written language is its frozen character, It stands still — allowing study and reflection. Writing about Jake’s dry humor loses something, but we retain a snapshot.

 

Writing words about music has similar limitations, and writing, or talking, about drumming is no exception. Nevertheless, I’ve learned to notice a range of details that identify different jazz drumming styles and pointing out some of those may enhance appreciation of the contributions a good drummer can make to a jazz performance. It’s axiomatic that a great drummer can make a good band better. It’s also true that a bad one can do significant damage to an otherwise fine band. I have this on good authority.

 

One of my first jobs after moving to New York was a three week stand at Basin Street East with Benny Goodman. Benny had heard that George Russell’s band had a good young rhythm section (drummer, Joe Hunt and me) and for some reason not clear to me, he became interested in us, in spite of the wide discrepancy of style between George’s somewhat experimental, even self-consciously avant-garde music and Benny’s swing style — almost unchanged from the heyday of his popularity in the 1930s. It may have been a suggestion of his brother-in-law, John Hammond who knew my playing. (John had gone on a date with my mother many years earlier.)

 

In any case, we had a rehearsal or two with Benny’s fine band — trumpet player, Buddy Childers, tormbonist, Carl Fontana, Jerry Dodgion, Zoot Sims and Marv Halliday on saxophone, pianist, John Bunch, guitarist, Jimmy Wyble, vibraphonist, Red Norvo, singer, Jimmy Rushing and a fine woman singer whose name I can’t remember. With the exception of Joe and me, an all-star band of well known musicians. Benny seemed not to appreciate Joe’s modern and rather subtle drumming. If he didn’t hear a banging bass drum and cymbal on every beat, he was uncomfortable.

 

What Benny liked was pretty much the opposite of what I had already learned to appreciate, and he dropped Joe from the band even before we opened at the club. For some reason, he kept me and then hired two of the most head-bangingly unmusical drummers with whom I’ve had the unfortunate problem of playing; one lasted a few days before being replaced with another who played in the same pedestrian, foot dragging style. All I could do was listen to everyone else (especially Zoot), ignore the drums and try to maintain forward momentum. My luck had been better before and has been since. Experiences like that have been rare.

 

Jake Hanna’s playing demonstrates in a simple and direct way, how a drummer can define a tempo and help a band achieve rhythmic consensus. Steadiness is essential, and Jake was steady at any speed. But there are other ways to express an infectious jazz pulse that depend on more syncopation and subdivision of the beat. Even the ride cymbal pattern alone can be played with enough personal variation from drummer to drummer that hearing a few measures of playing can identify Kenny Clark, Philly Joe Jones, May Roach or Art Blakey just by the way each one times the “skip” beat — the division of the quarter note pulse within the second and fourth beats of the pattern. The timing and dynamic nuance, the touch of the stick on the cymbal of this skip-beat part of the ride pattern provides a solidifying predictability to the timing of the basic quarter note pulse.

 

It’s a given that the quarter notes on the cymbal and the release of the bass string have to be coordinated and steady, but there’s a wealth of rhythmic feeling communicated by the musical details that occur in between those quarter notes  — all the deliberate syncopations, delays, anticipations and cross rhythms drummers and, to a certain extent, bass players can add to the rhythmic texture. It’s rare to hear two musicians whose nuances exactly alike. They define musical personality. Some modern drummers who omit this skip-beat in favor of unadorned quarter notes lose a great deal of rhythmic solidity and propulsion in the process. You don’t need the skip-beat to sound in the same place all the time to have it be effective. You can vary it — move it from off beat to down beat from time to time — shift it around effectively for surprise and variety. But leaving it out entirely is a significant loss.

 

I learned to be sensitive to these varying elements of drum styles and to find ways to align my sense of pulse with different drummers. If we agreed on the quarter notes and were consistent in the way we felt and expressed the subdivisions, the music would be reliably propulsive, and it would swing. No one spoke of these things, we just listened, adjusted and played.

 

An overemphasized part of jazz drum pattern texture is the foot pedal high hat pattern played on the second and fourth beat of 4/4 measures. It’s a favorite mantra of school jazz band directors, many of whom have never listened closely to a good professional rhythm section let alone play with one, to tell young student drummers to play the high hat loudly in order to communicate the pulse to a group of inexperienced players. All this does is unbalance what might otherwise be an uplifting rhythmic texture rendering it ungainly — stopping its momentum twice every measure.

 

There is a reason for the development of two and four high hat pattern. Consciously or unconsciously, it found its way into standard jazz practice in order to counterbalance the harmonic accents and phrasing that normally occur on the first and third beats of the measure. The high hat beat smooths out the rhythmic flow — like the counterbalance weights on the crankshaft of a reciprocating engine. As soon as the counterweight becomes heavier than that which it is supposed to balance, it ceases to be helpful. The only time it’s useful for the high hat to be loud is when the first and third beats are played in an especially strong two beat texture.

 

One of the first things I appreciated about Arnie Wise’s playing was the he didn’t play the high hat on the off beats in slow tempos. Arnie played quiet double time subdivisions in slow tempos — not so that everything had to be played in double time in order to match the drum texture — just enough to keep the pulse uplifting and to relate to how your body would feel if you were able to dance gracefully in the tempo of the piece.

 

Soon after playing with fine drummers in Boston, I spent some months in Europe and was playing with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke a day after arriving in Paris for the first time. I had reason to feel intimidated by two famous older musicians, but they needed a bass player and I was there. Bud was strangely distant. I didn’t know he’d been beaten by police in New York, received treatment at Bellevue and had some kind of mental illness. Kenny, on the other hand, was friendly and accepting, simply treating me as if I belonged there. And his playing was more exciting than any other drummer I’d heard.

 

I can list many drummers with whom I love playing, each of whom has a story to tell and makes generous gifts to music, but Kenny made your playing feel weightless — not without power, just without the resistance of gravity. Of course, jazz bass playing needs weight, and the pulse represents a relationship with gravity without which the music loses force. So it’s an inexact description of the feeling in Kenny Clarke’s playing to call it weightless. But it made you feel as if you could move the weight of the music effortlessly. It had to have taken effort on Kenny’s part to achieve that, but he lifted effort off the other players and made his own part appear effortless. It’s not always the case that the inventor of a new style is one of its best practitioners. Sometimes later adopters of a style develop it beyond the level of its inventor. But Kenny was the inventor of modern jazz drumming and one of a handful of its most extraordinary practitioners.

 

A few days later I was hired to play with Bud and another good drummer, G. T. Hogan and then got some gigs with Martial Solal and the remarkable Swiss drummer, Daniel Humair. Daniel had extraordinary musicianship and manual dexterity. He’s the only drummer I’ve ever seen switch hands while playing. One moment, the ride cymbal beat is being played normally by his right hand and the snare accents by his left. The next moment, the roles are reversed with no change in the music. Daniel is seamlessly ambidextrous. Martial’s music had flawlessly controlled accelerandos. I’d heard and played deliberate tempo changes in jazz pieces before. They weren’t common, but not unheard of. But to hear Martial’s quartet start at one tempo and get gradually and deliberately faster, completely together and with the feeling that the music was getting faster without any individual player rushing was remarkable and required polished musicianship on everyone’s part. Daniel’s playing was exceptional.

 

I began to hear subtle differences in the balance of sounds drummers drew from their sets, a result of cymbal choices, drum tuning and touch. G. T. Hogans sound was thicker than Daniel’s. Not so much as to be opaque, just deeper and little more visceral. Daniel was a more active drummer. G. T. was interactive enough, accenting creatively and delineating form, but Daniel’s style was even more interactive, and his choice of more transparent sound qualities suited that style. Both got a beautiful blend with nothing awkwardly jumping out, and I always held the memory of Arnie Wise’s beautifully blended sound as a valuable standard. You could sit next to Arnie with his drum set between you and the rest of the band and still always be able to listen through his playing to hear everything else in good proportion.

 

If it takes a village to raise a child, perhaps a village of drummers raise bass players. I was lucky with the members of my musical community.

 

When I returned from Europe and found work in New York with George Russell’s sextet, Joe Hunt was the drummer. Joe’s playing was modern, clear, and intelligent and always linked to the form.

 

Musicians playing pitched instruments have harmony and melodic phrasing anchoring them to form. Drummers sometimes ignore formal elements in favor of maintaining a constant, direct, expression of pulse. But those who take advantage of form to create variety and dramatic movement do a lot to elevate communication and inspire players and listeners. Even the simplest twelve measure blues provides an inviting framework drummers can choose to delineate in helpful ways. As one chorus proceeds into the next, there’s a chance for textural choice: abandon the cymbal ride and fill the last seven beats of the form with a drum pattern to introduce the next chorus; or ignore the transition/renewal opportunity and treat two choruses as one unit.

 

That choice is often made subliminally, depending on what the soloist and other rhythm section players may do, and on how the proportions of the piece are progressing. It’s a basic binary choice — obvious to musicians sensitive to and experienced with form — one made quickly in context. Is the piece in its third chorus or its seventh? Will a textural break boost the same soloist into another chorus with renewed energy or announce the entry of a new one? Only a history of listening awareness informs a drummer quickly enough to make a good decision, and a good decision can enliven the music exponentially.

 

This is a simplified description — a  restricted example of the kind of opportunity for variety and change presented to drummers who are listening for them. There are miniature versions of this within the interior of the simple twelve measure form. The last two or three beats of measures 4 and 8 are breaks in the form that invite confirmation with breaths or fills or the added tension that comes from overlapping the formal seams — dovetailing the joints.

 

Players of pitched instruments are also presented with these choices, but the necessity of accounting for harmonic changes requires attention to these formal moments and some accommodation of them that drummers may feel free to ignore. Ignoring them may be a good choice, but my experience with the most stimulating drummers leads me to appreciate the ones who use formal signposts to maximum advantage — the ones who strike a balance between continuity and variety.

 

Every time a drummer can find a way to change texture, dynamics, and timbre without losing momentum, the music is renewed. I hear attention to this in many recordings of Philly Joe Jones, and years of playing with Bill Goodwin has given me deep appreciation of his mastery of this aspect of jazz drumming. There’s a good chance you can hear where you are in a piece just by listening to Bill’s drum part. Fills and embellishments happen in logical places associated with the form. Beginnings of new sections; bridges, interludes, and new choruses have reduced activity, inviting textural change in solo parts — allowing soloists freedom to set a new mood and control the progress of the piece. That’s another characteristic of well integrated jazz drum parts: after moments of increased rhythmic activity and density, it’s helpful to reduce chatter to a minimum, to clear the music of extra rhythmic detail and allow it to breathe freely for some measures before re-inserting bass drum accents and left-hand snare drum chatter.

 

 

In Bill Evans’s trio, Larry Bunker was masterful in delineating form and changing texture to move the music forward. And his contrapuntal, subdivided figures embellished Bill’s music with more integrated inventive detail than his other drummers. When Larry left the trio to return to his studio work in LA, Arnie Wise joined and continued to function in the same adhesive way he had when we had started playing together ten years earlier, making a beautiful sound on the drum set and finding ways to link together whatever rhythms happened in the piano and bass parts. Arnie was an amalgamator.

 

Another drummer whose playing made a deep impression was Roy Haynes. I had worked with Stan Getz in a quartet with Gary Burton and Joe Hunt in 1964, then left that group to return to work with Bill Evans. Gene Cherico and then Steve Swallow replaced me in Stan’s band. A year later, Steve Swallow had a devastating bout with the flu when Stan was called to a command performance for President Lyndon Johnson and the King of Thailand at the palace in Bangkok. By then, Roy Haynes had replaced Joe Hunt, and I stepped in to sub for Steve Swallow while he recovered. There were several performances during that trip, and I got a good chance to appreciate unique qualities in Roy’s playing.

 

Kenny Clarke seems to have been the first drummer to come up with what has become the template for modern 4/4 jazz drumming: a basic pattern on a “ride” cymbal, the high hat cymbal played with a foot pedal on the second and fourth beat, and accents on the snare and bass drum. All the drummers whose playing I am describing (with inadequate words) use this standardized texture as the basis for their playing Given that, it would seem they might all sound the same. They don’t.

 

Each drummer chooses cymbals, tunes drums and then plays them in personal ways. It would be hard for a careful listener to confuse Max Roach’s pristine clarity with Art Blakey’s deep roar. They play similar drum sets in superficially similar ways but create unmistakably personal sounds. And you wouldn’t be likely to hear Roy Haynes and think you might be listening to either of them. Roy strikes a particular balance among the basic elements of drum texture. Everything blends — the cymbal ride, the high hat, the snare accents, the bass drum all sound like one multi-colored instrument. Nothing jumps out louder than it needs to to be heard as part of a supportive texture. Arnie Wise’s playing exhibits some of this finesse and Donald Bailey develops a similar blended approach with even more colorful and inventive sounds. But Roy has a personal blend — an overall sound of unmatched beauty and propulsion. Playing with Roy feels like wearing velvet.

 

There’s a pretty long list of other inspiring drummers with whom I’ve had chances to play: Pete La Roca, Mickey Roker, Walter Perkins, Billy Higgins, Ben Riley, Jimmy Madison, Ali Jackson, Steve Schaeffer, Shelly Manne, Alan Dawson and others who escape my memory at the moment. But Donald Bailey stands out.

 

No one I’ve played with has had as personal an approach to playing the drums as Donald. Ethan Iverson published an insightful description of his playing in which he remarked that Donald did unusual things — exchanging elements of standard drum texture — putting things in unusual places. Ethan pointed out that Donald would sometimes play the “skip” beat, normally part of the ride pattern, on the high hat and place unusual accents on the bass drum.

 

Even when playing with Donald, I didn’t always notice what he was doing that made the music sound different, only that it was different, and in ever-swinging and inspiring ways. Like other fine drummers, Donald’s playing was interactive — conversational. He was always participating in the details of the moment without losing a sense of where we were in the entire piece. And the sounds he made were startlingly different without sounding jarring or in any way inappropriate. An unexpected sound would emanate from some part of the drum set no one else thought to use — a rattle from the side of the snare drum, a clink from a stick on a cymbal stand, a clunk from a stick striking the bass drum rim. You never knew what would emerge from his subtle textures — new sounds with a level of integration and participation that was remarkably nuanced.

 

Donald’s playing was so busy you might think it would interfere with phrasing and rhythmic freedom possibilities for other players, but it never felt constricting — quite the contrary. And his dynamic range was equally unusual. After being introduced to his playing with Jimmy Smith’s organ trio at volume levels that matched Art Blakey at his beautiful loudest, it was astonishing to hear Donald accomplish the same level of energy at a transparent whisper.

 

And like all of my favorite drummers, Donald understood that pedestrian clumping on quarter notes on the snare with brushes and playing the high hat on beats two and four was a useless practice in slow tempos. I hear inexperienced drummers do just that until they figure out that all the energy in ballad drumming comes from what you play in the subdivisions of the beat and that excessive accenting of primary beats only serves to make the music plodding rather than allowing it to dance. Once Donald stopped playing entirely while a fine singer was in the middle of a ballad. “Why should I be hitting something while she’s singing about love?”

 

I love good drummers and have had the good fortune to have made music with many of the best, but I’ll always hold Donald’s playing in a special place and fondly remember Floogie Williams for dragging me across the street to hear “…a genius drummer.”

 

A link to some of Donald Bailey’s playing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9rUZr6KqoM

Larry Bunker with Bill Evans:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wkhyUl_Vmw&t=256s&frags=pl%2Cwn

Jake Hanna with Woody Herman (and Sal Nistico!)

Roy Haynes with Getz just after I had subbed for Steve Swallow in Thailand


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  • Jim Ferguson on

    Thanks for this, Chuck. Sharing!

  • Michael Parkinson on

    Thank you, Chuck, I’ve sent this to our faculty percussionists and bassists at MTSU.

  • River Bergstrom on

    Yes, well stated, Jill Goodwin! Such a wonderful essay…I will be sharing this with lots of folks, too. And I love the quote from Phil. All my favorite drummers do that, too. This put a smile on my face and makes me want to play!
    Thank you, Chuck Israels!! (And of course, thanks for letting him “sit-in”, David Berger!)

  • Bob Schwartz on

    Sharing this with a bunch of folk!

  • Jill Goodwin on

    What a wonderful essay, Chuck. It’s nice to see my brother’s drumming touted, too. Phil always said that “Bill plays the song,” but all my favorite drummers do that.


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