«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»
So when I hear somebody like Max play, I really hear Bird (i.e. Charlie Parker) playing the drums, you know playing the saxophone on the drums, so to speak.126 Being influenced by the swing drummers who came before him (with notable examples being Papa Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett) while at the same time reflecting his peers and innovators such as Parker, Powell and Gillespie (all non-drummers and innovators of bebop), Drummond feels that Roach’s emerging style reflected an overall departure from how the drums were already being played and even considered in jazz music. In Drummond’s opinion drum solos in swing music had a different function and there was a fundamental shift in how Max Roach
presented the drums in a solo context:
I think the presentation changed somewhat from being more of a show as opposed to being more of a musical statement. When you talk about swing drummers like Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones, Buddy Rich or some of those drummers from that era, and the context in which the performances were presented back then, there was certainly more of a showbiz element to it. But in listening back to some of those recordings…there was always an underlying musical content to what the drummers were playing. Certainly with Gene and Buddy, even though Buddy’s techniques could somewhat overshadow this
musicality sometimes and it turned into somewhat of an exhibition, everything was still musically outlined.127 In Drummond’s opinion, swing era drum solos often included a certain aspect of “showbiz” in which the entertainment aspect was highly valued. However, in Drummond’s opinion, musicality was still at the heart of the drummer’s intentions, even if a high level of technique was being demonstrated. While Roach’s style was undoubtedly influenced by this style, his own approach would further explore and expand the musical possibilities and presentation of the drum set. He expanded on the musical potential of the instrument rather than focusing on its entertainment potential.
Steve Smith also noted this relationship between swing drumming and Roach’s progressive style.
Smith proposed that perhaps Roach’s early vocabulary was actually an extension of what earlier
swing drummers were already playing on the drum set:
When I hear (Roach’s “For Big Sid”), if you go back and you think about some of the things Gene Krupa was playing, it was some of the same rhythms but the way he would play it was all on the snare drum. Or like that Cozy Cole solo, “Topsy Part II,” has some of those figures in it as well but they were played with a swing drummer approach. So I wonder how much of a leap it was to take those same figures except to take them from the snare drum and put it on a whole drum set.
It’s a lot of the same rhythms, in some ways, just orchestrated on the kit.128 Smith suggests that perhaps Roach’s vocabulary (specifically on his solo drum set composition “For Big Sid,” for example) was very similar in nature to that of his predecessors. Drawing on patterns from his own influences, Smith offers that these patterns would be further orchestrated and developed by Roach on the drum set in an expanded way.
Many other drummers also commented on Roach’s contributions to the drum set and how his perceived melodic approach also represented a significant part of this. As Ali Jackson Jr.
You could even say that Max Roach changed the way guys play the drums. I mean drums weren’t played like that before him, conceptually. With form, nuance, independence, sophistication of arrangements and ideas, usage of every instrument and part of the drum kit, incorporated and independent. No one had ever dissected the instrument like that.
There were a lot of great drummers before him but as far as concept, it was never used quite like that, as a melodic instrument in the forefront of an ensemble, then in his percussion ensemble M’Boom and in chamber music with violins and drum set. He even had the concept of performing solo concerts and writing compositions for the drum set.129 As Jackson notes, Roach’s expanded contribution to the drum set represented a new approach and a significant innovation. Carl Allen also further commented, like Jackson, on how he felt that Max Roach’s progressive approach to the drum set was reflected by the numerous musical
contexts that Roach was able to present. As Allen offered:
I’ll put it to you like this: if you look at “The Drum Also Waltzes” or “For Big Sid” or any of his solo drum pieces, it totally sums up Max and his profound approach to melody.
Max is one of the few drummers who could do a solo concert for two hours and keep your attention. When I first came to town Max used to do not only solo concerts but duets with a rapper or a duo setting with a tap dancer. Not many guys could do that. I think it was largely due in part to his melodic approach to the music. Everything was about melody for Max and I don’t know how one could come through the tradition of jazz drumming and not be affected or touched by Max.130 Both Jackson and Allen recognize Roach’s use of the drum set in different configurations and his significance as a drum set innovator. They also both feel that Roach’s innovations were possible largely because of his melodic and highly musical approach to the instrument.
With regard specifically to Roach’s melodic influence, several offered their feelings on this. For
example, Billy Martin described his own impressions of Roach’s melodic approach to the drums:
I think he’s a good example of being melodic on so many levels, Max Roach. If you listen to his unaccompanied solos, you can hear how strong his statements are that he makes. Whether you call them gestures, phrases or melodic ones, they’re all really strong statements and I think that comes from his personality and from all the music he has played and written as a composer. I think that’s the reason why he’s so melodic. It’s because he’s a composer and he’s just been around so many great musicians.131 In Martin’s opinion, Roach’s melodic approach to the drums figures prominently and he feels that this was largely influenced by his ability as a composer, and that this knowledge and ability to organize music in such a way is reflected in his unaccompanied drum solos. Similarly, Jeff Ballard also recognized Roach’s approach to drum soloing as being melodic and compositional
in design. As Ballard describes:
The first thing that comes to my mind about Max Roach is his very melodic soloing.
When he soloed over the structure of a song, it was always extremely clear and he told great musical stories; solos and stories that are stately, dignified, and powerful structures;
structures within structure. Brilliance with an elegance that comes from charity, knowledge, and so much respect for the music and for where it, and he, came from.132 Ballard’s assessment of Roach is generous in his praise but, like Martin and others, he also recognizes a melodic significant aspect in Roach’s drumming.
John Riley also further offered his own personal impressions of Max Roach with an emphasis on his many accomplishments as an intelligent, innovative musician and being a progressive,
Max was a deep thinker, a man of integrity, class and grace. He was a composer, a bandleader, a social activist, a record company founder, and a father. Max was the first “melodic” drummer, the first to play solo drum pieces, the first to play ostinatos, and the first to integrate the bass drum in a linear fashion. He consistently proved that the drummer’s job was not simply to provide the pulse or to generate “fireworks.” And he
always insisted that when played by a musician, the drums were equal to any other instrument in their range of expression and melodic inventiveness.133 This assessment of Roach’s extensive accomplishments illustrates not only his contributions to the drum set, but to jazz music in a wider context as well. The intent to deal with the drum set instrument as musically as possible is constantly emphasized and is, in Riley’s opinion, an extension of his character.
4.2 MAX ROACH’S MELODIC SOLO STYLE In the DVD Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (2008) drummers Steve Smith and John Riley discuss Max Roach’s contributions and specifically how he pioneered what is often referred to as a melodic style of drumming. The conversation between these two drummers reveals not only an insight into Roach’s immense artistic and stylistic contributions but also demonstrates the enormous influence that Roach’s drumming had both on Smith and Riley as jazz drummers themselves.
Initially Riley claims that Max Roach represents a jazz drummer who was in the ideal position to develop the musical potential of the drum set, someone that departed from the styles and
conventions of the swing drummers that preceded him:
I think of Max as maybe the first drummer who wasn’t influenced by Vaudeville. The drummers that were before him were all influenced by music that was kind of show orientated and when bebop came in, the musicians were, in a way, playing for themselves and challenging themselves. Max was the perfect man for that job so his playing was orientated towards elevating the music regardless if the audience could follow it or not.134
Roach was part of the bebop movement jazz music during the 1940s that embraced challenging melodic, harmonic and rhythmic possibilities in the context of small group jazz improvisation. Collaborating with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, Roach found the perfect context to elevate the status and the role of the drums from being a background instrument to that of a significant contributor to the overall musical fabric and process. Specifically, Roach used this medium to present the drum set as a solo instrument in a different manner from his predecessors. In his opinion, the drums should be expressed in a musical way, just as any other instrument found in a band, and he was famous for playing musical drum solos, not necessarily played primarily with a “showbiz” or showcase mentality (such as Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Sid Catlett, etc. are often associated).
Furthermore, Max Roach began to explore playing the drums as an independent solo instrument, and playing unaccompanied pieces for the solo drum set. Pieces such as “Drum Conversation,” “The Drum Also Waltzes” and “For Big Sid” (among many others) became vehicles that Roach would use repeatedly over his career for solo improvisation, sometimes even playing complete solo concerts by himself.
John Riley described the significance of these solo works and how this reflected Roach’s
overall method of organizing his rhythmic ideas on the drums in a solo context:
The solo pieces that Max played, I guess he was the first drummer to have the courage and maybe the mental organization or “thematic” organization to be able to pull off pieces that sounded like complete musical statements.135
Steve Smith agreed with Riley’s assertion: “That’s really what stands out to me…the ‘Melodic Perspective.’”136 He further described how he had the opportunity to spend some time with Max Roach and how Roach acknowledged this and chose to describe what is
commonly referred to as “melodic drumming.” Smith recalled:
John Riley found that to be an interesting reply and somewhat consistent with his own personal
interaction with Roach when asked about this concept:
It’s interesting that he described his soloing style as lyrical to you but when I asked him about it he called it a “conversational” style and this idea of creating questions and answers within your own solo.138 Between both Smith’s and Riley’s interactions with Max Roach, when asked to describe his melodic approach to the drums, Roach chose instead to call this a “lyrical” or “conversational” style of drumming.
In fact, Max Roach himself further described what he referred to as a “conversational” style of jazz drum soloing when interviewed:
It’s like a conversation even within a solo that you set up yourself. You play a phrase, you respond to the phrase, you make a statement, you respond to the statement and you try to create an overall little story.139 From Roach’s own personal description, the emphasis of his solo style is clearly on the organization of his solo ideas and on being very mindful to develop memorable themes on the drum set, in essence to tell a “story.” Emphasis is put on creating logical phrase development, specific rhythmic themes, orchestrating these themes on the drums, and then responding to and contrasting the material.
Riley recognizes the significance of this approach and feels that it invites the average listener in
to enjoy and appreciate the logic and musicality of Roach’s drum soloing:
It’s really nice that he would play a phrase and go away, come back and go away…We’re not a melodic instrument but we’re trying to give “civilians,” not drummers, a way to understand the development in what we do. And by returning to a phrase that the “civilians” might recognize, it gives them a chance to hear when you deviate from it.140 This idea of playing the drums in a way that can appeal or “speak” to the average listener (regardless if they are a musician or not) is consistent with Ari Hoenig’s, John Riley’s and Adam Nussbaum’s earlier assertions that certain forms of repetition allow a “hook” or something the average person can latch onto when listening to a drum solo.
Furthermore, Steve Smith also agreed with this notion and we are reminded of how taking the time to intentionally organize one’s drum ideas into form and phrases can really pay dividends in
terms of relating to the average listener: