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«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»

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12 At measure 195 Roach returns to the original tempo and initial mood of the piece, which was stated in the beginning section. Again, a clear theme emerges in measures 195–202 that emphasizes, this time with the cymbals, the up-beats of beats two and four. With so much emphasis on these beats, the sense of urgency and intensity of the piece quickly builds momentum.

Figure 4.13 This phrase and similar thematic material is continually developed through variations until the very original theme from the beginning of the piece re-emerges at measure 219.

However, this recapitulation of the original theme to “Conversation” is orchestrated differently than the original and is elaborated by using double stops and by moving rhythmic fragments of each phrase around the drums. Overall, by returning to this original theme the piece comes full circle and Roach finishes it with a sense of closure and completion.

Max Roach’s drum solo piece “Conversation” represents a genuine approach to creating a musical drum solo that employs clear ideas, the deliberate use of specific rhythmic themes and then variation of these themes by means of rhythmic variation and re-orchestration. Roach’s intentional use of repetition and establishing a sort of rhythmic dialogue within his own playing reinforces the use of his own term “conversational” when describing his drumming style.

Roach’s musical intent is always clear and the overall musicality of his soloing emerges on many

different levels. As John Riley emphasized in his own analysis of Max Roach’s drum soloing:

“Max doesn’t toss off his ideas. He repeats them with clarity and intent.”154

4.6 SUMMARY In speaking to the many drummers who volunteered their insights, ideas and opinions over the course of this research, Max Roach was constantly referred to as a significant influence. It is clear from these discussions that not only was Roach’s approach to jazz drumming considered an enormous overall stylistic influence on most of the individuals surveyed, but specifically that his perceived melodic approach and overall musical approach to the drum set has had a huge impact.

Max Roach is recognized as a drummer who encapsulates many melodic concepts in his own drumming. However, ironically, Roach himself didn’t consider his solo statements to be specifically “melodic.” As John Riley described, Roach instead chose to describe his approach as “conversational” in style.

Riley elaborated on this important notion from Roach himself:

Although his time playing and comping helped shape the language of bebop drumming, the most profoundly innovative accomplishments in Max’s musical career are found in Riley (2007: 99) his artistic soloing concepts. Max is often called “the most melodic drummer ever,” but when questioned about his melodic inventiveness, Max stated that he was in fact more interested in musical structure. And he thought more about the architecture and form of his phrases then about melody. Max called this “conversational structure.”155 In Roach’s own words, he wasn’t so much interested in treating the drum set as a melodic instrument so much as he was concerned with its compositional possibilities. For Roach the impression of his playing sounding melodic comes from his attention to the compositional

aspects of his drumming:

I don’t go for specific pitches on the drum kit. Many times, the high and low sounds of the drum set – sounds of indeterminate pitch – fold themselves into a seemingly melodic pattern. But when I play solos I look for design, structure and architecture; perhaps that’s what produces the illusion that it’s melodic.156 Regardless of how Roach himself chose to interpret or label his own approach, his impact and influence as a jazz drummer from a melodic perspective is undeniable. His contributions as a highly musical and forward-thinking jazz drummer have made a tremendously significant addition to our overall discussion of the melodic possibilities of the drum set.

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One creative solution to using melody that several drummers have adopted is to actually attempt to replicate melodic information on the drums by manipulating the pitch of the drum set. Many drummers have developed specific techniques based on the concept of deriving several pitches out of a single drum by applying pressure to the drum head, thus increasing the tension and raising the pitch of the instrument. Since most drum sets don’t contain enough drums to accommodate an octave of pitches (or less for that matter), the ability to manipulate a drum and derive multiple pitches from an instrument collection of limited pitches can be used to explore the melodic potential of the drum set. In theory this allows a drummer the possibility of relatively specific melodic expression on a drum set.

A common jazz drum set will usually consist of a snare drum, one or two mounted toms, a floor tom and a bass drum combined with an array of cymbals (although many drummers over the course of jazz history have used either significantly more or less drums as a variation to that basic set-up depending on their preference and musical context). Played as is, and depending on how the drums themselves are tuned as a group, there are a limited number of pitches at a drummer’s immediate disposal. In theory, one could replicate melodic lines and play literal written melodies if one actually had eighty-eight drums or tom toms, tuned accordingly to a diatonic system (similar to a piano/keyboard instrument). However, the logistics of this approach are not necessarily the most practical nor realistic in a performance practice situation for obvious reasons (that’s not saying it could not be done, however!).

In seeking to explore the melodic possibilities from a drum or percussion instrument tuned to a single pitch, several jazz drummers have sought to explore and develop creative techniques that allow them to extend the tonal range of a percussion instrument. This chapter will examine the merits of how several drummers have addressed this and achieved this at least in some capacity.


The idea of extending the tonal range of a percussion instrument by either increasing or decreasing the tension of the drum head is certainly not limited to the possibilities created by jazz drummers. It is an idea that exists in other percussion traditions as well. The idea of changing the pitch on a percussion instrument is certainly nothing new. Tunable timpani have been used for centuries (in music extending from classical European traditions of music since the late 19th Century) most recently with the use of a foot-pedal mechanism, which either increases or decreases the pitch of the drum by manipulating the surface tension of the drumhead. When several tuned timpani of different sizes are used together and tuned accordingly, this allows the opportunity to create triads and arpeggios with a small collection of drums and at the very least suggest limited melodic lines or fragments.

Similarly, many variations exist in West Africa of an instrument commonly referred to as a “talking drum.”157 In the drum set method book West African Rhythms for Drum Set, Royal Hartigan describes the “talking drum”(or the donno as it known among the Akan people of

Ghana) as:

A double-headed, string tension, hourglass-shaped drum held under the armpit and played with a curved wooden stick. Its head tension is flexible, allowing for a wide variety of pitches and tone inflections that give it the ability to “speak,” hence it is called a “talking drum.”158 For further discussion on this instrument refer to John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythm, African Sensibility (1979).

Hartigan (1995: 104) Furthermore, another percussion instrument found in Ghana called the atumpan, while different

in construction from the donno, is also often referred to as a “talking drum” for similar reasons:

Atumpan are a pair of large wooden drums with a deep, powerful voice. They are played with two V-shaped sticks. As in Adowa music, atumpan can produce various tonal and rhythmic patterns which are used to send signals, recite genealogies and histories, state proverbs and otherwise “speak” in the tones of the Akan language. For this reason they are known as “talking drums.”159 These two examples are significant because they show that the idea of manipulating the tension of a drum in order to create multiple pitches from a single-pitched instrument is not, in fact, a new idea and that it goes beyond jazz drumming, back to its West African roots. In the Akan traditions, specific attention is paid to how the pitches of the “talking drums” can be manipulated even to the extent that they can, at least to a certain degree, emulate patterns of the human voice.160 It is quite possible that these instruments, and the overall idea of “bending” the pitch of a drum, have influenced jazz drummers to do the same. Drummer Art Blakey traveled to West Africa during the late 1940s and heard a variety of West African drummers during his travels. This experience had a profound musical and spiritual influence on him upon his return. In fact, Blakey adopted the Muslim faith after this experience and would often assemble percussion ensembles, create percussion arrangements inspired by the African diaspora (combining drum set players with various percussionists), and record for the Blue Note record label during the 1950s.161 Hartigan (1995: 80) See John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythm, African Sensibility (1979) for further discussion relating to “Talking” drums and the complex nature of manipulating the pitch of this particular instrument.

Blakey, Art. Orgy in Rhythm (Blue Note: 1957) and Blakey, Art. Drum Suite (Columbia:


As Rodrigo Villanueva is quick to point out in his analysis of drummer Jeff Hamilton’s solo

drum interpretation of the Dizzy Gillespie composition “A Night in Tunisia”:

Pitch bending has been a common technique for several decades. In fact, it was one of Art Blakey’s favorite solo techniques, and can be heard in several of his recordings, such as “Three Blind Mice.” (The History of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blue Note CDP 7971902)”162 It is possible that Blakey heard drummers play with some variation of a talking drum during his travels to Africa and that this possibly further influenced his ideas as a drum soloist. Specifically, this may have inspired him to incorporate the technique of bending the pitch of his floor tom as a tool during his drum solos (such as Villanueva points out). However, as John Ramsay (Blakey’s former road manager and an informal students of his) is also quick to point out, he feels that Blakey’s use of this technique (regardless of its influence) was not likely related to any type of melodic concept and more likely an overall novelty tool, inspired by his favorite swing era

drummers, used to generate an audience’s reaction:

It really didn’t have anything to do with the melody with him. It was more of a gimmick or an effect, visually and aurally, so to speak. He was really influenced by Chick Webb and the other early big band drummers who would use a lot of showmanship in their playing.163 However, increased attention and exposure to African drumming traditions and musicians such as the Nigerian percussionist Olatunji during the 1950s and 60s in mainstream American media would have exposed not only Blakey, but other jazz drummers as well, to these types of African drums. To the extent that the music and these percussive instruments and techniques may have influenced different jazz drummers to deal with the drum set in a specifically melodic approach is a matter of conjecture.

–  –  –

During the 1970s, drummer Max Roach frequently employed a mechanical variation of the floor tom instrument itself, which incorporated a pedal mechanism similar to that of the timpani. This allowed him to modulate the pitch of his floor tom in the same manner as a set of timpani. This instrument was briefly produced as a novelty instrument during the 1970s by the Hollywood Mezzetti drum company, manufactured in Italy. As Wei-Hua Zhang points out in her analysis of

Roach’s style:

In the 1970s Roach played many duets with artists such as Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp. He made two albums with Anthony Braxton, Birth and Rebirth (1978 Black Saint) and One in Two – Two in One (1979 Hat Hut Records). In these two albums Roach uses a floor tom with a tuning pedal to attain different pitches and qualities such as glissandi, bent notes and undulating tones like vibrato of the human voice. The sound Roach gets is similar to that of the West African donno, a string-tension armpit drum, which mirrors the indigenous tonal languages.164 It is interesting to note that Zhang makes a correlation between Roach’s use of this specialized floor tom and overall effect and use of the West African tension drum, the donno. However, as in the case of Ramsay’s assessment of Art Blakey, it is not immediately apparent from these recordings that the use of this instrument and pitch-bending technique is purely a melodic device or only used for a percussive effect. This does not mean that it is not an entirely effective percussive “effect” in the context of their improvisations, however, by that same token, it is not necessarily used for a melodic intention either.

While the melodic intent of Art Blakey and Max Roach’s use of pitch bending methods on the drum set is ultimately uncertain, there is a possible relationship between their use of this technique to that of the donno, the percussion instrument of West African origin, and should be at least noted and considered. This also demonstrates that jazz drummers have been, at the very least, exploring the idea of changing the pitch of a drum, in some capacity, for some time.

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