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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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5.2 JEFF HAMILTON’S MELODIC APPROACH TO “A NIGHT IN TUNISIA” Several drummers have taken the technique of manipulating the pitch of a drum by applying pressure and varying the tension a step further, beyond using it simply as a percussive “effect” in a drum solo context (such as Art Blakey and Max Roach). Specifically, many have refined this technique and use it with the goal of reflecting some degree of actual melodic continuity on the drum set.

In Rodrigo Villanueva’s analysis of drummer Jeff Hamilton’s solo drum set performance of the Dizzy Gillespie composition “A Night in Tunisia,”165 as recorded on the album Jeff Hamilton Trio Live (1996), Villanueva notes Hamilton’s extensive use of bending the pitches of the drums (performed on a comparatively small drum set-up) to create a melodic solo drum set interpretation of an established jazz composition.

Hamilton’s intention was to re-create the melody to “A Night in Tunisia” (composed by Dizzy Gillespie) on the drum set in a solo context by changing the tension of each drum accordingly (using either his hand, elbow or stick of one hand while playing with the other) in order to mimic and approximate the phrasing and overall melodic content of the composition.

As a whole, Villanueva notes that this drum solo is a complete musical statement and that Hamilton is able to achieve this on his very own without any sort of accompaniment from any

other instruments:

In this solo, this great soloist performs, all by himself, the introduction, head in, solo, head out, and coda, just as any other instrumentalist would do in a solo situation.166 Villanueva (2007) Villanueva (2007: 16) Manipulation of the pitch aside, it is important to note Villanueva recognizes that, musically speaking, Hamilton addresses the drum set as a complete musical instrument with the overall goal of creating a larger musical statement on the drums. The drum solo is fundamentally performed with overall musical intent as its central goal and clear musical organization as its basis. By organizing his ideas in the same way, perhaps, that a solo pianist would, Hamilton is clearly thinking along larger and intentional musical lines. This is consistent with Billy Drummond’s earlier comments with regards to the importance of overall phrasing and organization of one’s overall rhythmic ideas on the drum set. It is also consistent with Max Roach’s idea of creating a sense of musical “architecture.” However, as the author points out, Hamilton also makes extensive use of manipulating the pitch of his drum set in order to create

even further melodic continuity:

The most innovative element of this performance is Hamilton’s use of melody on the drum set. By pressing into the drumhead of the high tom, floor tom and snare drum (with the snares off), in combination with the rest of the kit, Hamilton is able to approximate most of the pitches from the original melody, resulting in a somewhat accurate interpretation of the melody to “A Night in Tunisia.”167 While Hamilton’s approach does not represent an exact note-for-note representation of the melody of “A Night in Tunisia,” Villanueva notes that, as a whole, the melodic continuity of

Hamilton’s efforts stand up because:

As listeners we have the tendency to “fill in the blanks”; in other words, we tend to use our own experience with a given melody, such as this jazz standard, and hear the actual theme even when it is played by a typically non-melodic instrument.168 According to Villanueva, Hamilton successfully combines enough musical information on the drums to offer the listener a reasonably accurate and discernable interpretation of “A Night in Tunisia.” However, while he acknowledges that this is not necessarily an absolute interpretation

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of the melody, Hamilton presents just enough specific musical information to the listener so that one can “fill in the blanks,” allowing for the melody continuity to be recognizable.

This idea of “filling in the blanks” is echoed by Hamilton himself. During a drum set workshop Hamilton described to a group of students his melodic approach as being somewhat of an approximation, to a certain degree, but one that gives the listener enough information to suggest and imply a greater melodic statement. For example, Hamilton related advice given to him from

jazz drummer Mel Lewis with regards to playing melodies on the drums:

Like Mel Lewis told me: “All we’re doing is creating a ‘mirage.’ Don’t worry about how to do it, just think about the sound you want to get and create that ‘mirage’ for the listener.”169 Furthermore, with regard to how he accomplishes this, Hamilton offered that he consciously thinks of the drum set as being like a keyboard, with specific attention to its high and low registers. Combined with accurate rhythmic phrasing that matches the original melody, Hamilton feels that one can create a sense of melodicism and successfully convey that to a listener without

being wholly specific to the specific pitches. As Hamilton described:

Think of the drums as a keyboard or just try to sing your pitches and try to emulate the ascending and descending lines. You’ll actually make people believe, most of the time, that you’re nailing the pitches. Once in a while you even get a review that says you are!170 To further demonstrate these ideas in context, during the same workshop, Hamilton performed the melody to the Sonny Rollins composition “Oleo” on the drum set. He then proceeded to demonstrate his interpretation of this piece in two distinct ways: 1) playing the specific rhythm of the piece, divided around the drum set with no set or discernable method or melodic direction, phrasing or cohesiveness; and then 2) playing the same rhythm but orchestrated specifically

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using high, medium and low parts of the drum set to emulate the melodic contrast and general pitch directions of the melody to “Oleo.” In Hamilton’s opinion the difference between the two is that the first approach really only represents the rhythm to the piece being spread around the drums in somewhat of a random way while the latter in fact, better reflects the original melodic statement. This is due in part, to more attention given to how the different parts of the drum reflect the changes in pitch, or direction, of the melody. As Hamilton remarked following his demonstration: “…to me that’s the real line of the melody to ‘Oleo,’ by playing the middle notes to the low, to the high.”171 Hamilton feels that going for a “big picture” approach that incorporates a certain amount of specific melodic direction from the drums, but doesn’t necessarily rely on it exclusively, is effective. Similarly, while Hamilton’s interpretation of “A Night in Tunisia” is not an exact, note-for-note reproduction of the melody either, it is convincing enough as the rhythms of the melody are clear and the intentional changes in pitch help shape and define the overall melodic direction of the rhythmic phrases.

Villanueva also concludes that Hamilton’s overall melodic consideration and his melodic manipulation of the drums themselves presents an overall successful musical statement on the

drum set:

Hamilton’s solo is a great example of melodic drum soloing. It has several of the most important elements that we find in any good melodic improvisation, and manipulates the melodic and rhythmic cells much in the same way that Charlie Parker used in his formulas.172

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From Villanueva’s observations and Hamilton’s own insight, we are offered the opinion that Jeff Hamilton’s specific attention to melodic phrasing on the drums resembles the phrasing of a jazz instrumentalist, such as saxophonist Charlie Parker. This, combined with Hamilton’s ability to imply melodic movement on the drums, allows for a high level of musical expression and exposes the melodic potential of the drum set by, to a certain extent, manipulating the pitches of the drums.


Perhaps the most accomplished contemporary jazz drummer to explore the concept of melodic drumming and specific pitch manipulation of the drum set is Ari Hoenig. Hoenig’s extensive use of this method and in-depth technical approach has been well documented in his solo recordings Time Travels (1999), The Life of a Day (2003) and his instructional DVD Melodic Drumming (Jazz Heaven, 2012). With these resources the listener can hear and examine Hoenig’s vast knowledge and interpretation of expressing melody, in different ways, by significantly changing the pitch of the drums themselves.

For Hoenig, the concept of melody, in general, was something he felt to be instinctively important and natural, regardless of what instrument he was playing (he played the violin as a child, eventually giving that up in favour of the drums). The initial idea of exploring melody on

the drum set was one that he embraced with enthusiasm:

Melody was always something that was close to me and I used to sing a lot when I would play. I can even remember the day that I could actually get pitches out of the drums. I remember that it was pretty exciting.173

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Furthermore, Hoenig acknowledges that many of the drummers that had influenced him during his formative years also incorporated some sort of a melodic aspect in their own playing which,

in turn, would further influence his own personal approach:

There’s definitely influences that I had, different drummers that I listened to that played very melodically: Frankie Dunlop, Jeff Hamilton did a lot of that kind of stuff. A couple of guys I heard when I was living in Texas who would just play a melody on the drums. It just made my ears open up somehow and just struck me as being very musical. So I started doing that. It was very natural for me.174 These influences, combined with what he attributes to being a natural attraction to melody, allowed him to pursue a melodic approach to the drum set and eventually develop techniques on the instrument necessary to do so.

Hoenig’s overall attempt to pursue a melodic approach to the drums can be summed up in his own statement when claimed that: “Someone once told me that if you can’t make music by yourself, you can’t make it with other people.”175 This comment may represent the overall foundation and motivation of Hoenig’s melodic approach to drums. In aiming to create a full musical statement with only a drum set, this idea represents the notion that musicality within the context of a group can be best achieved if the individuals in question understand how to display a musical approach, fundamentally, on their own, before playing with others.


In the instructional DVD Melodic Drumming Ari Hoenig demonstrates and discusses his various approaches to expressing melody on the drum set. This resource represents a significant documentation with regard to how melody can be technically developed on the drum set.

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Hoenig breaks down his approach into four fundamental categories of melodic drumming:

1) Playing the melody on the drums using the basic contour of the melody but not the actual

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2) Playing the actual pitches of a melody

3) Improvising a piece in a compositional way

4) Soloing over a form and using structure This chapter will deal specifically with the first two approaches to melodic drumming that Hoenig employs.

5.5 HOW TO START PLAYING A MELODY Fundamentally, Hoenig believes in the importance of being comfortable with the drum set as a whole and really understanding the variety of sonic choices and sound possibilities at a player’s


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Hoenig believes that this understanding of the instrument’s possibilities will eventually become the basis for basic vocabulary on the drums and tools for melodic expression on the drum set. Of particular significance is how he emphasizes the importance of not only exploring the different sonic choices available but he also mentions the idea of “short and long sounds,” and the overall idea of articulation as well. This is similar to what Kenny Washington and Carl Allen have also

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With regard to learning to play melodically on the drums, Hoenig believes that an intimate knowledge of the original melody itself, on its own terms, is necessary before any application to

the drum set can take place:

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For Hoenig, it is necessary to learn a piece of music away from the drums and he encourages this by singing it in order to truly understand its nuances.

From his own personal experience Hoenig goes on to describe using Charlie Parker’s composition “Confirmation” as a vehicle for exploring melody on the drum set. The notion of singing a melody and understanding its specific construction and nuances on its own terms before developing it on the drum set is described as a specific component that contributes to a

melodic approach to the drums:

The piece “Confirmation” is a good tune to learn. I was told to learn this by my teacher Ed Soph (University of North Texas). So I learned it on the snare drum first. The way I would get the phrasing was to really internalize it and listen to the original or definitive recordings and try to emulate his (Charlie Parker’s) phrasing as much as I could and really try to get it inside me. Once it’s inside me it means I can eventually play it. That’s the most important thing.178 Hoenig encourages learning a melody on the snare drum first with specific focus and attention on the original phrasing of the melody. Furthermore, emphasis is also put on making reference to a recording of the piece with the goal of emulating and matching the phrasing of the melody, as played, as much as possible. With this fundamental knowledge and ability, Hoenig feels that any further development of the melody on the rest of the drum set is possible.

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