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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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Historically, there are many examples of other percussion instruments designed specifically to change the pitch of the instrument by adjusting the tension of the drumhead. Orchestral timpani and instruments from West Africa commonly known as “talking drums” are examples of this.

Similarly, in rare occasions, modified floor toms have been used by several jazz drummers (such as Max Roach, Ed Blackwell and Ed Thigpen), and operate similarly in scope to a timpani.

However, while these examples illustrate that drummers have been aware of this potential technique for some time, it is only recently that many drummers have explored in-depth the idea of replicating melodic material on the drum set, with certain degrees of specific exactitude.

Jazz drummers Jeff Hamilton and Ari Hoenig are two examples of musicians who have taken this conceptual idea and developed it into a highly technical and organized melodic expression on the drum set. Both drummers extensively change the pitches of the drums, increasing the pitch of a drum by applying pressure to the actual drumhead.

Hamilton is less specific about being accurate with specific tones and aims instead for reflections of the overall “contour” of a melodic line, that is to say, reflecting the upward and downward motion of a melody. He describes this as being a musical “mirage” that gives the listener the impression of specific melodic material being expressed on the drum set.

Similarly, Hoenig deals with the drum set in this way, however he takes this approach a step further. By tuning his drums to specific pitches (often described as a 2nd inversion F major triad) and through extensive ear training and interval recognition skills, Hoenig often strives for pitchfor-pitch accuracy to express melodic ideas and phrases on a drum set in a very precise and clear way.

In terms of the possibility for future developments with regards to the melodic concepts he has

developed, Ari Hoenig offered that there is still much left to explore:

There is a lot of room to expand on this kind of idea for myself and for others, such as:

set-up with more or less drums, different ways of tuning them, different ways of applying the bass drum, maybe having two bass drums with different pitches. You could also have a chromatically pitched drum set and play it like a xylophone.195 Many drummers, while acknowledging the potential and impressiveness of such a specific melodic approach, are also quick to declare that this is not the only way one can express melody as a drummer. For some, melodies are just found to be more pleasing to play and listen to on other instruments while for others, such as Matt Wilson, successful melodic drumming can also be achieved when playing on only one surface, with no actual tonal variation involved.

For Jeff Hamilton and Ari Hoenig, the potential for literal melodic expression on the drum set represents a continuous, open-ended creative process. Using the drum set to focus on purely melodic ideas with specific accuracy significantly expands the potential of the drum set and offers more possibilities yet to be explored.

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Over the course of this research, the drummers interviewed for the purpose of this project expressed their experiences and opinions related to the importance of considering melodic concepts and the possible applications of melody within the practice of jazz drumming.

Significantly, many of the participants also shared their pedagogical methods and instructional approaches that use melody. Overall, this speaks to how a drummer can actually incorporate a melodic concept into one’s technical studies and into the overall practice of drum set pedagogy.

While the discussion regarding the importance of a melodic concept and its applications to the drums is significant, the possible pedagogical applications of melody should be considered as well. The questions of “why” a drummer uses a melodic concept in their playing and “how” this is done from a technical or performance practice standpoint are not the only ones that should be asked. It is also important to consider how one can develop and apply a melodic concept on the drums from a pedagogical perspective and its educational benefit as well so that we can potentially integrate these concepts into our own playing.

This chapter will address how melody can be used in a pedagogical setting, and how it can be used to teach jazz drums effectively. The specific question that emerges becomes: “How can melody be used in the teaching of jazz drumming?” Following a survey of existing resources and a comprehensive literature review, a number of published jazz drumming methods and excerpts from various instructional methods were found to incorporate (in varying degrees) the application of melody on the drum set in a technical, method-based approach to learning to play the drums. Furthermore, many of the jazz drummers interviewed over the course of this research also offered, in some cases, several practical ideas as to how melody can be used in conjunction with a technical study of the drum set. Overall, these diverse methods and exercises, collected from various sources, all incorporate different aspects and applications of melody and combine them into practice routines and exercises that work toward a goal of furthering one’s overall musicianship as a jazz drummer.


During his interview and subsequent discussion, Berklee College of Music professor and drummer John Ramsay relayed his experience of studying with Alan Dawson. Dawson was known as an influential drum teacher in the Boston, Massachusetts area from the late 1950s until his passing in 1996. He instructed dozens of influential drummers including the likes of Clifford Jarvis, Tony Williams, Steve Smith, Joe LaBarbera, Joe Farnsworth and Terri Lyne Carrington, among many others. Dawson developed a highly technical teaching regime designed to teach the mechanics of jazz drumming. He incorporated an extensive use of the snare drum rudiments (collected in his “Rudiment Ritual” snare drum routine) as well as a variety of coordination and independence exercises based on applications of Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer and George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control. A significant portion of Dawson’s teaching method is documented in John Ramsay’s drum method book The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary as Taught by Alan Dawson (1998). Over the course of his interview, Ramsay referenced not only Dawson’s methodology but his own text and personal interpretation of Dawson’s exercises as well (drawn from his extensive personal experience of studying with Alan Dawson).

In addition to a complete technical understanding of the drum set, Alan Dawson sought to include musical applications of his technical exercises at any opportunity.

In Chapter Four of The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary as Taught by Alan Dawson (entitled “Soloing”) Ramsay begins by stating that:

Alan was always mindful of trying to balance his lessons and studies equally between technique and musical ideas. One of the ways in which he did that was by teaching you to solo over various standard song forms while you sang the melody to those songs aloud.196 From his experience of working with Alan Dawson, Ramsay concluded that Dawson’s overall teaching method combined a healthy balance between technical exercises and the acknowledgment of larger, important musical considerations (specifically melodic ones).

Specifically, the song forms and melodies that Dawson referred to and that he would assign his students were standard jazz compositions, generally composed in four and eight bar phrases and organized into AABA, ABAB, ABAC and 12-bar standard forms (among others). Examples of compositions that Dawson would use in his teaching include common jazz compositions such as: “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” “Misty,” “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Four,” “My Romance,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Blue Bossa,” “Summertime,” “Tune Up,” “Blue Monk,” “Solar,” “Now’s the Time” and “I’ll Remember April.”197 One exercise that Dawson would have his students practice involved interpreting pages from George Lawrence Stone’s method book Stick Control (specifically starting with page 5, column one, lines 1-12). His students would orchestrate the patterns between the Ramsay (1998: 48) Ramsay (1998: 49) snare and bass drum accordingly (interpreting them rhythmically as swung, jazz eighthnotes) while actually singing an assigned melody at the same time. The exercise consisted of playing four bars of timekeeping (playing the jazz swing beat on the ride cymbal with the hi-hat, played with the foot, on beats two and four) then playing alternate lines from Stick Control orchestrated between their hands and feet. As Ramsay explains, Dawson would have his students practice this routine in four and eight bar phrases so that the

interpretation of the lines from Stick Control would line up with the phrasing and barlength of the accompanying jazz standard tune. According to Ramsay:

This exercise will accomplish several things: you will develop hand and foot coordination, increase or develop your ability to feel four- and eight-bar musical phrases, teach you about song form, and, most important, it will give you the ability to solo over the form of a tune without having to count. This in itself will make your solos more musical and melodic.198 The ultimate goal of this exercise is to execute hand-to-feet coordination patterns while simultaneously expressing a melodic structure (in this case, by singing it vocally). It is quite significant that Dawson would use these jazz melodies as part of his technical routines rather than just have his students count numbers of bars while executing the exercises. The goal was not to learn how to be a singer, or to interpret melodies directly on the drums, but rather to gain the ability to hear melodies in conjunction with one’s drumming while at the same time developing the ability to hear larger phrases and

musical forms that are inherent within those melodies. As Ramsay further commented:

The way Alan explained it, the idea wasn’t that you would play the melody per se on the drums…but more importantly you are aware of the melody. So in that sense I think Alan was advocating being aware of the melody, you could say hyper-aware of the melody, because you had to learn it note for note. And just by that fact alone that would come through in your playing, particularly if you were soloing. But also when someone else is soloing that’s by far the best way I have ever known of how to keep your place in the tune and know where you are.199

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In a Percussive Notes interview with his former student Arvin Scott, Dawson himself emphasized the importance of developing a heightened melodic awareness and the role it plays in his own playing. When asked the simple question: “What are you thinking when you take a

drum solo?” Dawson replied:

Something different is going on in my mind for every drum solo. I’m using melody and form as the framework in ninety-nine percent of the cases, with the remaining one percent being the free solo. I especially like tunes with rhythmic melodies that make it easy for you to make statements on melody. For example, “Caravan” is a popular piece for drum solos, but from my standpoint it’s not an ideal tune because the melody is legato and spread out. It’s not active rhythmically and would be difficult to use as the basis for a solo. So with this tune, I would use the standard arrangement as a framework, which is a Latin style for the “A” sections and straight ahead for the bridge. This is in contrast to “Oleo,” where the melody is so rhythmic. It would be pretty difficult to sing and think this tune and not play the rhythm of the melody. So these things are to be considered in the approach to the drum solo.200 As Dawson describes, his overall approach to soloing on the drums relies heavily on his knowledge and use of the form and structure of the composition he is playing. Furthermore, he also explains his preference to solo on songs that have rhythmic melodies as opposed to ones that are rhythmically less active.

In this same interview, Scott describes Dawson’s melodic approach to drumming and he suggests to Dawson that, “You are consistently described as a melodic drummer, and your personal philosophy and practice of singing tunes as you solo reflects this style.”201 Dawson agreed with this statement and emphasized how he felt this to be an overall reflection of

the fundamental importance of melody and rhythm in music, in a broader sense:

In all the music of the world, the elements of rhythm and melody are present. Harmony is not necessarily present in all music. I don’t mean to imply that harmony isn’t great. It is, but it isn’t necessarily present in the music in all cultures like rhythm and melody.

–  –  –

Harmony is another addition – a sophisticated addition to making music – but it isn’t the basis.202 Overall, from Dawson’s experience as a performer, the notion of considering the importance of melody is obviously an important one and perhaps, in conjunction with the concept of rhythm, even more significant than harmony. Furthermore, it is reasonable to consider from his own statements and from the testimony of his students that this overall melodic consideration was considered an important part of his teaching method and philosophy as well.

Similarly, in his article “Establishing a Sequential, Vocal-Based Pedagogy to Enhance a More Musical Drumming Vocabulary (i.e., singing and playing makes you a better drummer),” James Drier, who was also a student of Alan Dawson’s, describes his own personal experience studying

Dawson’s melody-based technical exercises:

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