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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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The use of singing and drumming was presented to me most significantly by legendary jazz drummer/teacher Alan Dawson, who I had the privilege of studying with in the early 1980s. Alan was a big proponent of singing and playing. He would ask his students to learn a different jazz standard for each lesson. The students would then play various drum set applications from Stick Control while singing the tune out loud.203 Furthermore, Drier came to several conclusions similar to Ramsay’s and Scott’s after spending

time devoted to practicing this melodic, coordination exercise using Stone’s Stick Control:

I found this to be clumsy and difficult at the time, but through the years I became more aware of the value of this vocal/drumming exercise. I know now that singing out loud and playing has helped my own “musical “ sensibilities in several important ways. First, it made me keenly aware of melody as a primary musical focus when playing.204

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By incorporating a melodic element within a technical, coordination exercise, as taught to him by Alan Dawson, Drier realized the overall importance of learning to appreciate melody in the context of drumming. This also led him to consider why younger drum students sometimes have

issues relating the drums to a greater musical context:

Drummers, especially young drummers, often focus inward, to short rhythmic phrases and on personal coordination issues. Singing the melody forces students to open their ears to a larger musical work.205 Drier also came to the conclusion that combining a technical/coordination drum exercise with a

melodic component ultimately creates a larger awareness of song-form:

Singing melodies forced me to focus on the structural form of each tune (AABA, AAB, ABA, 12-bar blues, etc.). Singing the melody necessitates awareness of song-form.

Although Alan Dawson would allow some fudging on the melody, he was adamant about keeping the song form together on each tune. It was impossible to fool him on this, whether he was listening or playing along on the vibes.

This realization that the specific knowledge of a melody leads to a larger awareness of the composition’s form is consistent with John Ramsay’s conclusions and is presumed to be an important aspect of Dawson’s teaching as well.

Joe LaBarbera, who was a student of Dawson’s at the Berklee College of Music during the 1960s, also recalled his experience of practicing these melodic Stick Control coordination

exercises and recalled the overall benefit that he gained from such a practice:

Alan would have us do specific things. I remember one exercise where we would be playing the patterns on page five of Stick Control. Starting at the top of that column, you’d use each two-measure phrase as a four-measure phrase. You’d have to play the exercise while you’re singing the melody. First you’d start out playing time for the first four, you’d have to sing the melody and then play the exercise at the same time as a fourbar phrase. So really you’re trading fours with yourself, basically. But the challenge is to separate your voice from your body and to be able to have that kind of independence where you’re playing whatever the specific eighth-note pattern is that’s on the page against your version of the melody you’re singing.206

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LaBarbera’s explanation emphasizes not only how this exercise develops one’s coordination on the drum set, but that specifically, it will develop a unique form of coordination. That is to say, the drummer will develop the ability to sing a melody while playing the drums and will, as LaBarbera describes, “separate your voice from your body.”207 From the experiences of Ramsay, Scott, Drier and LaBarbera, it is clear that Alan Dawson placed an importance on the musical application of his technical exercises (most notably using exercises derived from George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control). Dawson impressed upon his students the ability to incorporate such a relationship in a practical performance context as well.

To further his point, drawing on his own experience as a student of Dawson’s, Drier goes on to describe his own personal method of developing a drummer’s melodic sensibility. This method, in which he combines a technical study with a melodic basis, is summarized as follows:208

1) Acquire a recording of the tune.

2) Identify the musical structure (key, style, time signature, form).

3) Learn the melody of the “head” and sing it (play on a keyboard instrument if possible).

4) Play jazz time on ride cymbal and hi-hat on beats 2 and 4 (w/foot) and sing the melody

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5) Play the melody on the snare drum, while the ride cymbal and hi-hat maintain jazz time.

6) Play the melody around the drum set while the ride cymbal and hi-hat maintain jazz time.

7) Play the melody around the set with no cymbal ride pattern.

8) Play between the melodic phrases, around the set.

This is consistent with Michael Carvin’s earlier comment about trying to “…separate my mind from my body” with regards to simultaneously considering a melody and the technical aspects of drumming.





Drier (2005: 18, 20)

9) Play counter melodies around the set (use texts such as Art of Bop Drumming,

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10) Solo and improvise around the drum set.

This multi-step exercise is designed to instill the ability to play the drums, while at all times being aware of a greater melodic context. Learning a tune, analyzing it and then progressively introducing various conceptual drum exercises will accomplish this. The intent of each step is to always consider the melody of the tune while playing the drums.

Above all, the method of Alan Dawson and experiences of John Ramsay, Arvin Scott, Joe LaBarbera and James Drier demonstrate that it is important to not only develop technical facility on the drum set but to also be able to relate those ideas and perform them in a larger musical context. This can be accomplished by vocalizing standard jazz melodies while playing the drums. Combining various technical exercises with a vocal component allows a drummer to develop a deeper awareness of melody and overall song-forms. The drummer is also able to play the drums in a variety of ways while simultaneously relating to a larger musical context.

6.2 SING A SONG Evidently the emphasis on learning tunes and developing the ability to consciously relate to them while playing the drums is regarded as an overall important part of the drum pedagogy culture at the Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA). In addition to John Ramsay (via Alan Dawson) both drummers Ralph Peterson Jr. and Yoron Israel (both educators who teach at the school) stress the importance of learning melodies in order to enhance one’s overall sensibility as a musical drummer.

In his DVD Creative Jazz Improvisation for Drum Set, drummer Yoron Israel addresses this concept in the chapter “Using Melodies and Song Form as Inspiration for Improvisation.” Israel

states that:

Memorizing songs is crucial. Start by memorizing compositions in your favorite musical style. In the case of jazz, start with compositions based on the 12-bar blues form and 32bar AABA form. This will formulate a solid foundation.209 In terms of what jazz compositions a student should learn, Israel points to many iconic jazz

composers as sources for material (this is similar to Dawson’s list of recommended repertoire):

As a jazz drummer you should intimately know the works of such composers as Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Antonio Carlos Jobim and others like Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson among many others.210 Israel goes on to describe his process for learning tunes and emphasizes learning music from the

source, utilizing an aural process to assimilate melodic information:

The first step is to listen attentively to classic recordings. Then phrase the melodies as sung by the recorded artists. This will help you internalize the music. Utilize a piano or other instrument that enables you to play single notes and chords. And study the tune’s lead sheet. These tools will help confirm and crystallize what you are hearing on the recording. Later learn the other parts of the song such as lyrics, harmony, comping parts, bass lines and instrumental solos. Singing all of these parts will facilitate your ability to use this information in the context of drum set improvisation.211 Israel describes the process of properly learning a song as an in-depth study that combines the knowledge of the many aspects of a song’s construction. He also sums up the essence of learning a piece of music in that: “If you can sing it, you will be able to play it!”212 Israel adds that this overall approach gives him the opportunity to express himself on the drums in a more lyrical fashion and, again as others have stated, allows for a greater connection with

–  –  –

I am continually working on getting the drum set to “sing.” This is a difficult task as the sticks separate us from the instrument. However, the more you can attain this lyrical quality in your drum set performance, the better you will be able to blend with a given ensemble.213 It is interesting to note that Israel, not unlike other drummers (such as Max Roach), chooses to use the terms “sing” and “lyrical” when describing the goal of his drumming style and further implies a song or vocal-like quality that he is trying to achieve in his drumming. The fact that he would choose to use melodic information to inform his drumming makes perfect sense in this regard.

Similarly, Ralph Peterson Jr. also describes his approach and overall melodic philosophy in the

chapter “Playing Melody” from his instructional DVD Jazz Drumming Demystified:

Clearly one of the biggest components or areas of importance in my playing is the principle of melodicism or playing melodically. At Berklee I teach a class called “Drum Set Repertoire and Applications.” Basically what that is, is you have a 12-15 week semester and you have to learn fifty tunes in that process. The reason why there are so many tunes to learn is because the more tunes you know, the more melodies you know, the more natural resources you will have for building a melodic solo. If you don’t know any melodies then your solos are reduced to patterns, exhibitions of chops and focus on technique. The problem is that’s only interesting for about five minutes!214 Like Israel, Peterson’s approach to playing melodically on the drums begins with an intimate knowledge of established melodies. His rationale for learning a body of tunes is that he feels that having a functional repertoire to draw from will facilitate an expressive and melodic solo style.

Furthermore, Peterson also stresses the importance of maintaining a musical quality to one’s

drumming at all times and that the specific study of melodies will facilitate this:

Musicality holds the listener’s attention for a much greater period of time and appreciation. When you’re playing with a rhythm section or supporting a solo, you can be much more effective as an accompanist if you are aware of the “mile post” markers in the tune: the “A” section, the “B” section, the “C” section, how many bars are in the tune…then your level of knowledge increases exponentially if you have a harmonic

–  –  –

awareness of how the changes are moving, how often they change, whether the sound quality changes from major to minor or from sus to dominant.215 Overall, Israel and Peterson both point to developing a high functional awareness of melodic and to a certain extent, harmonic principals as well in order to successfully fulfill their role as a musical drummer within an ensemble. This also provides a broader musical context for a drummer to play with rather than one based primarily on only rhythmic and drum-based patterns.

This philosophy is shared by the teaching practices of Alan Dawson and overall, provides an insight into their approach to musical drumming. If the drum set is taught in a musical way by means of learning melodies to established jazz repertoire, then a heightened sense of musicianship while playing the drums can be achieved.

Furthermore, the idea of developing a functional repertoire by learning to sing a tune while playing the drums is recommended in both the methods of Allison Miller and Ted Warren. These are similar to Dawson’s initial exercises, and the method elaborated on by Drier.

In Miller’s article entitled “The Melody Puzzle,” Miller uses the Thelonious Monk composition “Bemsha Swing” as a tool to teach a musical approach to jazz drumming. Miller describes how new drummers generally ignore important musical considerations, and that getting deeper into a

composition will ultimately offer many benefits:

Aspiring jazz drummers often forget to learn the melody and form of songs. Learning the melody of a tune will inevitably improve your time, soloing and most importantly, listening skills.216

–  –  –

In Miller’s opinion, not only does developing a melodic awareness force one to familiarize oneself with the melody and form of the composition, it will also improve one’s timekeeping and soloing skills. Most significantly, as Miller points out, this will develop one’s listening and aural recognition skills.



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