«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»
These students had developed the necessary skills to play time in various styles, to read music, count measures and improvise solos. However, they had trouble keeping their place in the musical form when they were required to solo in jazz ensemble classes. Although they could count measures, they had great difficulty soloing on a 12-bar blues or 32-measure song form.246 In terms of a prescribed method, Emry’s approach is similar to that of Drier and others. It is a multi-step process of analyzing the form of a composition, adopting a vocal component and then building progressive technical steps around that on the actual drum set. However, the major difference is that Emry chooses a harmonic focus rather than a melodic one, as emphasized by so many others. Emry’s method is described as such:247
2) Write the roots of the basic chord progression using whole or half notes and rest whenever possible. Rests are important for breathing and space. Eliminate unnecessary
3) Sing the roots of the chord progression while playing time. The instructor could reinforce the students’ efforts by playing these notes on a pitched instrument (vibes, piano, etc.)
Like Drier, among others, Emry cites the importance of singing while playing the drums, however he specifically sings only what he considers to be the most important harmonic roots of a chord progression (in whole notes). He leaves out other chords in order to achieve the exercise’s goals. What constitutes an important chord or an “unnecessary” chord is not clear from his description.
He does acknowledge the singing of actual melodies, however he also believes that focusing on harmonic root chord tones of a progression will ultimately serve its purpose and doesn’t believe
that focusing on the melody of a piece is entirely necessary:
Singing the melody of the composition will also help the performer’s awareness of the form. However, some melodies are complicated and difficult to sing while playing drums, especially for students at an intermediate level. Whereas it is interesting and challenging to sing intricate melodies as you play the drums, it is fundamental to sing the root notes of the basic chords in the progressions. Singing the root notes also increases awareness of the bass part, which further helps the performer honor the form of the composition during improvisation.248 Ibid While Emry’s approach has merit and should be considered, he fails to address how a novice drummer might approach dealing with more complicated harmonic structures beyond that of the blues form. Given that many compositions can potentially have complex harmonic structures, this approach might be beyond the ability of many drummers. Furthermore, to diminish the role that melody plays represents a stark contrast to the other drummers interviewed and this, in my opinion, is perhaps is a bit shortsighted.
Focusing on developing and internalizing a harmonic foundation rather than a specific melodic one is echoed by Ian Froman who shared during his interview, his own thoughts on his personal
relationship with the harmonic aspects of a composition while playing the drums:
In many senses I think the harmony is even more important than the melody because the melody is played at the beginning of the tune and at the end, but the harmony is played throughout the entire tune. What happens is that if I can play the harmony of the tune and really follow the harmonic structure and the harmonic rhythm then I’m really inside the tune and this is particularly noticeable.249 Froman feels that internalizing the melody while playing is useful in certain situations but that an
overall harmonic awareness will be more beneficial to his playing:
I sing the melody to myself during the melody but if I sing the melody during anybody else’s solo it conflicts with the solo because they’re not playing the melody anymore. So what I sing or what I feel internally, it’s almost like I’m imagining the chords moving chord to chord. It’s like I’m feeling the harmony inside me, right to my core…so there’s no more melody at that point. It’s harmony, the harmonic rhythm and the form, essentially.250 He also stated that, when teaching students, he emphasizes the importance of understanding the harmonic rhythm of a given piece in order to provide a coherent relationship with the rest of the
Without a doubt, developing a harmonic awareness of a piece of music is very important and should be considered with equal weight in addition to any melodic knowledge. However, perhaps Emry’s approach, while well intentioned, is a bit of an over-simplification and fails to recognize the overall potential that can come from being able to sing a melody while drumming.
As many of the drummers have stressed, truly studying all aspects of a melody gives the musician more information about the form of a composition and many aspects of a tune’s overall construction (which includes the form of the composition). Furthermore, while neither melodic nor harmonic knowledge can be directly and literally played on the drums (although it can be implied), a melodic line will ultimately inform a drummer in a greater scale than solely a harmonic focus. Melodic rhythms can also be expressed on the drums whereas it would be very difficult to play a literal harmonic progression on the drums (although it could be attempted, albeit in an abstract way!).
However, this is not to say that thinking or playing from a harmonic perspective is not significant or cannot be used effectively. Froman, on the other hand, offers a more realistic approach to dealing with hearing and using harmonic movement in a performance situation.
When interviewed by John Riley, drummer Steve Smith acknowledged how, in some circumstances, he may think more from a harmonic perspective than a melodic one in order to inform his drumming and maintain his place in the form of a composition when he is soloing.
The discussion between them proceeded as follows:
Ibid Riley: When you are soloing, what’s going through your mind?
Smith: I’m singing the melody. I’m not thinking through numbers of bars at all. If I thought numbers of bars there’s a good chance I would mess up! I’m referencing the melody itself and sometimes you can even hear that in the solo itself.
Riley: Would you say that’s a philosophy you use with all kinds of songs, to reference or sing the melody to yourself as you are playing?
Smith: Especially in a tune like this (i.e. “Moment’s Notice”) - yes. Although there’s other tunes we do like when we play “Two Bass Hit.” It’s a blues so I’m not really thinking of the melody there but I am thinking of the twelve-bar blues form.252 It should be noted that using melody and/or harmony to inform one’s approach to playing the drum set are not mutually exclusive ideas. Certainly a drummer can use any combination of either/or to their benefit and satisfaction. It is certainly important to consider the harmonic aspects and implications of a composition and use them to one’s advantage while playing the drums (either as a timekeeper or improvising soloist). Perhaps harmony and melody should not be separated but rather considered equally as two parts of the same thing, which both contribute greatly to a drummer’s overall musical approach to the drums.
The amount of attention a drummer should place on either melody vs. harmony is highly subjective and would be very difficult to accurately measure. While many drummers acknowledge their use of harmonic awareness in their own playing, it isn’t always clear to what degree of use or accuracy they do so.
Shelly Manne described how at the every least, even a broad but intentional attention to harmony
and melody is important and will yield positive results:
The drummer, if he’s aware of music as a whole and listens in terms of form, melody and chord changes, without actually studying, he can become aware of these things and use them in his playing. Even though he may not be able to name what change logically follows another, he can sense it. In jazz, the sensing of that thing is just as important as knowing253 According to Manne, specific detail in terms of melody and harmony isn’t necessarily needed to be effective. However, as Manne describes, the “sensing” of both these items, at least in a broad, general sense, is still necessary. It should be considered an important skill to develop and it represents an important aspect of jazz drumming.
6.6 SUMMARY While melody can be used and expressed in a variety of different ways in the overall practice of jazz drumming (either as an accompanist or as a soloist), many drummers have demonstrated that it can also be applied in specific pedagogical contexts, and with great success. Incorporating a melodic element or concept into one’s teaching and/or practice regimes, combined with different technical aspects of drumming, can greatly benefit one’s musical approach to jazz drumming and overall command of the instrument. Furthermore, other drummers have demonstrated that the specific study and expression of melody can yield interesting results when further explored on the drum set.
Several jazz drummers and educators have demonstrated how melody can be incorporated into one’s practice regime. Most notably, the teachings of Alan Dawson (via himself and several of his students such as John Ramsay, Arvin Scott, Joe LaBarbera and James Drier) represent an approach in which one can combine singing various melodies along with specific technical exercises on the drum set. Dawson’s approach to teaching the drums involves the specific Riley (1994: 33) vocalizing of jazz standards while executing coordinated patterns from George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control. The benefit of this being, of course, that a drummer will then be able to express rhythmic patterns and different degrees of coordination on the drum set while at the same time considering the larger, overall musical context.
Similarly, drummers Ralph Peterson Jr., Yoron Israel, Allison Miller, Ted Warren and Adam Nussbaum all emphasized the importance of developing a functional knowledge of common jazz repertoire. These individuals pointed towards learning a large body of compositions as a means to developing melodic vocabulary on the drum set and becoming a competent, musical accompanist in a rhythm section. Significantly, they all described very similar, sequential methods that they use to teach repertoire development to drum students.
The concept of singing while drumming presented itself as a consistent, central theme amongst drum set educators who sought to develop not only technically competent drummers but musically inclined and aware ones as well. For some, the answer lies in singing melodies (although not using the lyrics or necessarily even the exact, specific pitches) while drumming.
For others, the approach lies in actually learning melodic solos and material drawn from other instrumentalists (specifically non-drummers). Bob Gullotti cites the benefit of studying the music of bebop alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Dan Weiss shared his extensive experience studying and learning improvised solos from a variety of musical sources including material drawn extensively from other instrumentalists. Both felt that this approach greatly benefited their overall musical approach to the drum set and had a significant influence on their sense of melodic phrasing on the drums.
Drummer Matt Wilson describes this concept of drawing from external musical sources and applying them to the drum set as: “Thinking beyond the boundaries of your own instrument.”254 This concept specifically refers to the idea of expanding one’s musical options as a drummer by incorporating ideas from other musical sources sought from beyond the drums. The benefit of this of course, is that a drummer will develop the ability to hear and view the drums in a larger musical context, free from a restrictive, “drums-centric” perspective, and perhaps, ideas that are non-intuitive, strictly speaking, as a drummer. Furthermore, this will also allow the potential for a drummer to develop and express creative ideas, ones that are not obviously drawn from common drum vocabulary.
Similar to the others, Bob Emry recognized the importance of singing while drumming in order to internalize the form of a composition and help keep one’s place while playing. However he advocated for focusing on the harmonic root movement of a composition rather than the melodic activity in order to do so. While he does acknowledge the importance of recognizing melody, he feels that a harmonic focus yields superior results. Ian Froman also expressed his concern about focusing too much on melody while playing in the context as an accompanist. His rationale is that this might interfere with whatever it is the soloist might be playing. Rather, he feels that an intimate knowledge of the harmonic rhythm of a piece is integral to executing a successful performance.
Overall, the common theme shared by most of the drummers addressed in this chapter is that they recognize the importance of being able to express a melodic and/or harmonic idea or concept in conjunction with the technical aspects of drum set playing. They internalize a melody by singing it out loud and then translate that into practice while they actually play the drums.
Wilson (2011) Using melody and actually singing melodies while drumming is considered to be an effective tool in developing a high level of overall musical awareness and musicianship as a drummer. Not only do many drummers consider melody to be an important element of their own playing, but they have also sought out ways that they can put this into legitimate practice. Furthermore, many have developed structured pedagogical approaches to teaching this material to drum students in organized ways.
The overall philosophy and concept of combining a musical idea with the technical aspects of drumming and then translating it into an overall musical approach to the drum set can be
summed up by Bob Moses when he states in his text Drum Wisdom: