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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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There should be a musical idea behind everything you practice, just as there should be a musical idea behind everything you play. It’s a bad habit to separate the drums from music.255 Moses, as others have stated, emphasizes the overall importance of thinking along musical lines at all times while playing the drums, even when dealing with the drums isolated in a practice room. Drumming, even in its study, should always reflect a higher musical purpose.

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An investigation into the various influences that inform a drummer’s melodic concept on the drums is equally as compelling as the drummer’s own personal approach and application of melody on the drum set. It is worth considering many of the diverse influences (whether they be specific, individual drummers or broader styles of music and experiences) that inspire a given drummer to pursue a melodic approach to the drums. While often very personal and subjective in nature, the discussion of what sources influence a drummer to address a melodic approach to drumming can also sometimes reveal an important context for any further consideration of a drummer’s technical or conceptual approach. In particular, this information can help us appreciate why and how a drummer addresses the drum set in a given way. While these musical influences may vary considerably from one drummer to another, as a whole they are all significant and it is worth recognizing the diversity of these sources. While many individuals cited specific jazz drummers as being melodic, many other significant influences were alluded to as well.



In conversation with Toronto bassist Steve Wallace, he recalled how when touring with drummer Jake Hanna (an accomplished sideman, formerly of Woody Herman’s “Thundering Herd”), that Hanna would frequently carry a small, portable xylophone with him, wherever he performed. In his spare time (either backstage or in his hotel room) he would often practice the melodies to his favorite standards on his portable mallet instrument. Hanna referred to this as his daily “melody vitamins.”256 This anecdote reinforces not only many of the approaches to connecting with melody from Chapter Six but also presents the idea of drummers playing other melodic instruments with the goal of making a deeper connection with melody. In Hanna’s case he used a portable xylophone to do so but many drummers also look towards the piano, the vibraphone and guitar (or other instruments) as a source of melodic inspiration.

Jack DeJohnette is a prime example of a jazz drummer whose experience as a pianist has

helped shape his drumming. A Downbeat magazine feature article describes that:

“Another important aspect to DeJohnette’s talent is how his piano playing and writing

impact his drumming and music.”257 In response to this DeJohnette agrees with this claim:

They [playing piano and composing music] help me think more orchestrally. Add to that, I’ve been referred to as being one of the most melodic drummers around.

That might have to do with tuning the drums in a melodic way so that every time I play one of the components on my kit, there’s always a melody happening. I’m always thinking in terms of composition. Playing the piano and writing helps me do that, and to have a better overall sense of what’s going on in the music. It also helps me to know how best to complement a composition and the soloist with their improvisation. And the instrumentalists know I can hear everything they’re playing and where they’re coming from. They have that trust that I will be there supporting them.258 In DeJohnette’s assessment, his piano playing has had a direct influence on how he hears and plays melodies on the drums as well as influencing his approach to playing a composition and accompanying other musicians. Furthermore, his self-described method Wallace (2014) Ephland (2010: 39) Ibid of tuning his drums to higher pitches combined with his experience as a pianist has also

influenced his melodic approach to playing the drums, particularly in a solo context:

My first instrument is piano so I am always hearing melody along with the rhythm. If you’ll notice my drums are tuned relatively high to most drum sets and I tune them that way because it makes me play melodies, it makes me more melodic. So whatever drum I hit it’s going to set off a melody.259 Furthermore, DeJohnette feels that the study of the piano or a keyboard instrument should be

mandatory for any drummer serious about pursuing a musical approach to the drum set:

I think the would-be drummer should study the keyboard before he gets to the drums. Or he can get into piano and drums at the same time. It would help him think "music," not just "drums."… You know, everyone thinks of me as a drummer who knows how to play piano too. But, actually, I was a piano player before I was a drummer.260 Many other drummers also professed their study of the piano (or another instrument) and how this benefited their drumming. Ali Jackson described how his piano playing improved his overall

sensibility, particularly to harmony, while he plays the drums:

It’s a great advantage because you can understand how harmonically things work. You won’t get lost in the tune because you can hear all of it. You can understand the choices that can be made harmonically and it can prepare you for what choices you will make from a textural or rhythmic framework.261 How the study of another melodic instrument has an actual melodic impact on one’s drumming varies from drummer to drummer. For DeJohnette, the effect of learning the piano was very specific in terms of his approach as a soloist and as an accompanist on the drums. However for others, this knowledge can also benefit in a broader way. As Jason Marsalis describes, his vibraphone studies have greatly developed his understanding and appreciation for melody and

harmony as a drummer in the wider scope:

DeJohnette (2014) Perry (1980: 27) Jackson Jr. (2011) It makes you more aware of the whole of the music: the melody, the chord changes, the form and how to interact with all of the other musicians. That’s how the vibes have helped me. It has really opened up my overall awareness of music.262


Many of the drummers interviewed considered their own personal melodic sensibilities to be influenced by other drummers, percussionists and experiences not necessarily associated with the jazz tradition. Rather, these influences came from various ethnic styles of percussion found in music traditions from other parts of the world.

For Billy Martin, the influence of Brazilian music has played a central role in terms of his own personal drum set style and, specifically, this has strongly influenced his melodic approach to the


I think for me it (i.e. dealing with melody) came more out of Brazilian music. In my early development I discovered Brazilian Samba and Batucada and all these different parts of Brazil that had certain specific percussion styles. What I learned, through taking apart all these rhythms, was really about all the different percussion instruments. I actually stopped playing the drums for a couple of years almost and I learned each individual instrument in the Batucada groups. So whether it be a two-tone agogo bell, the cuica, pandeiro, caixa, snare, ganza, or repinique, they all had a voice and that made me realize that there was this counterpuntal, musical and sophisticated approach to playing rhythm with a certain melodicism in there.263 Not only was Martin exposed to a style of music rich in rhythm and percussive texture, he also recognized how those individual parts represented individual melodies on their own. Then, when combined, the melodies came together to create a complex rhythmic structure that also implied, in his opinion, a certain sense of melody. Martin’s immersion into the Brazilian percussion rhythms of Batucada and Samba were so extensive that when he went back to playing the drum

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set, he felt that the same rhythmic and melodic sensibility that he had gained from playing

Brazilian music naturally transferred over to his drum set playing:

I was learning claves. I was learning two-tone clave patterns and a more expressive solo style. So this made me aware of rhythmic melody. That made me aware of melody to such an extent so that when I got back on the drum set, I was doing everything automatically. I wasn’t thinking: “Oh now I’m playing melody.” I was just always playing that way. I loved it, you know.264 As Martin’s experience developed he also quickly realized the significance of the melodic

content that permeated not only Brazilian drumming styles but also found itself in other contexts:

And then later, when I started getting more soloistic, improvisational and expressive, I started to realize that melody was coming out and that it was also compositional. I think when you’re thinking compositionally you can’t avoid melodic expression, in general, when you’re playing. But, as you know, melody is different to everybody. Melody can be just rhythm.265 While Martin acknowledges that the interpretation of the concept of melody can be very subjective and personal, to him the recognition of the melodic aspects of Brazilian percussion further exposed him to a wider consideration of drumming in a compositional way in general, and how melody naturally factors into this.

Martin’s personal studies also included different rhythm structures and styles found in the African diaspora, specifically the rhythmic concept of clave. He discovered how the clave rhythms from the regions of West Africa, Cuba, the Caribbean, Brazil and New Orleans, while varied, are very similar. For Martin, the way these clave rhythms are designed and interact with the other rhythms of an ensemble also implies a sense of melody and contributes to a melodic


To me, it’s like talking about rhythmic harmony and to me the way most African rhythm is structured, West and Central African rhythms in particular, they are all counterpuntal, no less than Bach’s chorales. I would say that each rhythm has its own voice (but it could even be one tone as well). When you listen to the music and you listen to the masters Ibid Ibid play, those rhythms have a deeper expression of dynamics and little tonal nuances. It’s like someone speaking a language. Each line, in a microcosmic sense, there’s a lot going on in each line. You could have, say, four rhythmic lines but each one generally has a different tone. Whether it be relative or not, you hear them because they’re different pitches or sound qualities that make them different tonally and create a melodic combination.266 Martin feels that the combination of rhythms found in a West African drumming ensemble and the different tones of the percussion instruments, when combined, lend themselves to a strong melodic combination. For Martin, his experience of playing Brazilian and West African percussion music had a profound influence on his drum set playing.

7.3 NORTH INDIAN TABLA For Dan Weiss, the influences of his North Indian tabla studies and rhythmic concepts have greatly influenced his melodic approach to the drum set. Weiss was eager to share how his experience dealing with these particular areas helped influence his total approach to the drum set in terms of how he deals with rhythm. Furthermore, he feels that melody plays greatly into tabla

playing and that this has affected his melodic approach to the drum set as well:

I’ve been studying tabla for about fifteen years and a lot of the compositions, they’re kind of melodies within themselves. You have so many tones and sounds on the drums that the combination of those sounds and patterns create a kind of melody. So thinking along those lines, I’ve tried to recreate some of those melodies on the drum set. When I’m playing, I’m trying to hear the contour of the rhythms as if I was playing the Tabla but on the drum set. Overall I’ve tried to take the melodic aspect of playing Tabla but play it on the drum set, trying to capture those melodies on the drums.267 When asked to elaborate on how he achieves the replication of these tabla pieces or “melodies” on the drum set, Weiss described how he has developed very specific guidelines in order to do so. Matching certain tones and strokes, as played on the tabla, to the drum set (with further

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specific strokes and drums), creates a logical connection to the original patterns and instrument

and, according to Weiss, a melodic sound is created as well. Weiss further commented on this:

I try to be extremely specific about how I do this but allow room for trying to get a balance between the shape and the melody of the composition and keeping in mind the limitations of the drum set. There are certain phrases that are stock to Tabla which have melodic content in themselves so you have that kind of built-in intonation that you’re drawing from. So that can all be carried over to the drum set.268 Through his directed and specific studies of North Indian tabla drumming, Weiss has developed the ability to transfer this information and approach directly to the drum set. Because he feels that many of these rhythms and compositions inherently have a melodic construction to them, this built-in melodicism transfers over naturally when he chooses to play them on the drum set.

7.4 FUNK DRUMMING Quite interestingly, Billy Martin and Peter Erskine both spoke about how they feel that melodic drumming found in other styles of drum set playing has influenced their music as well.

Specifically, Billy Martin offered his impressions of how several funk drummers often exhibit a

sense of melody in their approach to timekeeping. As Martin described:

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