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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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When I hear the great funk drummers play, like Zigaboo Modeliste or Clyde Stubblefield, I hear melodies in the way they converse between the bass drum and the snare drum, how they deal with the highs and lows of the drum set and the way they dance between the two. To me that’s got a certain melodic quality to it because you can sing those drum beats and it’s got a certain lyrical quality to it.269 For Martin, the timekeeping drum patterns of funk drummers Zigaboo Modeliste and Clyde Stubblefield demonstrate a sense of melody in the way that the syncopated figures between the snare drum and bass drum interact with each other. He feels that this is further emphasized by the

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contrast of high and low sounds of the drum set, specifically the interaction between the snare and bass drum. He suggests that these represent a certain melodic sound due to their “lyrical” qualities; that one could even be able to vocalize or “sing” the ideas expressed.

Furthermore, Peter Erskine also pointed to Bernard Purdie as being an example of a backbeatorientated drummer whose playing also demonstrates a melodic quality:

Another drummer that I would include as melodic would be Bernard Purdie if you listen to the way he connects phrases and the dynamic shape. I consider the dynamic shape to be a very important part of melody, especially when you’re talking about a percussive or drum set driven melody.270 Erskine believes that Purdie’s approach to the drum set represents a melodic approach due to his attention to the dynamic subtleties that he interjects into his timekeeping patterns. From his own observations Erskine determined that rather than playing a drum pattern in a static, monodynamic way, Purdie would often phrase his patterns with subtle dynamic crescendos and decrescendos creating, as Erskine describes, an “arc” to the overall phrase. In a conversation

between Erskine and Purdie, Purdie agreed with this notion:

I was talking to Bernard once, you know his beats were great and the groove was fat and clever and all these things, but I said: “Bernard, the thing that stands out probably the most to me is that whenever you would play like a descending figure on the drums, there was a very interesting crescendo/decrescendo ‘arc’ to it.” And as I was in the middle of saying this his eyes kind of opened up real wide and he got this big smile. He started shaking his head and he said that’s really where he felt his contribution was. And that was the key to it. It wasn’t so much just the fat beats that he had but he played with a sense of phrasing.271 In Erskine’s opinion, Bernard Purdie’s drumming represents a melodic approach due to the intentional dynamic phrasing of his timekeeping phrases. This is consistent with Erskine’s earlier comments that melodic drumming is not necessarily purely represented by attempting to play melodies verbatim on the drum set but instead a reflection of an intentional use of

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dynamics and intentional phrasing. Erskine’s own personal interpretation of Purdie’s drumming in a Funk style of music is an example of how one can apply the concept of playing melodically in a non-jazz style of music, by applying subtle nuances of dynamic contrast over the course of a timekeeping pattern.

7.5 SUMMARY Throughout the interviews conducted over the course of this research, many jazz drummers cited a variety of influences and their sources of inspiration with regards to applying melody on the drums. While many individuals cited specific drummers as examples of being “melodic” in their style, others provided examples of other styles of music or percussion as valid melodic ideas.

Most of the drummers interviewed all praised the learning of another instrument, such as the piano or vibraphone, and general studies of harmony and music theory to improve one’s overall understanding of music and practice as a musically-aware drummer. Drummer Jack DeJohnette is a prime example of a drummer whose piano playing is viewed as having a profound influence on his drumming.

Drummers, such as Billy Martin and Dan Weiss, also shared how their approach to melodic drumming was influenced by their studies of percussion in other musical realms. For example, Martin cited his extensive study of both Brazilian and West African drumming traditions while Dan Weiss credited his study of North Indian tabla drumming and his attempts to replicate those pieces as accurately as possible on the drum set.

Interestingly, several drummers expressed their admiration and impressions of melodic drumming in contexts other than that of jazz drumming. Peter Erskine discussed a broad impression of melodic drumming in Bernard Purdie’s use of subtle dynamic nuances while maintaining timekeeping patterns in a funk or rock/pop drumming context. Similarly, Billy Martin also cited the examples of funk drummers Zigaboo Modeliste and Clyde Stubblefield as being melodic by virtue of their syncopated snare drum and bass drum combinations, used while playing time in a funk drumming situation.

Recognizing the variety of influences that inspire a drummer to pursue a given conceptual or technical approach is significant and worthy of including in this discussion. Perhaps this discussion can offer some insight into why drummers choose to express themselves in the way that they do. Furthermore, if we can identify the variety and depth of these different sources then perhaps we can also use these roots to inform, motivate and inspire our own personal conceptual and technical approach to dealing with melody on the drums.

Bob Gullotti perhaps best sums up the overall benefit of studying a diverse collection of ideas and experiences in that: “The more you understand, the better you’re going to play. The more you understand, the deeper the music can get!”272

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The musical potential of the drum set is limited only by the imagination, intention and overall musicality of the drummer who plays this instrument. In this dissertation I have explored how the consideration of melody can be used in various ways, to explore the musical and creative potential of the drum set in the context of jazz music. Keeping this mind, the specific question I

originally asked over the course of this thesis has been:

How do jazz drummers use melody when they play the drums?

The various means in which a melodic approach to jazz drumming is practiced and accomplished has been addressed throughout this research primarily through analyzing and comparing interviews with several of today’s accomplished jazz drummers. Furthermore, ideas and concepts from a variety of other sources have assisted in compiling a wide collection of resources.

Overall, these all relate to a broad discussion of how melody is used from a jazz drummer’s perspective.

As demonstrated from the commentary offered by many different jazz drummers, I have discovered that melody can be used on the drum set in varying capacities. This ranges from literal and specific applications on the drums, to broader conceptual (even philosophical) considerations. The personal insights into how melody factors into a jazz drummer’s performance practice that are presented in this research, reveal a multitude of practical

information and a wide range of ideas that can be considered when asking the further question:

“What does melodic jazz drumming mean?” My investigation and analysis of the conducted interviews revealed many common themes and areas related to melodic jazz drumming. The ideas that emerged from these discussions have been organized so that specific common thematic areas can be further discussed. I have organized my observations and conclusions into seven specific thematic areas that emerged over the course of this research. These areas include: 1) general overall philosophies that acknowledge melody in a way that promotes playing the drum set generally as musically possible, part of a broader approach to musical drumming; 2) applying melodic principles and concepts while playing the drums in an ensemble, as an accompanist, and in a general, in a timekeeping context;

3) using melody as a tool to construct and develop improvised drum solos derived from some kind of melodic concept; 4) a discussion about the style and influence of jazz drummer Max Roach; 5) devising techniques to manipulate the pitches of the drum set in order to approximate, to varying degrees of accuracy and specificity, actual pitches and specific melodic content on the drum set; 6) incorporating melody into drum set pedagogy, combining technical studies with a melodic concept in order to develop a broader sense of musicality on the drum set in conjunction with expanding one’s technique on the instrument; 7) discussion related to diverse formative influences that reflect a melodic approach to drumming.


Fundamentally, melody is considered by most of the jazz drummers I surveyed as being part of an important overall musical approach to playing the drum set. The answers to the first question that I presented during the interviews: “Why is melody important?”, reveal a fundamental philosophy and attitude that recognizes principles of utmost musicality as an overall priority (rather than a narrow rhythmic, drum-centric approach, strictly-speaking). The drummers in question all consistently consider themselves to be: “musicians first, drummers second” and “musicians that happen to play the drums.” In Adam Nussbaum’s own words: “The music is our main priority, our foremost priority...We are obligated to serve it, protect it and honour it.”273 For Nussbaum and others, recognizing and reflecting melody in their playing is part of an overall musical approach to the drum set which serves to benefit the entire ensemble and the overall fabric of the music in question. This is accomplished by playing the drums in a way that is sympathetic (for example: texturally, dynamically, rhythmically, etc.) to the rest of the ensemble.

For many drummers, melody is part of a larger musical equation, one that recognizes that the drums and rhythm are only pieces of a larger overall musical consideration.


How jazz drummers literally apply melody when they play the drums takes on many different forms. Generally, the application of melody in terms of actual performance practice, can be divided into two areas: 1) when drummers are playing with other musicians (as an accompanist) or 2) when drummers are playing by themselves (as a drum soloist).

When playing with other musicians, jazz drummers commonly use melody as a musical reference point. For some, constant internal repetition or recollection of the initial melodic theme allows them to maintain a regular, steady tempo during a performance. For others, specific study and constant referral to the original melody of a composition reveals the overall form and structure of a piece. Both uses of melody employ the use of not only recognizing its composition but also analyzing it and consistently using it as an internal reference point while playing the drums. When the drummer accurately and consistently reflects the form (or structure) of the

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piece, they are able to help contribute to the overall cohesiveness of the ensemble in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, while the drums are not considered to be a harmonic instrument (certainly at least not in the same way as a piano, guitar, double bass, etc.), the constant melodic awareness throughout a piece of music allows a drummer to develop a sort of a musical “common denominator” which allows them to connect with other instrumentalists. This ultimately allows a drummer to efficiently play together with others, rather than dealing with an approach that focuses strictly on rhythm.

These approaches, in which a melodic awareness is used in aid of a timekeeping structural role, demonstrate that at the very least thinking of melody, while not necessarily playing melody, is considered to be an important aspect of melodic drumming and contributes to an overall melodic sensibility in one’s playing.

Keeping in the context of playing the drums as an accompanist, some drummers viewed the idea of playing melodically not in terms of “what” they play but rather “how” they play something on the drums. For these drummers, how a rhythmic passage is played in terms of its articulation (as either a long or short notes) in conjunction with which instruments it is expressed on (i.e.

orchestration) is representative of a melodic approach to jazz drumming.


The interviewed drummers presented many different interpretations and approaches to the application and interpretation of melody in a drum solo context (i.e. considering melody in an improvisational context).

Many addressed the question of whether or not it is absolutely necessary to approach playing a drum solo with specific pitches in mind in order for it to be considered genuinely melodic. Most felt that while it was a worthy (and impressive!) approach, the concept of melodic drumming was not necessarily dependent on doing so.

Many drummers preferred the idea that one’s overall musical intentions, when soloing, were actually the central elements that directed one towards melodic phrasing. That said, many believe that if a drummer is thinking and playing with a melodic intention in mind, melodic phrasing will reveal itself, in some way and at some level, in their playing.

However, while the intention of a drummer is indeed significant it does not necessarily provide clear answers as to how a drummer can play melodically on the drums without the use of clear, pitch-based material. Just because a drummer is thinking of melody while he is soloing, or intending to play with a melodic idea, does not absolutely guarantee that the results will offer a clear melodic sensibility. This is because the definition of what ultimately constitutes a melodic approach to jazz drumming can vary from drummer to drummer and is, perhaps, highly subjective. This answer, while honest, still adds a bit of mystery in the search for its true meaning.

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