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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 overall theme of clear and organized rhythmic phrasing was consistently mentioned as a way to create a melodic sensibility on the drum set. Clearly, for many drummers, the overall organization of a drummer’s rhythmic phrases at different levels (for example, playing in four and eight bar phrases, improvising over the form of the piece) plays an important role in creating a melodic sensibility. As Lewis Nash stated (among others), the impression of a melodic statement on the drums comes from intentionally playing clear and definitive ideas (described by Gullotti and Nash as being “lines” or “linear drumming”) all organized in a logical and developed way. Bob Gullotti described these melodic “lines” as having a clear “beginning, middle and end to them.”274 Furthermore, many described the use of repetition, space (rests), dynamics, accents and even sticking patterns as being key elements towards creating melodic ideas on the drum set. These elements all contribute to creating what Matt Wilson, Peter Erskine, Barry Elmes and John Riley all described as playing melodic “shapes” on the drums.

The transcription and analysis of a performance by Roy Haynes further illustrate these concepts.

This performance demonstrates that a great deal of melodic continuity can be clearly achieved on the drum set. In the case of Haynes’ performance on “In Walked Bud,” Haynes demonstrates how the literal rhythms of the original composed melody can be orchestrated on the drum set in a clear way. His subsequent improvisation also demonstrates how the repetition and development of specific rhythmic ideas and themes can be developed over measured eight-bar phrases.

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8.4 MAX ROACH While Roach chose not to emphasize the notion of melody in his own assessment of his personal approach to the drums in a solo context, but rather the overall organization of his drumming, it is not to say that other drummers haven’t recognized a melodic sensibility in his playing.

Regardless of his interpretation of his own playing, Roach’s influence in this area continues to be profound.

Many jazz drummers shared and discussed their influences with regards to dealing with the drum set melodically. Jazz drummer Max Roach was consistently cited as a major influence in this area despite the fact that Roach himself chose to refer to his approach as being a style of “conversational drumming.” Max Roach cited listening to solo jazz pianists, North Indian percussionists and an overall desire to deal with the drum set in a musical way as being influences towards his own personal solo style.

Despite Roach’s reluctance to describe his own playing as being “melodic,” his innovative and highly musical approach continues to wield a great influence over many jazz drummers.

Furthermore, an analysis of Max Roach’s solo drum set composition “Conversation” reveals his organized approach to drum soloing that uses clear phrasing and the development of orchestrated rhythmic motifs. Overall Roach’s approach to the drum set is significant to the overall discussion of melodic jazz drumming.

8.5 MANIPULATING THE PITCHES OF THE DRUMS

This dissertation also explored the specific technical approach of changing the pitch of the drums to create melodic content. As Ari Hoenig demonstrated through his in-depth commentary on his specifically developed techniques, the overall collection of discernable pitches of a limited selection of drums can be manipulated by pressing into the drum and applying tension to the drum head. According to Hoenig, with enough diligent and specific practice, a drummer can express melodies as clear as any other instrument. Hoenig’s approach and investment in these techniques represents some of the most in-depth discussion on this topic.

Similar to Hoenig’s approach, but not as specific, is Jeff Hamilton’s approach to playing melodies on the drum set (specifically in reference to his drum solo interpretation of the composition “A Night in Tunisia”). While Hamilton’s approach impresses a great deal of melodic continuity, it does not rely specifically on replicating the exact, pitch-for-pitch, accuracy of notes in order for it to be successful. As Hamilton describes it, he is creating a mirage in order to convince the listener that he is, in fact, playing a melody. This is accomplished by accurately reflecting the overall phrasing of the melody on the drums (i.e. accenting the change in direction of the pitches by either playing different drums or occasionally increasing the pitch of a drum by pressing in to it, like Hoenig, and using accents and subtle dynamic shifts within the phrase).

While Hamilton’s approach is not as specific as Hoenig’s, we are still left with an overall impression of a complete melody being stated on the drums that uses, to a certain extent, the manipulation of a drum head’s tension.

The lessons gained here are that melody can indeed be reflected on the drum set (an instrument often considered to be an instrument of indefinite pitch) with specific degrees of accuracy through specifically applied techniques.

8.6 MELODIC DRUM SET PEDAGOGY Using melodic concepts in the context of drum set pedagogy was also found to be a significant application of melody. Many teachers have devised methods of practicing various rhythmic and technical coordination patterns on the drum set that also involve the student simultaneously considering some sort of melodic concept. The goal of these methods is to encourage drum students to think of playing the drums from a musical context rather than from a narrow, technical and drums-centric perspective. For example, the method taught by educator Alan Dawson combines technical aspects of drum set playing with singing or humming common jazz melodies in order to promote an overall musical awareness and approach to drumming.





Many drummers and drum teachers look to non-drumming melodic examples as a means to influence their own approach, teach improvisation, and develop vocabulary on the drums. For example, Bob Gullotti points to the solo improvisations of saxophonist Charlie Parker via The Charlie Parker Ominbook while Dan Weiss transcribes and learns improvised solos by other instrumentalists and vocalists (all non-drummers) to develop their solo vocabulary on the drum set.

Overall, these different pedagogical approaches teach us that melody can be used and successfully combined with technical drum set studies. A common philosophy emerges that music and drumming should never be separated but rather integrated, even in the context of the practice room. Similarly, musical ideas and vocabulary from beyond the drum set can successfully be used in creative ways on the drums.

8.7 MELODIC INFLUENCES Many jazz drummers discussed their influences, from a melodic perspective. Specifically these discussions of various melodic influences included sources from outside the realm of jazz drumming. These influences included learning to play the piano, or other melodic/harmonic instruments (in particular through the experience of drummer Jack DeJohnette), Billy Martin’s extensive study of the rhythmic and percussion traditions found in Brazil, Cuba and West Africa and Dan Weiss’ study of North Indian tabla drumming. Peter Erskine and Billy Martin also praised the intricate and sophisticated rhythmic styles of funk drummers such as Clyde Stubblefield, Zigaboo Modeliste and Bernard Purdie as being significant examples and influences on their own playing from a melodic perspective. These were all described as being profound influences towards melodic drum set playing, at least in some capacity.

The variety and depth of influences with regard to melody demonstrates the significance of studying different styles of music and studying different drummers. While melody can certainly be found in a variety of contexts, it is clear that melody is something that great drummers listen for across all genres and through the study of other instruments.

8.8 LIMITATIONS AND CHALLENGES OF THIS RESEARCH

Several limitations were revealed over the course of this research. Most notable was the relative lack of available literature specific to the topic of melodic jazz drumming. To compensate for this lack of resources, a significant number of personal interviews were conducted with current jazz drummers, recognized experts in their field, in order to solicit their own personal opinions and experience with the subject matter.

The interviews were extremely beneficial and proved to be an invaluable resource and integral part of this discussion. However, several challenges presented themselves here as well. Many of the drummers, while enthusiastic about the prospect of talking about melody and greater overall musical concepts as applied to the drum set, demonstrated some degree of difficulty in articulating how they actually apply these specific concepts. Some individuals were able to answer certain questions more completely or clearly than others. This raises an important issue that some artists may be able to play or express themselves effectively in certain regards, but when it comes time to explain or even describe their own artistic process, their explanations aren’t necessarily clear or complete. The result of this, of course, is that some of the answers that many individuals provided were possibly incomplete, convoluted, or sometimes off on unrelated (yet highly interesting!) tangents.

One of the main goals of this paper was to ascertain how different jazz drummers think about how they consider melody when playing jazz drums (whether conceptually or technically, or a combination of both). The difficulty is that what individuals think they are doing in a situation, compared to what they are actually doing, can vary greatly!

8.9 FURTHER STUDY Further study and research about melodic drumming should also be considered and explored.

Possible courses of further research may include expanded interviews to reflect the concepts, thoughts, opinions and techniques of a larger pool of jazz drummers, and possibly even drummers and percussionists from outside of the jazz realm. Furthermore, it would be of great value to have each interview participant demonstrate their own approach to melodic drumming in a controlled environment.275 These examples could be recorded and then compared from both an audio and visual perspective.

It would also be worthy to discuss impressions of melodic drumming with other jazz instrumentalists and compare their thoughts and opinions on their rhythmic counterparts. The impressions of melodic drumming from a non-drummer perspective could potentially reveal some interesting and relevant observations and points for discussion.

From a technical standpoint, further transcriptions of selected performances by different jazz drummers should be considered, compiled and analyzed with the intent of establishing specific instances and examples of melodic continuity within their playing (whether as a soloist or as an accompanist). It would also be of value to transcribe a drummer’s performance and then followup with the actual drummer in question, and if possible gain first-hand insight into what they were thinking (or perhaps even what they weren’t thinking!). This would provide information on how melody may or may not have factored into their performance.

For an example of how this can accomplished refer to Steve Smith and Adam Nussbaum’s DVD production The Art of Brush Playing (2007) for a comparison and discussion of brush techniques between several established jazz drummers.

In terms of considering approaches to melodic jazz drumming that rely on manipulating the pitches of the drums themselves, more specific attention could be given to transcribing and documenting this approach (for example the works of such drummers as Ari Hoenig and Jeff Hamilton). Specifically, a method of notation that accurately and realistically represents the manipulation of pitches on the drum set should be explored and considered.

8.10 PERSONAL BENEFITS As a currently active and practicing jazz drummer and teacher, I have personally benefited from this research. The personal insights I gained have allowed me to successfully implement many of these concepts in my own performance practice as a contemporary jazz drummer. The conceptual and technical ideas that I have discovered with regards to melodic jazz drumming have been, and will continue to be, great sources of practical information and inspiration in the years to come. Furthermore, the information collected has also been an excellent source of pedagogical ideas, which I will continue to use with students of jazz drumming in my own teaching practice.

8.11 CODA This paper has discussed many conceptual and technical applications of melody largely through the words and experiences expressed by current and contemporary jazz drummers. Regardless of its application, I have discovered that jazz drummers consistently view melody as being a key element in terms of embracing music as a whole. These drummers are able to reflect this philosophy on the drum set in a number of different ways. Fundamentally, accomplished jazz drummers and educators recognize musicality as being a high priority in their own playing and that melody is an integral part of being a musical drummer. To reinforce this point, as Bob Moses so eloquently stated during the beginning portion of this paper: “If you know only drums, you don’t necessarily know music but if you know music, then you know drums!”276 While the exact definition of what constitutes melodic jazz drumming varies considerably, it has been shown to be applicable and expressed in many common ways with regard to jazz drum set playing. I feel that this research has highlighted the overall importance of thinking and playing melodically as a jazz drummer. The application of melody on the drum set should be taught and practiced. The consideration and creative exploration of melody on the drum set should be pursued with an overall musical goal in mind.

–  –  –

Aebersold, Jamey. The Charlie Parker Omnibook. Atlantic Music Corp, 1978.

Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. London: Da Capo Press, 1992.

Berliner, Paul. Thinking In Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994.

Bravos, Tony. “An Interview with Max Roach.” In Percussive Notes (June 1982): 39-41.



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