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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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If a drummer played Mary Had a Little Lamb on their tom-toms or snare drum by changing the surface tension of the head with their elbow (which is kind of an old trick) and the reaction was “that’s the most melodic drumming I’ve ever heard,” I’d say – I would disagree. Because playing Mary Had a Little Lamb doesn’t really constitute any melodic profundity or anything like that. It’s not just the fact that pitches can be made apparent on a percussion instrument. You can’t say that it’s not a melody, but at the same time I don’t think that’s what we mean by melodic drumming. In the end they may be playing a melody on the drums and yet still be playing some really dumb stuff!20 Erskine does not deny that imitating a melodic statement on the drums is plausible; he only suggests that a broader consideration and musical application of the idea of “melodic drumming”

is indeed possible and necessary. As Erskine continues:

For example, drummer Terry Bozzio has explored the use of an extraordinarily large drum setup using a combination of chromatic and diatonic drum tuning in the context of solo drum performances for some time now.

Erskine (2011) Melodic drumming, I think, carries a little bit of baggage with it (and not bad baggage) in that it means being musical. Being a melodic drummer means one doesn’t play from sticking habits or playing for effect, but they’re actually playing with a consciousness and awareness of all the elements that make a piece of music sound the way it does.

Personally I think often times a melodic drummer is analogous to being a musical drummer.21

Similarly, Barry Elmes describes how the term “melodic drumming” can be misunderstood:

I mean, this thing that people have talked about for years, melodic drumming, can be a real misnomer because melodic drumming to me doesn’t necessarily mean that someone’s sitting there trying to bang out melodies on the drums. It can mean that, yes, but that’s not what it means to me. Melodic drumming to me is a concept where what you play on the drums is based on melodic information as opposed to strictly rhythmic information. So instead of just playing things on the drums, you’re trying to express melodic ideas. You don’t have to play the actual pitches, but melody has shape and you can play shapes on the drums. You can play contours of lines on the drums and that’s what I try to do.22 To further this idea of melodic drumming being used in a broader and, perhaps, less obvious way, Joe LaBarbera recalled that his first encounter with the idea of “melodic drumming” came in the form of a question posed to him during a clinic in the 1970s while performing with pianist Bill Evans. He was even confused about its initial meaning, not exactly sure how to explain this

specific concept:

I remember the first time I was asked in a clinic back in the 70s about melodic drumming.

I had no idea of how to answer that question because for me it was just something intuitive that I did. I remember that first clinic and I just didn’t have an answer for that guy. I thought: “Oh, do you mean playing actual melodies on the drums?” It’s only after years of more experience and after becoming a teacher that I’ve had to analyze my own drumming and reflect on what it is that I’ve been doing and to be able to come up with some way to verbally express it.23 From LaBarbera’s experience a clear definition of “melodic drumming” was not even initially apparent to him before years of careful consideration. His own initial assumption after being asked about this in a drum clinic even suggested a definition of “melodic drumming” that relied Ibid Elmes (2007) LaBarbera (2011) on the concept of “playing actual melodies on the drums.” LaBarbera has since further developed and refined this conceptual approach following years of musical experience and reflection.

From these three drummers and Monson’s assertion we can quickly see that melodic drumming can take on a broad, multi-dimensional definition and shouldn’t be considered or limited to a singular conceptual or technical approach on the drum set. The questions therefore present themselves: how far can one go with this idea of using melody to inform and shape one’s drumming? How does the concept of melody factor into the wider spectrum of how a jazz drummer thinks, plays and operates conceptually? How many ways can melodies be expressed on the drum set? How does pitch factor into this? The answer to the initial concern “What does melodic jazz drumming mean?” can indeed seem elusive.

From the comparison of discussions with many of the world’s leading practitioners of jazz drumming it is evident and safe to say that for many the idea of “melodic drumming” goes far beyond that of simply trying to play melodies on the drums, in a note-for-note context (whether in a literal or approximate way). For many, the implication of “melodic drumming” has far greater meaning and overall consequences in the broader spectrum of music making on the drum set.

This dissertation will continue to examine, primarily through the use of interviews, how there is no singular definition of the concept of “melodic drumming.” As the information presented in this document will show, its ultimate meaning and application is often as personal and unique as the drummer who chooses to express himself using the concept of melody in their music.





1.5 METHODOLOGY With the main question of this research project being: “How do jazz drummers use melody?” the main focus of the source material for this qualitative research is drawn largely from personal interviews conducted with actual current and active jazz drummers.

This information is further supplemented by material drawn from an extensive literature review and from various sources in which the idea of “melodic drumming” is either mentioned or alluded to in some form or context.

The drummers who participated in this study were mostly interviewed in-person in New York City. However, in the event that in-person interviews were not possible, many interviews were conducted over the phone with persons from a variety of locations including: New York City, Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles and Berlin. These interviews were all recorded with a hand-held recording device and later transcribed and edited into written form for the purpose of analysis and comparison.

The individuals selected for this study were chosen largely on their availability and interest to participate. However, they were also all initially considered, contacted and asked to participate in this research based on their own activities as either active practitioners of the art form of jazz drumming, active recording artists, and/or educators in the field of jazz drumming. Furthermore, the individuals initially contacted are all recognized masters in their field of expertise, as judged by their peers and the jazz community at large.

An attempt was made to interview a wide range of musicians so that the sum of the information collected would ideally reflect a wide scope of individual experiences and opinions within the realm of what is currently considered to be contemporary jazz drumming. Consideration was also given to individual stylistic choices, stylistic associations and each drummer’s diverse musical and professional experiences as an attempt to gather a cross-section of opinions drawn from a wide array of approaches rather than focusing on one specific stylistic approach to contemporary jazz drumming (or a specific “group” of jazz drummers based on age, stylistic choice, etc.).

The questions posed to each individual during each interview were asked with the intention of generating an open discussion about their personal use of melody in their drumming and their philosophy towards melody and its relationship to jazz drumming in general. While specific questions were asked, it was not my intention to conduct each interview in an absolute and direct question-and-answer format, but rather to use each question as a departure point to initiate an open conversation and discussion about how each individual views and treats melodic principles in their music. I felt that if I were to limit my interviews to a concise questionnaire format this would perhaps limit the opportunities for the subjects to fully express themselves. Without full expression of thoughts, the opportunity to expose certain areas and relevant topics would potentially be lost. Furthermore, it was not my intention to influence my interview subjects nor their answers or opinions by asking narrow questions. Throughout each interview I welcomed the opportunity for further elaboration on the subject.

Over the course of these interviews and discussions many of the subjects interviewed would frequently veer off topic and dwell on certain unrelated tangents (many of which were still very interesting, however not necessarily immediately relevant). However I felt that this is a necessary part of a healthy discussion/interview process and it is to be expected when subjects are asked to offer their own personal opinions and experiences.

Furthermore, subjects would often raise points and ideas related to the topic that I had not initially considered. I felt that this offered a great opportunity for myself to consider these other areas as well. I believe that by allowing an informal and open approach to my interview process the subjects were able to express themselves in an honest and open manner.

The questions presented to each individual, which served as a departure point for each

interview and conversation, included:

- As a drummer, why do you feel it is important to consider melody?

- How do you consider the use and expression of melody in the context of being a timekeeper and accompanist in a musical situation?

- How do you consider the use and expression of melody in the context as an improviser when you are playing a drum solo?

- What other drummers do you consider to be melodic and why?

- What other drummers and/or musicians do you feel have influenced your own personal melodic approach to the drums?

- What methods and techniques do you use to express melody/melodic ideas on the

–  –  –

- How does one practice or develop these ideas and the ability to play melodically?

- Can you give some examples of forms of drumming that you feel are non-melodic?

Over the course of the interviews some of the subjects elaborated on certain aspects of these questions more than others while in some instances some questions were only briefly addressed (or not at all). However, given the number of subjects interviewed and the amount of data collected, a number of sufficient answers were recorded to allow for a reasonable comparison and a collection of conclusions to be made.

The overall methodology of this paper was to distill the results from the collected interviews and upon analysis, to extract common themes from each of them and then, in turn, compare and contrast the results. Common themes and areas of discussion have emerged following the analysis and I have attempted to organize these subjects into different subsections allowing for the opportunity to draw conclusions based on the testimony given by the various participants.

In addition to the information drawn from the transcribed interviews with the participating drummers, material was also drawn from a variety of other resources. For example, excerpts from interviews found in existing published resources with many other jazz drummers where the topic of melody was mentioned were also used and considered (however brief at times). This allowed for the inclusion of ideas and commentary from drummers that are no longer living and/or that were not able to participate in a personal interview with myself over the course of my research for various reasons (i.e. due to lack of availability, lack of initial consideration on my part or even an interest or willingness to participate in my project). These particular interviews were drawn from a variety of sources including publications such as other dissertations, jazz related books, journal articles, magazines and on-line internet-based resources (such as Youtube.com and other websites).

Furthermore, many educational resources were included, such as the use of several drum method books and drum instructional DVDs. In many instances commentary on the use of melody and melodic principles were explored, to a certain extent, in each of these resources. I feel they warrant inclusion in this discussion since many of the interviewees often referred to certain pedagogical techniques over the course of their interviews. Since conceptual and technical aspects of melodic drumming have been touched on via various resources, I feel that it is relevant to the overall scope of my research that they should be included as well. Specifically, it is important to not only discuss the conceptual and technical approaches to dealing with melody on the drums, but also examine how drummers engage those concepts within a teaching and developmental context.

I will examine how melody has influenced many different jazz drummers and their approach to playing the drums in a musical context. This will be accomplished by drawing on the personal opinions and experiences of several recognized masters of jazz drumming while at the same time using current literature and other available resources to support the claims and ideas of the persons interviewed.

1.6 LITERATURE REVIEW A review of existing literature that discusses, in-depth, specific aspects relating to the topic of melodic jazz drumming and its practice reveals a surprisingly limited number of resources.

While still significant, there are only a handful of dissertations that deal directly with jazz drumming and even fewer that deal with some aspect of melodic jazz drumming. The topic of melodic jazz drumming is mentioned and alluded to in various limited forms over the course of several jazz-themed publications that overall deal with a) a broader investigation into the practice of jazz music in general, b) aspects relating to jazz drumming in its wider scope or c) through the analysis and discussion of specific jazz drummers sometimes combined with biographical information.



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