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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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Development of these motifs is examined in many specific ways including the concepts of repetition, sequence, fragmentation, extension, augmentation, diminution, retrograde, inversion, embellishment, simplification and rhythmic displacement. Furthermore, the second half of the book deals with other broader musical concepts, all with the goal of dealing with the drum set in a musical way. Written examples, provided with analysis, accompany each musical concept. Of particular interest is the section where O’Mahoney cites examples of these concepts in specific recorded performances of several jazz drummers. This text offers an effective method for implementing many valid compositional and orchestration techniques and concepts to the drum set in a solo context.

Hoenig’s DVD Melodic Drumming (2012) represents the most comprehensive technical explanation of how to use and replicate melodic information on the drum set. Presented in an informal yet organized manner, Hoenig demonstrates, step-by-step, different technical approaches to creating melodies on the drum set by means of manipulating the tension of the drums themselves and through musical, rhythmic phrasing. Hoenig’s in-depth approach will be described and discussed more in chapter five. This DVD should be considered the most definitive and comprehensive resource on melodic drumming at this present time.

The diverse collection of existing resources that refers to the concept of “melodic jazz drumming” and jazz drumming in general, while relatively small in number, still represents a wide range of concepts and ideas that are applicable to this study. These resources serve well to complement and supplement the overall multitude of extensive personal interviews conducted over the course of this research.


1.1 THE FOUNDATION Before one can explore the conceptual or technical possibilities of engaging in a “melodic” approach to the drum set, it is important to discuss the fundamental question:

“Why is melody important to a jazz drummer?” This question is important to consider before further exploring the possible uses and applications of melody in the context of jazz drumming. The answers provided through the many interviews conducted offer an important insight into the fundamental musical philosophies that these drummers have adopted, and ultimately inform their artistic and musical choices on the drum set (certainly with regard to melody but beyond that as well). Overall, these fundamental answers, with regard to the basic question: “Why is melody important?” set the stage for any possible melodic approach to the drums as well as any further artistic and musical expression on the drum set.

The drummers who shared their opinions and ideas with regard to their own personal concepts of “melodic drumming” over the course of these interviews all strongly agreed that at the very least, melody is fundamentally an important concept and part of being an overall musical drummer, regardless of its application. While the manner in which these drummers actually used or considered melodic concepts in their own playing varied, it is significant to note that all the drummers interviewed for this project considered a high level of musicianship to be an integral part of their overall functionality and artistry as a drummer. For example, Bob Moses emphasizes this idea of putting the music first in his book Drum Wisdom when he emphatically states: “If you know only drums, you don’t necessarily know music but if you know music, then you know drums.”25 This idea of “getting beyond the drums” was also emphasized by Joey Baron who offered that a total musical approach to playing was more preferable than playing the drums for its own sake

and central to his own philosophy of playing music:

For me melodic playing is focusing on that area of quality in the music. When you’re playing you’re not thinking: “right, left, right, left…” you’re not thinking technically, you’re not thinking of speed or endurance or anything like that, you’re just thinking of music. Melody is a part of music. If you’re “stuck in a drum,” that’s all you’re going to be playing. You’re not really going to be really playing music; you’re going to be playing the drums. But if you’re getting out of the drums and thinking music (and music includes melody, harmony and rhythm) then it’s all in there.26 According to the drummers surveyed, having a strong fundamental melodic awareness and an overall balanced musical understanding is consistently regarded as being an important part of a musical approach to playing the drum set. Understanding and thinking about melody through one’s drumming is viewed as a crucial part to being a responsible musician in an ensemble, regardless of its possible applications. It is also part of an overall “music first” philosophy (such as that stated by Moses and Baron) that most experienced and professional jazz drummers embrace and exhibit while they play music.

Inexperienced drummers or people with a limited understanding of the possibilities of the drums often view the drum set as solely a rhythmic instrument and can fail to realize how melody (and harmony, among other musical considerations) can also influence their music-making decisions in a positive and creative way. The drummers interviewed all agreed that playing the drums musically, sympathetic to those that they are playing with, is always a priority for them and the

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fundamental basis for their approach to playing the drums and music in general. The idea of being a “musician that plays the drums” as opposed to a “drummer who only plays the drums” with a disregard for any overall larger musical consideration is a central theme and an attitude shared by most of the drummers who were interviewed.

Drummer Adam Nussbaum was quite specific in his view of why melody is an important

element in his own approach to jazz drumming:

My feeling is that since I’m not really dealing with scales and harmonies, I really need to think of a melody and have a musical subject to grab on to. It makes what I’m doing sound like musical sense. I find that by having a melodic line in mind, I always have some kind of subject and topic that I can relate to and that makes whatever I’m playing hopefully sound musical. I’m trying to think about how I can create a musical line and not just play rhythms and patterns. For me that’s kind of like a basis that I use a lot when I’m going to play and it always gives me something that relates to the composition and hopefully I’m making some sort of melodic statement that ends up having a musical basis.27 For Nussbaum, the melody of a composition represents an idea that he can use that helps him relate to the other musicians in an efficient way. The melody represents a link between himself as a drummer and the overall musical context.

Furthermore, in Adam Nussbaum’s article “Playing Musically” (Percussive Notes, Dec. 1997), Nussbaum elaborates on how melody plays a crucial role in his own personal approach and how

overall musical drumming is first and foremost his priority:

The drummer should strive to be a good musician as a rule, not as an exception. So many drummers I’ve heard are just drumming away, working on licks – not on playing musically. Music is a language. We are obligated to serve it, protect it and honour it. The music itself, and the people you play it with, dictates the conception of how it is to be interpreted.28 Nussbaum (2011) Nussbaum (1997: 20) He further emphasizes that a fundamental overall sense of good musicianship is, in fact, the basis

for being compatible with other musicians in a group situation:

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This idea reinforces the philosophy that one must surrender certain ego-driven, personal agendas for the sake of the group and the music as a whole. The priority of playing drums in a group is to

make the other musicians comfortable in their roles. To that he adds:

My experience has been to put the reality of the situation first and my own personal agenda second. We have to serve the music. Most music is usually made up of melody, harmony, rhythm and form. To be able to perform appropriately, we must try to internalize what these components are in order to play and respond accordingly…the way we play should be based on what is going on around us. We need to have enough of a conception and technical ability so we can take care of what’s happening around us in the moment, without having to stop and think about it. This has to be second nature, just like walking and talking. We don’t think about that process anymore; we’ve learned it, now we just do it. It’s the same with music. We must be in the moment, the now, to listen, feel and respond.30 This overall philosophy of being “a musician first, drummer second” and “serving the music” was expressed by many of the participants, including Nussbaum. This idea, as well as other commentary on the importance of an overall musical approach to drumming, was a common theme that permeated the dialogues with the many jazz drummers who were interviewed. Most significantly, it is statements like these that illustrate how many drummers consider an overall musical approach to be at the heart of their philosophy as a drummer. This is a philosophy that goes beyond one of simply drum technique and other drum-centric ideas (such as those Moses and Nussbaum both emphasized previously). For these drummers, playing musically is the priority rather than engaging in an ego-driven demonstration of technique on the drum set.

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Dennis Mackrel further expressed this idea of striving for total musicianship as a drummer:

In order to be a complete musician, no matter what instrument you play, you have to recognize that music incorporates three basic elements: rhythm (which is what we as drummers mainly deal with), melody and harmony. If you are short in any one of those three elements then you aren’t really a complete musician.31 Furthermore, Mackrel emphasized that as a drummer, this wider, complete perspective of music (that goes beyond that of exclusively a rhythmic one) will allow one to connect with other

musicians and music at large on a higher level:

I think it’s important…because if you are going to play with anybody other than yourself or anyone other than other drummers, you need to understand where you are in terms of the music. You need to be able to relate to the music and to understand harmony and melody…but to really be able to relate to other instruments, that’s important. If you are in any way going to try to communicate your musical ideas to other instruments, you need to know.32 Mackrel also feels that because other musicians often misunderstand the drums, a fundamental knowledge of the language of music will help drummers “communicate” with other musicians in

a more positive, sympathetic way:

One problem that a lot of musicians have with us is that they don’t know how to “talk” to us. They basically say: “Don’t worry, you’ll hear it!” We need to be able to do the same thing to them and be able to explain what we want in terms they understand because that’s the language that they speak. We need to be able to speak that too.33 Overall, Mackrel feels that as a drummer, embracing a greater understanding of music beyond the primary elements of rhythm will provide one with the opportunity to connect musically with other musicians in a performance situation. For Mackrel, understanding music as a whole can only lead to a better musical connection with those around him. Proper musical communication via the study of melody and harmony is the key.

Mackrel (2008) Ibid Ibid When asked why he thinks considering melody is fundamentally important, Jason Marsalis replied that it’s because he feels it is an integral part of a positive musical experience for him and that one can only benefit from its study and application. His reply was quite direct when asked


So it (music) can be enjoyable! It’s good to be a complete musician other than just simply playing drums because the more confident musically that you are, the more possibilities you have, the more possibilities you have for your own music and for playing with other people…I think that when you understand melody and everything else, when you understand harmony and chord changes, it just opens up a lot of possibilities for the music and I think it can even open other listeners as well to the possibilities of what the drums can do too.34 John Riley chose his answer to this question by asking what happens if a drummer does not

acknowledge the melody or other wider musical considerations while playing the drums:

Well I guess we can kind of start to answer this question by describing the problems of denying melody and its primary organizing factor in everyone else’s play. So if a drummer isn’t aware of that then what does he relate to? He can relate to the tempo and maybe his style but it won’t get any deeper than that unless you have this bigger context and this increased awareness and responsibility that you are supporting and enhancing.35 Riley’s perspective is consistent with the other statements in that he feels that an absence of a wider musical consideration when playing the drums can only lead to a limited opportunity of expression.

Similarly, Dan Weiss (a former student of Riley’s) feels that the specific use of melody (at least in its broader consideration) allows him, like Adam Nussbaum, Dennis Mackrel and John Riley,

to connect with the musicians he his playing with on a deeper level:

I think that playing melodically gives you, the drummer, more of a spectrum to work with and approaching the instrument melodically can help you connect with your band mates on a higher level.36 Marsalis (2011) Riley (2011) Weiss (2011) A consistent theme emerges from these statements. These drummers feel that understanding and using melody as part of a larger musical consideration will lead to a) increased opportunities for musical expression as a drummer and b) the ability to connect with the other musicians he or she is playing with on a deeper level.

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