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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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Ali Jackson Jr. (drummer with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) describes, in his opinion, how a wider musical understanding and melodic concept is an

important part of developing a larger musical palette to draw from:

It’s all a matter of taste, right? It’s like you could eat at McDonald’s every day and it would be like okay. It might taste good for a certain amount of time if you’re not exposed to anything else. Musical taste is based on your experiences, so if you experience a wide range of things then you can start to delineate from a logical and deductive perspective and decide for yourself what are the most important qualities of all the things you have sampled. You can only do that if you’ve investigated and you’re interested in a variety of things. You have to ask yourself: “What is the best possible scenario or situation?” you know? That is what it boils down to. If it’s taught or if people are educated to know then we know what the “the best of the best” is and we can strive towards that.37 Furthermore, Jackson feels that studying and experience will contribute to developing a player’s overall vocabulary and overall options when playing the drums, including possibilities that

emerge when taking melody into consideration:

Now the depth of someone’s melodic playing is bound by their knowledge and study of music in general. So all the ways you can play, you will play. If I understand the vocabulary of early 1900s drumming, that’s part of my vocabulary. If I understand the vocabulary of 1920s style drumming, that’s part of it. If I understand the big band tradition and that lineage of drumming, I use that as well. If I understand New Orleans drumming, I can use that. If I understand Guyanese, Senegalese, Congolese, Cuban or Brazilian drumming then I can use all those aspects towards my vocabulary. You know, you can just keep going because I have that vocabulary and I understand those feelings and sensibilities. So you have all the layers that are attached to all of these different ways of playing. So then your depth and knowledge of that information will translate into whatever the situation is. And it is going to be a wealth of information. Not everyone is going to be able to hear that but those who do know, they will know. They will hear it and feel it.38

–  –  –

Jackson feels that melody and musicality are part of having a wider spectrum of musical vocabulary that he can use and draw from in a musical situation. Increasing his knowledge of different stylistic and overall musical approaches on the drums will allow him, as the others, to express himself in a variety of ways. If a drummer is exposed to the musical possibilities of playing the drums then he or she will be in a position to investigate it further and implement it into their own style and personal approach to the drums.

When it comes to embracing an overall musical approach to the drum set with a focus on melody, Peter Erskine perhaps summed it up best with his impressions of the importance of

melody and the role it plays in jazz drumming:

Melody informs just about every drumming choice possible. This is the difference between some players, I think, especially if we consider the less melodically inclined players or those who are apparently playing with the music in more of a one-dimensional plane. Often times their vocabulary is driven so much by technique, patterns and stickings and such, that any semblance of melody might just be a byproduct or chance event. So there’s that extreme and then the other extreme would be the drummer actually playing a melody by changing the pitch of, let’s say, a tom-tom by pressing their elbow against the drum head and increasing the tension much in the same manner of like a small tympani or something. The great in-between is the area, I think, of most interest.39 For Erskine, a drummer who makes a conscious effort to use melody and larger musical concepts as the basis for their choices as a drummer, this is far more interesting than a drummer who bases their approach from a primarily technical standpoint. However, as Erskine also points out, specific melodic expression on the drums by means of changing the pitches of the drums themselves represents another extreme. The possibilities that come from fundamentally recognizing the importance of melody and using melody occur between these two extremes. For Erskine, by recognizing its potential, melody offers a wealth of possibilities and a gateway to being a musical drummer.

Erskine (2011) And now, having established why drummers put such an importance on melody, we can examine how many use melody, in jazz drumming, in more specific contexts.


Not only did many of the drummers interviewed over the course of this research express and place an important priority on some kind of fundamental melodic concept and overall musical approach to playing the drums, but many also described in detail how they actually use melody in their own performance practice. In the context of this study the discussion of how jazz drummers apply melody when they actually play the drums is divided into two sections: 1) How a jazz drummer uses melody as an accompanist while playing within an ensemble and 2) How a jazz drummer uses melody when they are improvising in a drum solo context. This chapter will deal specifically with how the interviewed jazz drummers consider melody and its application while playing with other musicians. As the testimony from the individuals will show, using a melodic concept in the context of playing in an ensemble with other musicians, is consistently viewed as a practical application.

2.1 MELODY AS A REFERENCE POINT Consistent with Adam Nussbaum’s assertion (from the previous chapter) that understanding the melody of a composition allows him to “connect” with the musicians he’s playing with on a deeper level, for him and others this is also true in the specific context of being an accompanist, and it has practical advantages. For example, John Riley applies his understanding and knowledge of the melody of a given composition as a means to maintain the tempo of the piece

he is playing in a consistent manner, from start to finish:

It’s a reference point for the tempo they are playing and what I mean by that is: when I play a song, at the beginning, what I’m going for is to have the sound and the emotion of the melody imprint on the tempo so that we begin the song and use that as a reference point throughout the performance. If we don’t play the melody or if I forget it, or if I don’t relate to it at all then five minutes later we return to the melody only to discover that it’s much faster or much slower than it was before. So, I’m continually referring to the melody, kind of subconsciously, to make sure that it hasn’t deviated too far from the original tempo.40 For Riley, using the original melodic material as a reference point while he’s playing assists him in maintaining a steady tempo throughout the piece. By establishing a melodic “template” he can constantly remind himself, while he is playing (by either thinking of or singing the melody to himself), of the original tempo, which will ideally keep him from speeding up or slowing down.

Because he does this so often he refers to this as being done “kind of subconsciously.” This would imply that he is using the melody as an internal reference point with regards to tempo on such a regular basis that he doesn’t necessarily have to devote specific concentration to do so.

When asked how one can achieve this skill of developing such a melodic reference, Riley replied that the key is to spend time not only learning melodies, but perhaps even to go as far as singing

them in a repetitive fashion along with an audio recording. As Riley elaborated:

Many old timers would say learn the lyrics to the songs. That will make it easier to remember the melody and it will also give you some deeper insight, perhaps, into what the song is all about. One thing that has also been helpful is to listen to a recording and sing the melody of the song continuously from the beginning of the recording to the end of the recording. That has helped me appreciate the variations that people play and why they play them at particular exact moments in a performance. It gives me a context for the content. And the more you do it, the less of a chore it becomes. The more it just becomes second nature. If I don’t know the melody or if I lose the melody, then I don’t know what to play. I feel like I’m just BS-ing.41

–  –  –

In Riley’s opinion, a successful performance of a composition relies on having an intimate knowledge of the melody and awareness at all times. Without that melodic focal point, he feels incomplete and believes that the music he plays has not realized its complete musical potential.

This melodic reference point can be achieved by specific study of melodies, even by attempting to sing them while playing.

This way of thinking is also consistent with Adam Nussbaum’s overall conceptual approach to using melodic material as a reference point, all with the goal of maintaining the greater musical


When I have the melody as a guide, when I’m accompanying people, I always have a reference point that I can have and use to keep the tune together. Everything that I’m going to be playing is definitely done for a reason. I’m always trying to help with the shape of the composition through the ideas that I’m playing. I’m of course reacting to what the soloist is doing, but we’re still working and responding within the structure of the tune. There’s the harmonic rhythm and the melodic rhythm and I’m trying to uphold and serve those parameters.42 For both Riley and Nussbaum, using the melody as a reference point allows them to fulfill what they consider to be their musical role when accompanying other musicians and provides them with a larger musical context to consider rather than just the rhythm or the drums.

Similarly, further to Peter Erskine’s earlier comment that “Melody informs just about every decision we make on the drums,”43 for Billy Drummond, Ali Jackson Jr. and Carl Allen, understanding a melody’s structural composition inevitably leads to a better understanding of the overall form of the piece of music itself and facilitates a more meaningful musical approach.

Nussbaum (2011) Erskine (2011) According to Drummond, the basic skill of being able to play and organize one’s ideas on the drums is fundamentally the beginning of any melodic approach or sensibility to jazz drumming.

In his opinion, being able to play within the overall structure of a song form is a fundamental skill required of every jazz drummer. By understanding how a given melody is constructed one can deduce the larger form of the piece and navigate through a composition more effectively. As

Drummond described:

Fundamentally, as jazz drummers, we deal with a lot of standard repertoire. Jazz repertoire is based on, I guess we could call “Tin Pan Alley” songs, you know, songs that are jazz songs but just popular songs of the day that a lot of jazz musicians used. These are all standard song forms such as 32 bar song form, 24 bar song form, simple 16 bar form, 12 bar blues or whatever. So understanding the construction of the melody and how the form of the piece is derived from that will just help you navigate through a piece of music more melodically and musically.44 Similarly, Ali Jackson Jr. stressed the importance of being able to play within these standard song forms commonly found in jazz music and how that contributes to a larger sense of

melodicism as a drummer:

You have to understand the construction of the form, the overall musical concept and how they both relate to the construction of the melody. In this stage of your development or understanding of how to play the drums in a jazz context, we definitely have to understand the basic forms: blues form and 32 bar, AABA form and many others. For rhythm sections those forms are fundamental but then also you have to understand harmonically and melodically what’s going on within those forms. Then when somebody is improvising or playing a melody then it all makes sense.45 Overall, these views are all consistent with John Riley and Adam Nussbaum’s philosophy of gaining a more intimate knowledge of the composition in question. Specifically learning melodies will lead to a deeper understanding of the composition and reflect itself in a more musically cohesive performance with the rest of the ensemble.

–  –  –

Carl Allen has experienced working with drum students that haven’t studied melodies nor put attention into the specific structure of song forms. For Allen, as the others previously expressed, this is all crucial information and as Erskine previously stated, it informs further musical

decisions to be made:

One of the challenges I find with a lot of drummers is that they don’t know melodies;

they don’t know tunes. Quite often when you listen to the way a lot of drummers, younger drummers in particular, comp in the left hand you can tell they don’t know the melody. It just becomes doodling in the left hand. The idea is, if you can be aware and know what’s going on with the melody you have a better chance of being able to play with the band because if you know the melody, then you know the form. All of these things are very important in terms of helping to shape the music.46 As the drummers above have all stated, melody plays a crucial role in understanding the compositional construction and structural nature of a piece of music, which in turn informs their musical decisions on the drums. As Allen described, intimate knowledge of the melody is necessary in order to develop effective comping patterns with the left hand on the snare drum.


While melody certainly plays an important part in informing a drummer with regard to a musical structure and the overall construction of a composition, many drummers consider their actual approach (i.e. what they play within those structures), in terms of their accompaniment, to be melodic in character as well.

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