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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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I approach my drumming, especially accompanying the arrangement, the melody and another improviser or soloist in terms of providing counterpoint. And actually that might mean sometimes that I just provide a very steady rhythmic foundation. There’s no intent like (sings) “La la la…oh I must be melodic now!” For me there’s no dichotomy of playing melody vs. non-melody. For me it’s all about providing counterpoint along with a rhythmic foundation in such a way that there’s always good tension and release. That’s what moves the music along. And the whole time I’m providing rhythmic information to Jackson Jr. (2011) the band. You can’t let the “art” aspect of it make you be derelict in your ensemble duties.60 For Erskine the melodic aspect of his drumming does not come from intentionally trying to exhibit sing-able melodies on the drum set. Rather, in his opinion, the melodic quality comes from the rhythmic and overall musical dialogues that he initiates with the soloist in his accompanying and the overall foundation and support he is offering a soloist and ensemble.

Specifically, Erskine describes this as being counterpoint and this is his priority as an accompanist.

According to Erskine, his interpretation of counterpoint is two melodies that work with each other and against each other to create an overall sense of musical tension and release. In his

opinion, melodic jazz drumming is represented by this idea of musical counterpoint:

I think that my approach to melody is not so much that I’m seeking to play the lead melody, but for me it’s a study of counterpoint in my accompanying. What’s counterpoint? Counterpoint is just simultaneous melodies, right? It can result in harmony but what is not counterpoint are composers who have a melody and just write or play whole note block chords throughout a piece. There’s no counterpoint there. But true counterpoint, I mean especially if you follow it to the rules, is melodies weaving in and out and around each other.61 Erskine described how this conceptual approach came from his time playing with the group Weather Report during the 1970s and from receiving direct instructions from his mentors Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul during their performances. For example, when Erskine would attempt to copy or mimic one of their melodic lines over the course of an improvised solo, he would often

be strictly instructed not to do so:

You know, this was a result of my training I got while playing in Weather Report. Wayne would stop, turn around and say: “Don’t do that!” (i.e. copying his rhythms). So from Joe

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Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, and I figured they were good teachers, they sort of shaped my thing which made me much more aware of counterpoint.62 Erskine elaborated that it’s the sense of contrast that creates interest in the overall music. He also described this in abstract terms, using an analogy of painting and using similar/contrasting


If the rhythm section creates a dark blue background and the soloist plays a brilliant red diagonal across that background that’s not our cue to go: “Oh, oh, oh, okay now red, red, red!” You know what I mean? It’s the contrast that makes it so striking and beautiful.63 Similar to Erskine, Bob Gullotti feels that as a drummer, he should never be relegated to just playing a static drum beat but rather offer a contrapuntal line that provides a sense of interaction to the overall fabric of the music. Gullotti described his own contribution within a musical


Mainly I feel as if the drum part of the song should also have a musical content, not just backing up rhythm only as a beat. I’m not into playing just a beat. I think it’s really important that the drummer creates a line to become another layer of the music and also to provide for interaction with the other players. The musical lines criss-cross each other and they meet and sometimes they don’t meet. Sometimes they may run oblique to each other.64 This idea of the drums being played with an interactive, contrapuntal approach is one shared by both Peter Erskine and Bob Gullotti. Gullotti also used the accompaniment of Tony Williams as

an example of a drummer that would often play in the way that he and Erskine described:

Tony Williams, I think, was great in this way in that he refurbished polyrhythmic ideas off of a groove. Tony wouldn’t necessarily go with him (Miles Davis), he might even oppose him and therefore when they resolved everything they thought it sounded even better.65 Erskine (2011) Ibid Gullotti (2011) Ibid Similarly, Joe LaBarbera pointed to drummer Elvin Jones and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane as being examples of jazz musicians whose playing together exhibits a contrapuntal and

musically interwoven dialogue:

If you listen to Coltrane and Elvin on a tune like “Impressions” that goes on for ten, fifteen minutes, if you just listen to the portion where Trane and Elvin are playing and Garrison and McCoy have dropped out - it’s a perfect counterpoint. They’re playing for each other and yet there’s so much melodic information going on at the same time…I think that that kind of melodic counterpoint is what you have to strive for.66 These interpretations on the approaches of Tony Williams and Elvin demonstrate that not only do current jazz drummers view counterpoint and interaction to be important in terms of their own approach, but they also point to historical examples. Furthermore, many drummers consider the idea of counterpoint, in the context of musical accompaniment and interaction, to be a melodic one as well.

2.4 SUMMARY For many jazz drummers the use, or at least the consideration of melody, plays an important part in their role as an accompanist in a jazz ensemble. Many offer how melody can be used in a tangible, technical application to their drumming in a given musical situation. Yet for others, its technical application is perhaps a bit more vague and more of a philosophy that is applied to a musical situation rather than a definitive technical one. And for others their solutions and applications lie somewhere in the middle, ultimately a combination of both technique and philosophy.

LaBarbera (2011) However, what is clear from the opinions offered over the course of this chapter is that the consideration of melody plays a fundamental role in how a jazz drummer successfully fulfills their role as a musical accompanist. Jazz drummers use melody in this context in several

different ways:

1) To “connect” themselves to the musicians they are accompanying, with melody acting as sort of a musical common denominator or “bridge” between individuals

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3) By emphasizing parts of ensemble phrases, through intentional short and long articulations matched by appropriate parts of the drum set, orchestrated accordingly.

4) From organizing one’s drum ideas into intentional phrases over specific numbers of bars, according to the form and structure dictated by the composition.

5) Using the idea of counterpoint, that is to say introducing a rhythmic/musical dialogue that runs concurrent with another musician’s phrases. These ideas create tension and release in the music and create interest and, as Erskine describes, “move the music

–  –  –

In terms of being an accompanist in a jazz ensemble and in the context of playing time, jazz drummers not only use melody in several ways that greatly benefit the overall musical situation and serve the musicians around them, but also the theme of “putting the music first” and “getting beyond the drums” is consistent throughout. For example, as Carl Allen proposed, the melody (in whatever context he might consider its presence) represents first and foremost his overall


As I’m playing, it’s all about serving the melody. Either your role is to play the melody or to support the melody. And if you’re not doing either of those you’re getting in the way. And as drummers, we typically get in the way!67 This type of statement further highlights the importance and priority that many jazz drummers place on melody, in particular when fulfilling their role as accompanist while playing in an ensemble. However, while all the drummers agreed that it is fundamentally important to consider melody at least on some level, it is interesting to note a few differences in the approaches that several drummers use while putting this into practice. For instance, while many drummers such Kenny Washington, Carl Allen and Jason Marsalis encouraged the use of orchestration and articulating phrases to match existing melodic lines being played by the rest of an ensemble, Erskine, Gullotti (and to a certain extent LaBarbera) emphasized the opposite. While framed in a different context, to them the great interest in being an accompanist is in creating counterpoint and contrast, reacting to the music around them in a musical way, instead of emphasizing or replicating what is already being played.68 While a direct interpretation of melodic drumming might initially suggest a literal attempt to play definitive melodies on the drums, as the drummers in this chapter have attested, the actual consideration and use of melody while acting in the role as an accompanist in an ensemble situation actually exposes a broad, wide range of applications and approaches.

Dawson (2007: 64) That is not to say that either of these approaches are mutually exclusive. The issue of context is, of course, very important to consider. In fact, all the drummers interviewed use both techniques to certain degrees in their performance practice. It is just interesting to note what concepts those drummers chose to focus on when asked.


As discussed, using melody as a basis for one’s conceptual approach to jazz drumming can be applied to the drum set in numerous ways. This chapter will examine how different drummers consider the use of melody and the idea of playing melodically in the specific context of being a drum soloist, using the drum set and its components as a vehicle for musical improvisation.

When drummers improvise on the drum set, their vocabulary is largely based on playing combinations of rhythms executed using sticking patterns (i.e. combinations of right and left hand strokes) in conjunction with the feet on the hi-hat and bass drum. These patterns are orchestrated to various degrees around the drum set using a number of different drums and cymbals (and possibly other percussion instruments). These rhythmic ideas, orchestrated around the drum set to the player’s preference, are further ideally organized into larger combinations of phrases or musical statements. What is significant in terms of our discussion is how different drummers consider this organization in relation to their own concept of playing melodically.

Chapter Two covered how drummers consider their approach to melody on the drums in terms of being an accompanist. The implementation of melodic ideas in a drum solo context will now be considered and addressed.


Throughout the interview process many subjects raised the possibility of attempting to play pitch-for-pitch melodies on the drums and their opinions related to this topic. This represents the idea of attempting to express a melody or melodic idea on the drums by means of somehow manipulating the pitches on the drums themselves. The assertion was made that this might be considered the first and most obvious interpretation of how to play melodically on the drum set.

Since the drum set is generally considered to be an instrument of indeterminate pitch (or at the very least often an instrument with a limited selection of pitches to draw from) one would be required to come up with a suitable technical strategy in order to create a collection of pitches on the drum set with which melodic content could be created. From a technical standpoint a drummer can indeed literally change the pitches of the drums themselves, to a limited degree, by increasing the pressure of the head by pressing on it.69 This allows for a somewhat expanded collection of pitches on the drum set that can then be used to create melodic content or imply melodic structures in a very specific way. While this approach is technically feasible and has been explored to various degrees by several notable drummers, it is not the only way that a soloist can demonstrate melodic ideas on the drum set.

As previously stated by Joe LaBarbera in his own interview that early in his own career, during a teaching workshop, when asked about his own approach to melodic drumming, he was at a loss for words to explain it, having never been asked that question before. Nor had he really ever

considered this concept in his own playing. As LaBarbera responded and immediately assumed:

“You mean playing melodies on the drums?”70 See discussions of Ari Hoenig and Jeff Hamilton’s melodic approaches in Chapter Five.

LaBarbera (2011) Statements such as this demonstrate that there can easily be a bit of mystery or confusion involved when it comes to defining melodic drumming in a solo context. Does it mean playing literal melodies on the drums or does it go beyond that? Is this a literal idea or perhaps is it a more conceptual one? Or perhaps a bit of both? What can this concept ultimately entail?

Certainly the idea of replicating melodies note-for-note on the drums has been done, albeit to a certain degree, and many drummers would agree that this is a completely valid approach and interpretation of melodic drumming. For many, however, the concept of soloing in a melodic fashion goes beyond simply attempting to play literal melodies on the drum set. Many drummers offered some specific and broader considerations and alternative applications as well.

The application of melody in a drum solo context is considered, almost unanimously, extremely valuable to the drummers surveyed. However, the means in which these different drummers demonstrated its application varied considerably. As such, John Riley acknowledged the potential possibilities of playing literal melodic ideas on the drums but was also quick to go

beyond that:

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