IN THE ENGINE ROOM OR ON THE BRIDGE - big band drumming
I haven’t done much big band playing except with Tubby Hayes and I’ve always felt that the small group context gives the drummer more freedom of expression. But big bands are exciting to play with and present special challenges.
· It helps to be a good reader of drum parts, although I have known gifted big band drummers who can memorise an arrangement by ear.
· Any dynamics which the composer/arranger has marked are crucial. Much is lost without such contrasts. It’s no good crashing through regardless. There is no law against playing brushes with a 16-piece band!
· If drum fills are written into the arrangement, they must be supplied efficiently. If brass “hits” are marked on the drum part, it will normally (but not always) be appropriate to accent these. The classic example is of course crisp snare drum cracks to accompany trumpet phrases. The bass drum normally has a greater role in ensemble passages than it would in a small group.
· But apart from all the above, it is still vitally important – as in all jazz - to use a swinging cymbal beat to bring the rhythm section and the whole band alive.
When I played my very first big band gig with Tubby at the Bull’s Head - yes, you could squeeze 16 musicians on to the stage in the old music room! - the 50s band leader Tommy Watt was in the audience and he remarked that my approach was as if I was playing on the bridge of the ship rather than in the engine room.
On a literal level, I suppose he meant more cymbal and embellishment and less four-square bass drum power.
[This comment about my style has been relayed the other way round (engine room, not bridge) by mistake. Probably my fault!]
On a less literal level, I can see a wider artistic point here.
For example before the war, you could say that Jo Jones was propelling the hard-hitting Basie battleship from the engine-room while Sonny Greer was deploying his tubular bells and tympani on the bridge of the colourful Ellington liner.
This is getting a bit fanciful, isn’t it?
The bottom line is that the greatest big band drummers have, to stay with the metaphor, the gift of bi-location. They are simultaneously on the bridge and down below.
Listen to CHARLIE PERSIP with the Dizzy Gillespie big band at Newport 1957. Crisp, driving and forceful, he swung that exuberant and rather chaotic orchestra off its hinges! The story (probably apocryphal) goes that, it being a constant financial struggle to keep on the road, the band finally folded when Charlie broke his bass drum head and couldn’t afford to replace it!
Britain’s most natural big band drummer was RONNIE STEPHENSON. Great reader, great technician, subtle and light when necessary, he had the most original licks and fills to complement Stan Tracey’s quirky scores as well as natural swing.
Ronnie eventually went to Germany to power the Kurt Edelhagen orchestra and to continue the studio work for which he was so much in demand.
My favourite big band drummer of all is MEL LEWIS, the sheer musicianship of whose work in the superb band he co-led with Thad Jones is mind-blowing. A rhythm section comprising Roland Hanna, Richard Davis and Mel looks quite bizarre on paper but it works like a dream. Mel’s got it all. The drums sound quiet except when they need to explode and do. His fills and accenting are to die for. And that cooking China cymbal……………. ‘Nuff said.