The beat goes on through generations
Generations of drumming rang in my head as I stood backstage for a drummer's-eye view at the 50th-anniversary Newport Jazz Festival in August. I'd covered the first festival for the Monitor in 1954, and I see I'd had the audacity to write that Gene Krupa's spectacular closing drum solo was akin to vaudeville.
This after I had tried in high school to memorize Krupa's classic tom-toms on Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." I even entered the national Gene Krupa drum competition of 1940 - taking some comfort in being among the many also-rans to Louie Bellson, later famous with Duke Ellington.
I had been playing drums, one way or another, since fourth grade. Did my parents try to discourage me?
The question came up in a Monitor readers' discussion group about Robert Klose hoping his son would not choose to be a drummer. (See: "First stop, drums - to a father's chagrin," Aug. 2, 2004, Home Forum.)
The short answer is that my parents didn't discourage me. And we have not tried to soundproof our next two generations, about which more later.
A saxophone-playing theologian once reminded me before a crowd of churchgoers that a drummer is someone who likes to hang out with musicians. This was not the first time the drums took me to church. Once I was in a band that allegedly illustrated the minister's advocacy of jazz as a metaphor for life - combining skill, freedom, discipline, creativity, and listening to others (in group improvising).
Flashback to the smooth jazz drummer, an expert meat carver by day, who taught me when I was growing up in Minnesota. He said the drums should be more felt than heard.
Maybe that's what trumpeter Ruby Braff meant when he formed a band without drums, saying, "I want a conversation, not an argument."
I'm not knocking the less self- effacing role of drummers since bebop propelled them from humble accompanists to frontline participants. To my ear, the best of these was Elvin Jones, whose apparently free-form thunder was finely modulated. What a kick when he gave pairs of his drumsticks to a couple of schoolboys I took to hear him at a jazz club matinee.
To continue name-dropping: Pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet was at our dinner table when I asked him if drumming was ever likely to go back to the more-felt-than-heard mode. He said no. Our young son said, "Dad, you sounded so hopeful."
I guess I was hopeful in high school when I wrote Frankie Carlson, the drummer in Woody Herman's band, to ask if I had to pedal my bass drum four to the bar in their pell-mell "Blues on Parade." The other day I ran across his penciled reply on a penny postcard postmarked May 8, 1941. "There is no sense killing yourself at that fast tempo," he wrote. "You use 2 or 4 to the bar according to your own taste." (He said his band played two.) Whew!
After World War II I met drummer Ray McKinley in New York after he had led the wartime Glenn Miller Orchestra. He lamented how few young drummers were willing and able to play the bass drum four to the bar. In more recent years another fine drummer, Ben Riley, said he was encouraging young drummers in another lost art: playing with wire brushes. To make those brushes swish and whisper across the drumhead is one way to make the drums more felt than heard.
Sometimes you need a crisp accent, though, and it's often a rim shot - a stick hitting the rim and head of the drum at the same time. At the first Mexico City Jazz Festival in the 1960s I noticed the variety of rim-shot sounds by Joe Morello playing in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. When I asked, he told me how he varied the place on the drumstick that hit the rim.
How can I not already know? That's the way some working drummers look at me when I - a nominal drummer - ask questions. The great Alan Dawson graciously confirmed he made a softer cymbal sound by holding a stick tighter and pressing instead of bouncing it on the cymbal. He smiled, I think, when my wife joked that he was her second-favorite drummer.
I was once introduced to a guitarist, who asked: "Oh, are you a drummer who rushes or a drummer who drags?"
When a friend invited me to sit in with his New York "rehearsal band" of off-duty musicians, one of the sax players looked around and asked, "Who has the heavy foot back there?" Uh-oh, a drummer who drags. But I have also fought the impulse to rush when the music gets louder.
I spent my last high school Christmas vacation traveling in a band whose leader would laughingly announce, "We play fast because it feels so good when we stop." He excelled at finding a tempo that brought out the dancers.
I wish he had been there years later to hear what famed singer/pianist Bobby Short said about my local off-hours band at a big party where he was the star attraction. "You pick good tempos," he told me at intermission.
Once a wedding couple requested "Take Five," whose unusual five beats to the bar made news when pianist Dave Brubeck introduced it long ago. Fortunately our pianist knew it, but I had never played it.
I recalled the flight to that Mexico festival where I sat next to Mr. Brubeck's young son Danny, now a well-known drummer. He patted his knees, simultaneously playing three beats with one hand and two with the other.
I found I could play "Take Five" - not by trying to "feel" five beats after a lifetime of fours, threes, and twos - but by playing three, then two, to make five.
Flashback to Paul, a drummer from Nigeria. We met in a student show in Dublin in the '50s and literally cut a recording of tom-toms on an old-fashioned needle machine. We would start playing compatible rhythms together but then get gradually out of phase.
I felt "four" no matter what rhythm I played, but Paul didn't. He was playing by rote, or following a tune in his head, or perhaps feeling a pattern much longer than a four-beat measure. We were not coinciding at downbeats or bar lines - as Frankie Carlson and I would if, wow, we ever played together. Two African drummers could play for hours with downbeats rarely coinciding, according to musicologist Gunther Schuller's description of African music in "Early Jazz."
Synchronicity on downbeats and bar lines was essential in my school orchestra and in the city band on the park bandstand. And it was part of the fun when I was asked by my mother to play with her piano pupils. She wanted to give us the experience of "playing with" another instrument.
Our daughter, though given every opportunity to play the drums, chose saxophone and flute. But one son took lessons from a symphony percussionist before switching to trumpet. The other is a guitarist/drummer in a college band it's hard to describe.
Now the wonders of the Web show us our 3-year-old grandchild making a toy drum set definitely heard. His cousin turns pots and pans into an Elvin Jonesian array. Their drum- dabbling older sisters remind me that my first drum teacher played in the American Legion Girls Drum Corps.
Along the way I learned to use a quiet rubber pad to practice the paradiddles, ratamacues, and dadamama double-stroke rolls known as the "rudiments" of an instrument without scales and arpeggios.
And it sure has been fun to hang out with musicians.