MD Education Team Weighs In On: Learning Jazz
Do you feel it is important for your students to study jazz drumming? And if so, what methods do you employ to get your students—especially younger ones—interested in this style of music?
We asked the members of the MD Education Team if they think it’s important for their students to study jazz. Here’s what they had to say.
More than anything else, I try to pass on the idea that without jazz there wouldn’t be a modern drumset, as our instrument evolved and developed alongside this music. Once students understand that correlation, you can fire up their interest for this genre.
I love to look at the different kits of the artists who helped to shape what we play on today. My most important mentor, Jim Chapin, loved doing that, too. He used to point out that every drumset was different, and many times you could tell who the player was by looking at how they were setting up and which instruments they used. The drumkits back in the early days of jazz were so much more individualized than they are today. As a consequence, the drummers also sounded very different from each other. Advertisement
Showing students pictures of the drumsets of Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, and Big Sid Catlett while having them listen to their playing can be a great inspiration. Then taking the next step and expose them to Max Roach, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, and the next generation of players.
I find it important to have a good collection of all kinds of jazz, anything from Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington up to the Esbjörn Svensson Trio. Exposing students to all the different subgenres of jazz, while displaying your own fascination and enthusiasm for the music, is the key.
I believe it is very important for all drum students to study jazz and jazz drumming, just as I believe it is important for drummers to listen to, study, learn, and respect all styles of music and drumming. Although there are many more, here are my top ten reasons to study and learn jazz drumming: Advertisement
1. More influences: The greater number, and more diverse, the influences that we can draw from as musicians, the more we’re able to develop our own unique drumming voice and style of play. Jazz offers an incredibly wide array of music and drumming styles.
2. History of the drums: The modern drumset has over 100 years of history, and many of the early pioneers of the instrument were jazz drummers. Studying how and what those drummers did is important to understanding how drums and drumming have evolved and they might be headed. It can be argued that early jazz, especially in New Orleans, gave rise to blues, which in turn was a major influence in early rock.
3. Increased vocabulary: The roles of the limbs, sounds (cymbals and drums), and the role of the drummer are different in jazz from what they are in many other styles. Learning these roles expands your musical vocabulary, which increases the performance skills you can draw from while playing any style. Advertisement
4. Technique: The degree of rhythmic and volume interdependence required between all four limbs in order to be proficient in playing jazz is very high. Learning how to do this helps to develop stronger overall drumming technique and interconnectedness of the limbs.
5. Listening: One of the critical skills for a drummer in any style is listening to the music that’s being played around you. Drumming is as much an aural skill as it is a physical one. Jazz is often compared to a complicated and integrated conversation between musicians. In order to play jazz well, a drummer needs to develop hypersensitive listening skills and know how to speak and respond appropriately. This is an advanced musical skill that will help raise your aural awareness in every style you play.
6. Melodic sense: Learning jazz helps to develop a strong sense of melody and form, which is beneficial in soloing, playing fills, accompanying, and creating drum parts in almost every style. Hearing and playing with a more melodic sense, as well as an understanding how to adhere to song form, helps to increase your musicality. Advertisement
7. Phrasing: This goes hand-in-hand with melodic sense. Many jazz melodies contain phrases that are long and extend over the bar line. Studying, learning, and incorporating longer phrases into your playing, learned through jazz, helps to make your drumming more creative and interesting.
8. Tempo and volume variation: Jazz features a tremendously wide range of tempos that can vary from as low as 40 beats per minute to more than 400, and the dynamics will vary from very soft (acoustic trio) to very loud (big band). In order to play jazz well, you need to learn to play at tempos and volumes throughout these ranges, which expands your technique, vocabulary, listening skills, and musicality.
9. Life skills: We play drums because we love it, but the world doesn’t need another drummer. What it does need are creative, problem-solving critical thinkers who can help transform society. I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but learning to play any music that requires a high degree of improvisation, spontaneity, and listening develops skills that are transferable into other areas of life. The following are just a few of the life skills heightened by learning to play jazz: working effectively as a member of a team; improvising and thinking creatively, spontaneously, and imaginatively; entrepreneurial thinking; a willingness to experiment and take calculated risks; adaptability; self-reliance; self-confidence; synthesis skills (combining different ideas and theories); self-awareness (knowing your role and respecting others); empowerment (enabling your own voice and contribution); resourcefulness and problem-solving (modifying, altering, and adjusting); a sense of being an originator (playing, designing, and building unique parts); and collaboration (working with others to produce something different or unique). Advertisement
10. Respect and acceptance: Playing jazz is a form of a democracy, where each voice is equally heard and valued. This helps to develop respect for others, acceptance of other ideas, and tolerance for differences.
There are a lot of ways to get students interested in jazz, but I’ve had better results when I have them watch video clips or get them to attend live performances. These tend to be more effective than just having them listen to the music, look at books, or assign them exercises. In short, make the music and the drummers come to life and have students see and feel the excitement in the music. I can’t get all students to love jazz, but I can get them to appreciate it, understand it, and learn from it.
A couple of days ago, I happened upon an MD Concepts article by Mike DeSimone from November 2006. The article’s title was “Who Took the Roll Out Of Rock”?, with the subtitle “Putting The Swing Back.” DeSimone didn’t hold back and pretty much said it like it is. Many of today’s drummers lack the ability to let it swing, but a study of what swing is should be part of what a teacher passes on. I grew up with jazz and always thought of R&B, gospel, and rock as music that is related to the jazz tradition. Most of the music had that quality of swing. When I played with Chuck Berry in the early ’70s, I played with a jazz attitude: not too heavy on backbeat, used rhythmic variations, and maintained a swinging feeling. I got no complaints from Chuck. Advertisement
Many of today’s young drummers play with too much evenness, so they would do well to study jazz. One possible way to get them there would be to have them check out Chuck Berry, the Meters, Cream, and other early rock groups. Most of these groups had the swing element in them. Then expose students to classic jazz, like Miles Davis, Count Basie, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. When they find something they like, have them listen and then play along. From listening, they will have questions about things like how the drummers held their sticks. I show students traditional grip at this time because that was the grip used by the inventors of swing. If they wish to continue their study of jazz, then off they go in infinite directions.
One beautiful thing about jazz is that it has always been open to a fusion of influences, yet always preserved the swing. This element is not only missing in a lot of today’s rock music, but also in modern jazz when it’s not fully understood by the players. I consider exploring swing a must.
Learning jazz can be an extremely rewarding experience. Not only will a student’s artistic palette be widened past their current musical comfort zone, but they will also develop four-way independence, a more subtle touch, and a new balance of sound. The balance of sound in jazz differs from that of pop and rock. Whereas pop and rock drumming places the main emphasis on the bass drum and snare, in jazz it’s quite the opposite. This style features the ride cymbal as the main voice and the hi-hat as a close second, while the snare is just below the hi-hat and the bass drum is the softest voice. Advertisement
I explain and demonstrate these balances to students and immediately relate the patterns used in jazz to other more modern backbeat-orientated styles. For example, if a student is into ’60s and ’70s funk, I’ll play them Bernard Purdie on King Curtis’s “Memphis Soul Stew” or JR Robinson on the Rufus and Chaka Kahn song “I’m a Woman.” The “1-&-ah” pattern they play on the hi-hat is essentially the jazz ride phrased as straight 16th notes. Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” is an example of similar phrasing within a reggae context. Having these patterns written out side-by-side, as both triplet-based jazz exercises and 16th-note backbeat grooves, helps to reinforce my view that studying jazz can help you to develop in all styles.
For an entrance point for students who are just starting to study jazz, I usually begin with recordings of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Art played with a pronounced backbeat on his hi-hat and often a full shuffle on the snare. This helps make the music easier for students to understand. Then I can move on to other greats, like Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. That usually seals the deal.
I am of the opinion that it is absolutely essential for a serious aspiring drummer to get exposed to jazz in a meaningful way. The reasons are too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that the history of jazz and the development of our beloved instrument are practically synonymous. Along with this, it cannot be denied that jazz is a beautiful and diverse art form that will broaden any aspiring musician’s scope and improve his/her understanding of improvisation, swing, ensemble playing, and other concepts that have a very significant place in jazz but also appear in many other kinds of music. Advertisement
I am also of the opinion that there are a lot of teachers who believe that they are teaching jazz by making their students do independence work against the ride cymbal beat without providing any framework or context to make those exercises musically relevant. Obviously, this is a result of jazz being relegated to the fringe by mainstream standards. Jazz is no longer a part of musical common knowledge the way rock music is. We rarely hear jazz on the radio, and even less so on TV, so unless you actively seek it out, it will not come to you. Yet teaching a student how to play snare and bass drum figures against the swing ride pattern will do little to get that student acquainted with jazz. But if one is not familiar with something, how can you hope to teach it in a substantial way?
I understand that there are different reasons for people to get into drumming and not every student is going to make music a lifelong pursuit. Though I consider it essential for someone looking to become a professional musician to be well acquainted and fluent in the many forms of jazz, I don’t think that every student should be asked to study it if they show no interest. It would be good to at least try to expose everyone to the style and see if it catches on. The beautiful thing about getting exposed to something non-mainstream like jazz is that it has to come to you via a friend or a mentor, someone to point you to a hidden treasure you would otherwise not know about. This will hopefully make the student aware of the fact that there are a lot of great things in this world that aren’t in plain sight.
Here’s an example. It’s John Coltrane’s “Resolution” off the classic album A Love Supreme:
I was thirteen when I first heard this piece. It came to me from my drum teacher and a sax player he played with. They made me a tape of jazz tunes, and this was on it. I knew very little back then, but somehow I realized this was an exceptional piece of music. It still sounds relevant, powerful, and profound, even nearly half a century after it was recorded! Advertisement
For me, teaching jazz is essential. I feel it is my responsibility to help my students become as well-rounded percussionists as possible to help prepare them for whatever musical challenges lie ahead.
Some people say that jazz is a dead art form, so one could therefore ask the question “why teach it”? It’s not so much that I think that all of my students are going to make a living playing jazz (although it’s possible that some will). For me, the greatest benefit of studying jazz is the effect that it has on a student’s overall sense of musicality.
Most of the music that students study, like rock, blues, and country, is based on patterns. Jazz is unique in that while there’s a basic ride pattern, what a drummer plays is largely improvised. This is why that I feel that studying jazz is one of the best ways to learn limb independence. Perhaps the greatest benefit from playing jazz, however, is developing the ability to listen. Jazz is a very reactionary music: One musician makes a musical statement, and the others react almost subconsciously. Jazz drummers must learn to keep time, set up figures, and compliment what the soloist is playing, all while maintaining the form of the song. Also looming is the expectation that the drummer will be able to solo over the form, employing melodic and rhythmic motifs that might be contained in the melody of the song. These are concepts that I personally carry over into every musical situation I find myself in. Advertisement
I was lucky enough to play in a great high school jazz program and to go on to study with Ed Soph at the University of North Texas. Those experiences went a long way to shape the drummer that I am today, and I want to be able to pass along the knowledge I have gained studying this great American art form.
In general, I’m an old-fashioned type of person, and I feel that a major part of any learning process is to study the greats who set the foundation for our instrument. Jazz is such a huge part of the evolution of the drums, and it is important for you, as a teacher, to stress how the roots of jazz exist in virtually every style we play. Even if a student isn’t completely fit or able to learn the style to its fullest extent, just the exposure to the independence and developmental exercises, as well as the reading applications, within jazz will help his/her progress.
Since I’m often teaching students who are part of a major drumming program, at the Collective in NYC, I have no choice but to expose them to jazz as formally as possible—from the roots up to the current-day approaches. With fulltime students, I feel confident that they will be able to digest the historical importance as well as the technical prowess required in order to accurately perform in the genre. However, with my students who are not fulltime drummers, I have a tendency to be a little more lenient toward styles that they predominantly want to study. Jazz isn’t often the first style that a less-experienced student prefers. But at some point I will still sprinkle in reading or independence exercises, from something like Ted Reed’s Syncopation book, to enhance my feelings on the importance of being versatile and the importance of developing independence in alternate styles. Advertisement
Since every student seeks a different career path, I try to have a flexible approach to chart reading. For instance, for students whom I feel are perhaps more studio-oriented and have more experience in a wide range of styles, I am very active in exposing them to big band charts. Big band arrangements employ many ensemble figures that drummers have to learn to “set up,” and a student aiming for a versatile career or studio drumming is likely to have to apply similar ideas in a variety of styles throughout his/her career.
However, if a student is interested in small-group jazz or more contemporary styles of playing, I tend to have them study jazz standards. I teach them about form, structure, and phrasing by using the melodies and chords played on other instruments. This is so helpful in getting students to understand how all the musical parts fit and work together. If a student is well versed in the independence of jazz, I will pick less popular jazz tunes and have them orchestrate the melodies with the snare and bass drum before listening to the song itself. Once the student has become comfortable comping the melody to a handful of charts, I will play them the recordings of the songs and have them try to identify each one based on the rhythmic comping they practiced on the drumset.
Jazz drumming sits at the core of contemporary drumset performance, and studying jazz—through practice and extensive listening—can positively influence the “lift” within your beats. Jazz timekeeping utilizes a lighter touch and a melodic approach that emphasizes textures, melody, and form. Why? Because jazz is acoustic music, and in order to feel fully engaged while playing it, drummers need to develop and refine their listening skills in order to know what to play when. Jazz drummers are composers, and they vary their approach to fit the music and experience level of the musicians they perform with. Advertisement
Jazz, when used as a vehicle for teaching, can help students learn about improvisation, form, melody, phrasing, articulation, and expression—skills that can benefit a person both on and off the bandstand.
To inspire the next generation of great jazz drummers, teachers should encourage their students to attend as many live jazz concerts as possible. There really is no substitute for hearing and feeling the impact of a live concert. I still remember how excited I felt when I first saw Buddy Rich live in a small club when I was eight years old. What an impact that made! You can also try listening to a great recording of Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, or Buddy Rich together with your student and explain how the drummer on the recording influences all aspects of the music making. That should help light a fire!
There are a few ways I have approached getting my students interested in jazz. The first would be to listen to some classic jazz recordings in the lesson with them, describing what to listen for and recommending other things for the student to listen to. A second option would be to show them one or more of the jazz greats performing a solo, which is often very inspiring to young student (Shameless plug: Hudson Music’s Classic Drum Solos DVDs are perfect for this!). A third option is to begin to show the student some basic jazz independence, and explain how it could potentially improve his/her playing. Advertisement
Many students have come to me at the middle- or high-school level already involved in a jazz band program, so there was already at least a basic level of interest in the music, if only to perform well in school band. I think this is a fantastic starting point, and one that illustrates why it is so important that we continue to support music programs in our public schools. But if a student has not been exposed to jazz before, I actually find the third option mentioned above to be quite effective. Most students have an appreciation for things that are technically difficult to play, and when they are exposed to jazz independence, at first it is quite a challenge. This admiration for the skills required to play the jazz often leads to a curiosity about the music and increased respect for the musicians who play it. Once this has been established, usually all it takes is a few listening sessions with the student and some recommendations for other recordings to check out and an appreciation for jazz begins to take place. For many students, jazz will become their favorite music and a career pursuit, but for others it will be a style of music that they respect but do not play. While I don’t push any of my students to favor one style of music over another, I have found that just about all of my rock-oriented students have developed a healthy appreciation for jazz, with the proper guidance.
You should anticipate some form of the following question from students when jazz studies are brought into the curriculum: “If I don’t plan on playing jazz, why is it necessary to study it”? While this may seem like a very amateurish question, it is necessary to take it seriously. My response is that all of the current styles of music being played can be traced way back to some kind of confluence with jazz. With the exception of extreme metal, which has pretty much eliminated any type of swing and uses only straight 8th, 16th, and 32nd notes, every other style of modern music requires the drummer to be able to swing in certain circumstances. The ability to swing can either greatly expand a drummer’s versatility or severely limit it. Even on a classic rock, hip-hop, R&B, pop, funk, or traditional country gig, eventually you will be required to play songs with a swing feel, which is a byproduct of jazz. Once students understand this, they usually embrace jazz as a drumming style to study and a style of music to listen to.
I don’t often experience much resistance from my students when it comes to this topic. Jazz-independence studies are typically part of my curriculum with students at any level right from the get-go. For extreme metal players, coordination and independence are very important, so the study of jazz coordination can even assist them. Advertisement
Younger students tend to be a bit tougher to get interested in jazz than older ones. The music young people are listening to everyday has moved further away from jazz, in terms of instrumentation, melody, form, production values, groove, and so on. One of the first hurdles to overcome is getting young students to understand that jazz is a music that is to be enjoyed as a listener and not just a style that’s difficult to play. I always make it a point to reinforce the fact that if this were the 1940s, they would be hearing jazz all the time.
Hip-hop wouldn’t have happened without the swing feel. To illustrate this, we start by playing along to some hip-hop songs, and soon the students begin to get it. Then I usually have them play along with some familiar swing tunes, like those recorded by Frank Sinatra, so they can see that the swing feel is the same between that and the hip-hop tracks. From there, we play along with big band tunes that they might recognize. I stay away from having students work on too many independence exercises or anything that might cause them to lose the point of playing with a nice feel. And I don’t go near bebop for a while. I’ve found that it takes a much more advanced player to even enjoy listening to the more advanced compositions and improvised solos in modern jazz.
Essentially, I try to relate jazz to things students already know to make it seem less mystical and more of a universal style of music that all people can understand. Jim Chapin told me once that he thought the swing era was the greatest period for music because the musicians were playing to the edge of their abilities, and the audience actually enjoyed listening to it. Advertisement
I believe it’s important for every student to learn and absorb all styles of music and drumming. And learning jazz will help further develop skills in technique, dynamics, timing, and coordination, which can then complement styles students are already comfortable playing.
One method I’ve used to get students to swing is to find a song that they already know and have them play to it using a basic jazz ride pattern. If the tune has a straight feel, we will swing it. Usually I will sing the song out loud while swinging to it. Just recently, I did this with a Green Day song for an eight-year-old student.
To get students to play the ride pattern with the right swing feel, I will have them say out loud, “Dance to my groove, to my groove, to my groove,” or “Please shut the door, shut the door, shut the door.” Both of those phrases mimic the correct phrasing of the traditional jazz ride pattern. The second phrase (“Shut the door”) allows me to introduce the hi-hat foot on beats 2 and 4, since it lines up with the word shut. Advertisement
The first tune I introduce kids to in order to demonstrate the swing feel is the Super Mario Brother’s theme. Most kids love video games, so they will recognize it. Even though the theme has more of a hip-hop feel, it helps me get students to play the jazz ride pattern correctly.
Another way of getting kids excited about jazz is to show them some great jazz drum solos on video, like the one with Buddy Rich and Animal from the Muppets.
The majority of my students are aspiring professionals of college age and older. So, yes, I absolutely feel it is important for them to study jazz drumming, even if only to develop the ability to swing. Swing is the essence of jazz and is an important component in many other popular musical styles, such as blues, country, folk, funk, gospel, hip-hop, reggae, rock ’n’ roll, and R&B. Even if the student is not looking to pursue jazz as a primary musical direction, the chances of succeeding in most other styles will be woefully inhibited without the foundation jazz provides.
As far as methods I use to get my students interested, I simply try to lead and inspire by example. Thanks to my personal study of the breadth of jazz history and styles, I can simply sit down and play a variety of jazz rhythms and concepts on the drumset, from ragtime, to swing, bebop, fusion, and beyond. I can demonstrate how these rhythms are used in rock, New Orleans funk, hip-hop, and more, which helps impart to the students that knowledge is power and that we can connect the dots from Max Roach to John Bonham in a shorter distance than you might think. Advertisement
I also share my own experience about how I sort of backed into my passion for jazz by first being captured by the jazz/rock excursions of the big bands in the 1970s, which then got me interested in earlier pioneers like Count Basie and Charlie Parker. This turned me on to the value of understanding song forms and harmonic structures, like twelve-bar blues and rhythm changes. Once you know those forms, you to play hundreds of tunes, even if you don’t know the melody. Understanding musical structure also gives you a solid foundation as a soloist.
Jazz offers a challenge and discipline that, as Buddy Rich once said, “Teaches you about yourself.” The freedom of expression in the music appeals to me as a human being, and you don’t have to be a music theorist to understand jazz, if you can appreciate it from that perspective. I simply try to convey that passion in my teaching.
Paying respect to those who came before us is one reason to study jazz. Most of the melodic exercises I have developed over the years, and which I share with my students, are practiced first with 2 and 4 on the hi-hat as a means of paying due respect to the tradition. (Even with ideas that incorporate odd-note groupings, I will incorporate this homage to jazz drumming’s foundation.) Without the great early drumset practitioners, where would we be? Well, we would most probably be playing in a very different way. Advertisement
Listening to Philly Joe, Max, Elvin, Tony, and all of the players from that special musical era made me who I am today. The need is great to not only share this with my students but to also do what I can to steep them in the tradition.
Then there are the technical aspects of learning to play jazz: to interpret stylistically, to comp, to solo, to learn how to listen and be part of a bigger picture…. Jazz can teach so much from a social, musical, and technical perspective. And, once my students here a Max Roach solo, or the power of Elvin Jones, or the grace of Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette’s bass drum, and Tony Williams’ ride…. Most are hooked. Learning about jazz is essential.
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