Drivers Seat

Playing in a Section: RHYTHM

by Clem DeRosa


Musician, arranger and composer, Clem DeRosa is one of the best known, best qualified clinicians specializing in the performance of clem derosa copyjazz in the music education field today. He is currently president of the Eastern Division of the National Association of Jazz Educators and Treasurer of the National Association of Jazz Educators. Additionally, he is consultant to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He is at present, a member of the faculty of Columbia University Teachers College and his student groups have performed on the “Tonight Show” and the “Merv Griffin Show”. Clem DeRosa earned his master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music and subsequently served as director of music at the Cold Spring Harbor High School in Long Island, New York.The rhythm section is the heart of the Jazz Ensemble and like its counterpart in our body, cannot be abused.

Many jazz ensemble directors spend hours rehearsing the brass and reeds, but treat the rhythm section as an addendum which is glued on later. When they add the rhythm section the group swings only from the top. It’s a head swing with the rest of the body, which should be propelled by the heart (or rhythm section), being dragged along by the dogma and persistence of the mind.

The director, whose brass and reed sectionals were swinging, is now puzzled by the heaviness of the band. Rhythmic figures which were swinging and skating along with the snap and crack of an automatic pistol now are bogging down and fragmenting like the rusty bark of a shotgun. What’s the problem? — The rhythm section! However, they’re not dragging or rushing — the piano player has two hands — the bass player is plucking the four strings — the drummer has a fine set of drums and four of the big “Z” cymbals — Well? What’s the hang-up? The rhythm section is not doing their job. What is it they must do to swing the group? Let’s do a dissection and determine the job of these four musicians both individually and as a group.

In line with the rhythm section’s basic function — to keep time and play musically — the drummer has the muscle to be an asset to the band or a complete detriment; and in too many cases his performance falls in the latter category.

Because of the strong influence of rock, the drummer develops only the facilities he needs to perform in this media. Namely, straight eighth-note feel in the right hand, syncopated figures in the left hand and good independence or coordination between the left hand and bass drum.

The use of the hi-hat with the left foot playing the traditional 2 & 4 “chick” is not necessary. I don’t mean to infer that what the rock drummer is doing is easy or demeaning, because I am struggling with some of the complex rhythms I have heard or have seen in some drum books. However, with only these tools for rock playing, the drummer has eliminated some basics which he will be confronted with in his performance with the school jazz ensemble.

1. Learn to play the bass drum softly. This piece of equipment gives a solid bottom sound to the rhythm sections and when played correctly adds intensity and percussiveness to the string bass. If your taste is to eliminate the bass drum, use it during your practice sessions at home and develop control of the muscles in your leg. If the bass player and the group prefers the “no bass drum sound” then by all means eliminate it. However, if the reverse is true, be prepared.

2. Practice getting a good “chick” sound on the hi-hats. Remember in jazz music (4/4 time) 2 & 4 really help to groove the band.

3. The right hand playing the cymbal figure:

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is of utmost importance. I cannot be strong enough in my concern for this essential. Practice this figure at various tempos because it’s the medium to the medium-slow tempos which are the treacherous ones to maintain and make swing.

4. Work on synchronizing the accent:

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in the right hand with a good “chick” on the hi-hat. This will be your whip to control the time of the band/

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5. Develop the cymbal figure to be used on the hi-hat. Most drummers who are not familiar with this sound tend to play the figure very stiffly. Try for a more flowing sound.

When you begin, you’ll find that as the cymbals close and open, you’ll experience some difficulty coordinating the left foot and right hand. Work slowly and when you are able to increase the tempo, don’t close the cymbals completely on 2 & 4 beat, just let them touch lightly. This will give you a better flow and will help you achieve a more intense long hi-hat sound.

6. I like to think of the left hand as the seasoning or the spicy aspect of your playing. Too much—and you’ve spoiled the meat and potatoes. Work on all the coordination and independence exercises as part of your practice and overall capabilities. However, be extremely careful to utilize your technique only to enhance the group musically and rhythmically.

My favorite use of the left hand in a big band, just to pull everybody together, is to place the stick partially on the rim and partially on the head and accent the 4th beat in the measure. It’s true that this can get monotonous. However, here’s where your creativity enters. Use that sound to start the band swinging and when the arrangements change color and texture so do you.

The student who has worked on these few jazz basics and can incorporate them with musical intelligence will find that his rock playing will be enhanced, and he will be an asset to his jazz ensemble.

Excerpted and Used with Permission, THE SELMER COMPANY, 1977