On The Job

Organ And Drum: Making It Work – Making It Swing

by Bruce H. Klauber

For approximately a ten-year period (about 1957-67) bands comprised of tenor sax/organ/drums, guitar/tenor sax/organ/drums, organ/drums, etc. abounded both in the night club and recording arenas. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Jack McDuff and Shirley Scott were among the newer names of the time who were thrust to the very top of the recording and performing heap, while veteran stalwarts like Bill Doggett, Wild Bill Davidson and Milt Buckner were afforded the opportunity to reach a wider audience than ever before.

But there is a problem that existed both in the early days and more than ever today: Only a small number of contemporary working drummers have bothered to realize that their lot is a most specialized one. The method of playing with an organ or organ-based group is entirely different from accompaniment given to a conventional combo. Because few of the younger percussionists know this, the ultimate performance and intensity of swing often suffers as a result. It’s not the most tangibly evident quality I speak of, to be sure, but it’s one that is lacking seriously enough to warrant at least an attempt at discussion and examination.

The beginning of my experience in this genre occurred when I had the good fortune of working a few weeks with jazz great Charlie Ventura’s trio. During the first set, it was apparent that things did not sound exactly right. Though I couldn’t put my finger on it until sometime later, I eventually termed the culprit rigidity. It’s true that almost every drummer has a style of sorts, or at least a number of perceptible influences that serve to color his playing.

Naturally, a percussionist’s inherent concept must not be thrown to the winds, rather, it should be combined with a sense of looseness and flow which complements and colors the statements of the soloists, the band’s arrangements and musical basis.

A looser concept must pervade because of the very nature of the organ. Because it is not acoustic, there is a minute delay from the time the player strikes the keys until the sound reaches the ears. Though the lapse is slight, it must be taken into account. The idea of getting into the tempo’s “groove” is not simply a count-off, 1-2-3-4 matter. DRUMMER, organist and any other additional instruments must feel their way, and “fall in” to the tempo set by the leader.

Another reason for this is the somewhat elusive nature of the band’s bottom. More often than not, the bass line will be carried by the organ’s left hand or bass pedals. The line eventually established is nowhere near as definite as one played by an electric or standup bass, hence, the drummer’s job is made even more difficult. Additionally, it must be realized that the setting of tempo and the falling-in idea are almost instantaneous processes which will natural evolve once a drummer becomes more familiar with the organ’s nature. With experience and practice, a steady, definite tempo will be ascertained in two to four measures, hopefully after the tune’s introduction.

Once within the composition, it will help, especially in middle tempo numbers and ballads, if the drummer becomes more melodically oriented, and aware. Because there may frequently be as few as two men in the band, it will enhance matters musical if the drummer becomes more familiar with song construction, dynamics, the capabilities of the organ stops and Leslie-type speakers, and the style of the player. Not in terms of sheer technicality, but knowledge of the infinite variety of sounds they produce.

In the beginning, I learned by way of a quick combination of listening, doing and osmosis that on ballads, an overabundance of open gaps would present themselves — spaces that could not adequately be filled by either simple tempo keeping or stock fills. I don’t advocate over-playing, or attempting to constantly cover the organists obligato or chord changes, as that practice is even more hazardous to the music. A few soft, elastically roll-like melodically-oriented figures on tom-toms or cymbals will often work well. This type of fill should be simple, rather than a fast, multi-noted passage, and the end result should be implied and felt instead of strictly heard. Sometimes, just a slight variation on the basic cymbal beat will do. The key is a relaxation of style.

The drums’ actual sound and timbre is of the utmost importance. Drummers with a rock-type background more often than not have spent a great deal of time perfecting a dead sound, while many jazz players allow some of the natural ring to remain but pitch the snare and toms way up. In either case, the sound that will result in tandem with the organ will be an intruding one, serving only to impede the music’s natural flow. A middle or lower range sound on all drums and a slight loosening of the snares will make the whole sound of the band smoother, looser, more ensemble oriented and ultimately easier on the ear. The same goes for cymbals. Dead, taped cymbals, which many drummers have become fond of, have no place here. A lower pitched sound and judicious use of the natural overtones are essential. A sizzle cymbal is also recommended. Its vibrations and ring easily help fill the music’s gaps and can add much to the color, dynamics and range of the group’s repertoire.

The various suggestions and factors described are only guidelines, of course, which must be related to the drummer’s particular musical situation. But regardless of the type of music played, the problems listed will almost always manifest themselves in a small group situation with an organ at its center. Listening is the best way one can realize what has to be done. Donald Bailey’s early work with Jimmy Smith; Jimmy Cobb’s playing with Shirley Scott; Alan Dawson’s playing with Milt Buckner and Illinois Jacquet on Cadet’s “Go-Power,” and Jo Jones work with Milt Buckner and Buddy Tate. All are prime examples of “how-to,” which can be easily adapted to your own situation.