Dana Hall is a seasoned musician who’s manned the drum chair with such distinguished artists as Branford Marsalis, Ray Charles, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Horace Silver, Michael Brecker, Von Freeman, Nicolas Payton, Kurt Elling, Benny Green, and Frank Wess, among others. He’s also been a member of the Terell Stafford Quintet and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. His approach to instruction is varied, deep, and firmly rooted in tradition.
The forty-nine-year-old has instructed students individually, in group settings, and in master classes at DePaul University since 2012. Originally a student of aerospace engineering at Iowa State University, Hall adjusted his sights and earned a jazz studies degree at William Paterson College (later, University). “In 1994, musicians encouraged me to come to Chicago,” he tells MD. “I earned my masters at DePaul, and then entered the PhD program in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago. I wanted to merge a professional practice with a teaching practice. In 2004 I got a job at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I taught for eight years there, earned tenure and was promoted to associate professor, and then took a position at DePaul in 2012. I was appointed the director of jazz studies in 2014.”
Hall remains vitally active on the performing front. Recently he recorded with bassist Rodney Whitaker, and soon he’ll release a new recording with his own group, spring, which features two trumpeter/percussionists and two woodwind players performing his original music, inspired by the chord-less ensembles of Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. Here he shares lessons learned on stage, in the classroom, and at the feet of giants.
We live in wonderful times. You can see a ninety-three-year-old Roy Haynes play an incredible solo and with great time, majesty, and mastery. The flipside is that I can ask a student to transcribe a solo, and they’ll find it online with someone playing it in crappy fashion, lacking technique, control, dynamics, and musicality. Or a student can download a transcription that’s wrong.
Faulty interpretation can become the model. The challenge is to fight through that misinformation, particularly when you’re dealing with an oral tradition. When I was learning, I had to ask Keith Copeland or Billy Drummond or Kenny Washington. Or I’d write a letter to Jeff “Tain” Watts. You learned from the person by essentially sitting at his knee, as I did at the Chestnut Cabaret listening to Billy Higgins. You can’t get that through a YouTube video.
To adapt to trio versus big band drumming, I’m always looking at models for success in terms of performance. The models [for drumming] are on the records. My models are the master musicians who don’t approach those musical situations as if they’re polar opposites. For example, when you mention playing in a trio and a large ensemble, the drummer who immediately comes to mind is Mel Lewis. He didn’t approach playing in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band any differently from the way he might play with the Art Pepper + Eleven. He didn’t approach a sextet or quintet differently from any other ensemble—he would play with the same level of sophistication, the same dynamic range, and the same dedication to the music.
Now, students might respond by claiming that in a large ensemble you have to play simpler and set up all the figures for the musicians and keep everything in line. You do that in a sophisticated trio as well. In Bill Charlap’s trio, Kenny Washington plays ideas that are full of dynamics, ideas that address all the hits, that are guiding and supporting Bill and Peter Washington. He’s shaping the music with colors. It’s the same thing. Or Jo Jones’ trio with the Bryant brothers, or Bud Powell’s trio with Max Roach or Roy Haynes. It’s the same level of sophistication and approach to the music.
If you’re a drummer in a dance band and the people are dancing, don’t change anything you’re doing. It’s not important to play a bunch of hip drum stuff, to paraphrase Tony Williams. In a solo, what’s important is following a particular thought to its completion.
Dancers are thinking about different ways of articulating. I’m thinking of the Nicholas Brothers or other great tap dancers; they’re thinking about density and speed. Or doing a soft shoe where it’s more legato. They’re sophisticated. They have different levels of engagement in terms of the dance.
You find different ways of moving through a solo to reach its logical conclusion. Be open to exploring them. Dance is about feeling rhythm in nuanced ways. As drummers we are coordinating rhythms, often at simultaneous levels of time. When given a drum solo, we should explore levels of rhythm.
If you want to learn how to play melodic solos, throw on a solo by Max Roach or Roy Haynes. You can identify melody immediately. Take Roy’s solo on Thelonious Monk’s 1958 record Misterioso. Play “In Walked Bud,” and you can hear how he immediately plays the contours of the melody, the rhythms of the melody.
One of the entrance exams for DePaul at the graduate level is to play “Donna Lee” on the drumset. Show me the melody; show me the contours, because in the way you’re thinking about the tune, you’re not thinking about a drum rudiment—though we will get into that. You’re thinking melody, which is the essence of this opportunity to take a drum solo.
If a student asks how to build snare drum chops, Philly Joe Jones and Kenny Washington are a couple of my models. We deal with Charley Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos or Anthony Cirone’s PortraitsinRhythm, among other sources. Cirone has different elements that address dynamics, phrasing, and using space. Wilcoxon is all rudimental solos; there are ways to explore those rhythms in a unified space. Then, you hear Philly Joe swinging them around the drumset. Find ways to manipulate them, invert the rhythms, take a little of this solo, of that solo, and play them on the snare drum and the drumset. We get into how particular Wilcoxon language appears in Philly Joe’s solo on “Pot Luck” by Wynton Kelly, for example. Then the student realizes they need to have good hands to express their ideas, regarding the vocabulary.
In my ethnomusicology classes we look at improvisational cultures around the world and subjects topical to areas of my own specialization. I look especially at soul and jazz music, the African diasporic musics in America. Take soul music in Philadelphia: what makes soul music in late-’60s/early-’70s Philadelphia distinct from soul music in Detroit or Memphis or Muscle Shoals? Are those differences only sonic, or also rhythmic? How does the rhythm section function in those ensembles? Are those ensembles augmented by singers or other European classical music influences? Is there a spirit of improvisation?
What makes my teaching approach unique relative to my contemporaries’? Rhythmically, we’re all trying to do the same thing. What are the avenues for that? If we’re talking about playing contemporary rhythms and ideas, and exploring a creative mindset, maybe Mark Guiliana’s materials are good for that. If you want to develop comping ideas and move beyond someone like the great Art Taylor—maybe you want something more visual in your approach to learning—try some of John Riley’s material. Method books are helpful. I also devise my own ways of transcribing ideas for my students.
In my DePaul classes,every student gets an hour-long private lesson every week. In master classes students perform transcriptions or a topic I assign, or they bring materials that we illuminate. Topics in master classes include fundamental ideas for creating solos, comping, critical listening, repertoire, and rhythm section techniques. In a jazz context I’ll talk about playing melodically, developing themes, looking at motifs—rhythmic or melodic—about the relationship between drums and dancing, and about developing different ways of creating motion on the instrument.
I’m not crazy about the Moeller method. I think many students get hung up on technique as a concept rather than how playing music should feel and sound. If a technique doesn’t feel and sound good, and doesn’t have a practical application to a particular musical genre, I try to get my students to move away from labels and names and techniques and get to the sound and feel.
I’ve had lessons with Dom Famularo and discussed the ideas of Freddie Gruber. I look at the different touch on the kit of Max Roach and Billy Higgins and Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones; they weren’t thinking about Moeller technique. It’s not about the name of a method. It’s about, What is the stroke and what is the motion? What are the mechanics of getting a fluid sound that feels like water, that has buoyancy and isn’t stiff? I think you have to acknowledge technology…that recordings provide us with first-person resources…that method books can be helpful to visualize ideas that I’m orally transmitting.
Whatever I ask the students to do, I’m also doing. We’re using contemporary and historic models, and we’re linking the past and the future.
Hall plays Yamaha drums and Zildjian cymbals, and uses Remo heads and Vic Firth sticks, mallets, and brushes.