Driver’s Seat

Learning The Chart and Phrasing

by Butch Miles

Last time, we discussed the value of underplaying and keeping the energy level high. This article deals with two of the most important of all the nine tips I’ve suggested: learning the chart and phrasing.LEARN THE CHART

I don’t think I need to go into all the reasons for being able to read. Let me just state a fact. You must know how to read. Not all of us have big ears and the ability to “hear” a chart, so reading is of extreme importance. A good example is the excellent drumming of Ed Shaughnessy on the NBC Tonight Show. Here’s a man who can read fly specks and still swing hard. So can Louis Bellson. The main thing I want to stress is the interpretation of the form of the chart. After learning that form, you can commit it to memory and delve into other aspects such as dynamics, nuances, and phrasing, all of which I ‘ l l talk about later in this article.

Writers have various ways of notating. One writer will write a rhythmic phrase different from another so it’s good to become familiar with a writer’s work. Sam Nestico writes many arrangements for Basie and has numerous little “kick” phrases that are a sort of trademark for him. See example #1. I can almost hear what’s coming up next by the way he sets up a phrase. Bill Holman leaves you hanging in deep space, so it’s important to be aware of his rhythmic conceptions as well as keeping your eyes on his music (example #2).

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I usually use the chart for four to five readings, and then put it away. I memorize the chart by section. Section A, opening; Section B, statement of theme; Section C, solos (order, player, instrument); section D, shout choruses; Section E, final out. If the chart is simple enough, I’ll picture the whole thing in my head. If it’s difficult, I’ll use the section idea I’ve just stated. It’s not hard to do. It just takes practice and playing. Get ahold of as many big band charts as you can and dissect them musically. If you ever have the opportunity to play with a band that has no drum parts, read off of a horn chart, preferably the lead trumpet.

After you’ve learned the form, don’t be afraid to discuss parts with the section leaders. They might be able to give you some ideas you hadn’t thought of. This naturally leads to the second part of this article:


You don’t have to play every note the band plays. Sometimes you must lead the band into a section with a good strong fill, and then give them a solid rhythmic foundation to let them blow. You must be the judge of how much of a phrase you want to play. Here’s a fairly good rule of thumb to follow: for notes like dotted quarters or larger, phrase with the bass drum and maybe a cymbal; for eighth notes and less, use the snare drum. Quarter notes are borderline. Depending on the power of the phrase, the dynamics, and the register of the horns you can go either way with snare or bass drum punches (example #3). Example #3 would almost always be a bass drum and cymbal punch. I say almost because there will be exceptions. Look at example #4. This would probably be a snare shot because of the shortness of the note. A bass drum punch would be too heavy for that note. It would hang too long and be too ponderous for that particular phrase. Therefore, you’d want to snap that note with the snare. Really crack it, then drop the volume back to p. This is difficult because many times in changing volumes the tempo wants to change with it. You’ll find yourself rushing a loud phrase and dragging a soft one. Drummers have a tendency to become over excited, or overcautious. You must be aware of this and be ready for it. Keep that energy up and that tempo where it’s supposed to be.


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Cymbal rolls and chokes can be particularly effective. Example #5 is the band’s entrance on the bridge of Basie’s “All of Me.” I roll the cymbal from the accent of four “and,” then play the cymbal in the next bar on the fourth beat (with bass drum), and choke the cymbal on the “and” of four while I snap the snare. Notice the dynamics. FF to mp. The bass drum on the final accented note would sound too heavy. If the cymbal continues to ring, it spoils the transition from FF to mp. Therefore, I choke the cymbal and accent the last note on the snare. I usually drop the last bass drum accent and play it on the snare alone. It sounds very abrupt — which is precisely the way it’s supposed to sound. 

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Experiment with a number of phrasing ideas. Some will work, some won’t. You’ll rarely play that “perfect” phrase the first timeeverytime. But, think about that phrase. Check your music with the other sections. Dissect the phrase and plan what you’re going to play in advance. Don’t just leave it to chance. Think the phrase through — all the way.Dynamics are also important. I’ll be talking about dynamics in later articles as well as shading and the use of colors in an arrangement. It’s vital to know the value of phrasing with the band you’re working with. Basie likes lots of section phrasing and has drum parts written with that in mind. Ellington, on the other hand, was perfectly willing to have the drums phrase the minimum amount needed and just swing and keep good time.