Across two ambitious DVD sets, the performer and educator captures the fascinating development of our beloved “contraption,” providing historical and practical knowledge that every modern drummer can apply. Will Romano reports.
Just prior to the dawn of the twenty-first century, retro music was trending, and trending big time. While so called alternative rockers extolled the virtues of ’70s sludge and ’80s indie rock, and neo-jam bands launched countless journeys reminiscent of the spiritual sonic sojourns of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, acts such as Royal Crown Revue (RCR), Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra reached back even further into the past. In doing so, they introduced, and in some cases reintroduced, audiences to pre- and post-WWII popular music forms such as swing, early jazz, jump blues, and rockabilly.
Although pop culture trends continually shifted throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, RCR drummer Daniel Glass remained passionate about the genres of music he loved. Over the last twelve years, during which time he crisscrossed the country on various tours, slowly becoming a master of roots styles of classic American music, Glass sought out and interviewed veteran drummers in order to gain historical and rhythmic insight. Now, after more than a decade of intense research, he unveils two DVD sets, The Century Project: 100 Years of American Music From Behind the Drums (1865–1965) and its companion, Traps: The Incredible Story of Vintage Drums, which uncover how the drumkit, various playing implements, and drumming itself evolved over a hundred-year time frame.
To demonstrate various stylistic approaches, Glass, joined by members of RCR, the Brian Setzer Orchestra (with whom Daniel has been touring recently), Conan O’Brien’s house band, and Bette Midler’s “Kiss My Brass” revue, performs on several vintage kits, many from his own private collection. “I truly believe it’s important for us to keep this music alive,” Glass says. “At the end of the day that’s why I’m doing this. I’m not getting rich off it.”
At press time the drummer’s appetite for drum history only seems to have increased: Glass was editing a volume titled The Roots of Rock Drumming, set to be released by Hudson Music in 2013. MD sat with Daniel to discuss drumming in various traditional American musical forms and the making of The Century Project and Traps.
MD: You begin The Century Project at 1865, because, as you say, by the end of the Civil War we start to see the first rumblings of what would eventually evolve into the modern-day drumkit. But why stop at 1965?
Daniel: I felt that by 1965 the blueprint for the drumset, as we know it to be today, had come together. Whereas in the previous hundred years, the drumset went through tremendous change. As music changed, pieces were added to the kit and new ways of playing evolved. Because of the industrial revolution and probably because of the Civil War, it seemed as though people were more mobile and new forms of entertainment were cropping up. Suddenly more demands had been placed on drummers.
MD: And one person began playing more than one drum.
Daniel: It was cheaper to have one person in the band play a number of percussion instruments. One person saves space, and one person playing drums can be—perhaps—tighter than several could.
MD: Organizing the information the way you did allows for the possibility of excluding some details of the evolution of the drumkit.
Daniel: I’m sure people will call me out on everything I say in The Century Project. I’m prepared for it. I’m simply doing my best to present the material and organize it in a way that makes sense. Even prior to the release of this DVD, when I’d do clinics I’d present thematerial in much the same way as you see in the video, and people seemed to get it.
MD: Why make this DVD?
Daniel: The genesis of The Century Project dates back to when I joined Royal Crown Revue in 1994. I had studied more contemporary types of jazz, straight-ahead jazz, and bebop, but that kind of playing wasn’t working over what the band was doing. In truth, the music they were playing was more what I like to call roots styles of classic American music, which aren’t really jazz in the sense that we think of today. It was styles like swing and rhythm and blues, rockabilly, early rock ’n’ roll, early jazz, which is music for dancing.
What I noticed about 1940s and 1950s rhythm and blues, which I ended up writing a book about with Zoro, called The Commandments of Early Rhythm & Blues Drumming, is that this music contains swing, jazz, and a lot of blues but isn’t really any one of those forms. I tried to find instructional materials that would teach me how to play in these different styles. I found some, but they didn’t have any grooves written down— and there was no historical context. So I began amassing practical and historical information, interviewing drummers who had performed on classic records. To date I’ve interviewed about sixty legendary drummers and also some record collectors and DJs and other kinds of historians.
MD: You perform on various vintage kits for the DVD. How difficult was it to play on these different configurations?
Daniel: I don’t know if you noticed, but when we perform the rock ’n’ roll number, one of the cymbal arms collapses. We just laughed, because it’s hilarious. That’s the nature of vintage gear. Yet I was hell bent on performing as much as I could on vintage drums, to show people what it looked and sounded like.
The interesting thing was I didn’t have much opportunity to [play the kits prior to filming], because I live in New York City and all of that gear is in Los Angeles. The kit with the temple blocks is in such pristine condition that I never actually used it on a gig, because I don’t want to trash the quality of the instrument. The kit on the 1930s rolling rack, similar to the type Chick Webb used, I had never actually set up. When John Aldridge [author, vintage drum expert, and guest commentator for the Traps DVD] arrived, he helped me get it set up. We had to flip the rack, unhooking it from the wheels and reattaching the arm on the opposite side, because I’m a left handed player.
MD: In one section of the DVD you play a bass drum, cymbal, and snare with the sticks in a style called double drumming. Was it challenging to play syncopated patterns without a kick pedal?
Daniel: Yeah. Are you kidding? I was fascinated by that style but never played in it. For maybe fifty years drummers played without a pedal—and they grooved. How did they do that? We think that real drumset playing started when guys began using a pedal. But there was an overhang device that we see in a photograph dating back to the 1840s. It operated via a kind of pulley device. It was foot operated, yes, but would you call it a bass drum pedal? Not really, because you’re not pressing on it. They didn’t work very well and were unreliable. I would think that you could double drum faster and with greater accuracy, playing both the snare and kick with your hands.
Theodore Dennis Brown, who’s a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, did a landmark doctoral dissertation back in 1976 that still holds up today, concerning the development of the drumset. One of the things that he recently found was an account of a drummer, an older man, that was written in the 1930s. Back in the 1870s, this particular drummer was a twenty-something who’d moved to Chicago. Being a young player, he was interested in technology, so he had a pedal, probably an overhang device, but couldn’t get work in the theaters, because the theater guys basically blacklisted pedal players. So double drumming was the standard for a long time. Interestingly, in 1933 there was a regular column in Ludwig’s annual magazine, The Ludwig Drummer, called “Tips From a Tapster.” It presented some double-drumming patterns. I took those transcribed beats and played them for the DVD.
MD: How many takes did you have to perform for each song on the DVD?
Daniel: Not many, to be honest. We filmed for two days and had to charge through fifteen or sixteen pieces of music. We did eight-hour sessions, which amounts to about one piece an hour. It’s all designed to demonstrate what I’m talking about in the lecture portion of the DVD. The last song we do, “East Side Rumble”—based on the Royal Crown Revue song “Hey, Pachuco!”—was done in one take. The solo in that song was challenging for me to play, and to do that more than once, especially after doing the rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly stuff, would have been brutal. The very last thing I did was the ragtime piece.
MD: The ragtime drumming looks intense.
Daniel: That stuff is really difficult, man, and I’m only scratching the surface with the intense rudimental stuff the drummer is doing in the song “Calico Rag.” We don’t realize that guys like Buddy Gilmore and James Lent were huge stars, just like Gene Krupa was in the swing era. I tried to show that ragtime drumming wasn’t just boom-chick, boom-chick. These guys were laying some stuff down. The style of swinging on the snare drum is a huge art form. I mean, somebody like Baby Dodds, the early New Orleans jazz drummer, was a master. He could play a press roll that just sounded like paper ripping.
MD: On the DVD you reference a number of drummers, including Neil Peart, who brought ethnic percussion or earlier twentieth-century drumming styles into a rock context.
Daniel: I also always use the example of John Bonham’s intro to the Led Zeppelin song “Rock and Roll,” to show how Bonham literally took that note for note from the 1957 Little Richar
d song “Keep a-Knockin’ (But You Can’t Come In).” When I do clinics I show how Little Richard’s song is really a cover of older tunes with the same title, including the 1939 version by Louis Jordan. I think drummers can benefit from understanding older styles of music and the way that the drumset and drumming evolved. Let me give you an example. I did a clinic, and Gene Hoglan, one of the heaviest extreme metal guys in the world, was there. We ended up jamming on a shuffle-ish groove for ten minutes. Itperfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. Gene is into the history of the instrument. So don’t discount what you can learn from these styles of music.
MD: You devote a lot of time to Gene Krupa on the DVD but not much to Buddy Rich. Why?
Daniel: I wonder if people are going to jump on me about that. I give a little disclaimer at the beginning of the DVD, saying that if I don’t mention your favorite drummer or drummers as much as you’d like, accept my apologies. The drummers I wanted to focus on were the ones who were revolutionary in the development of the instrument itself or used a [certain] piece of gear, and those who contributed a particular technique that revolutionized the way we play the instrument.
Krupa was incredibly important on both of those levels. He was the first superstar drummer, and he inspired legions of drummers. Gene was also involved in the evolution of the tom, the floor tom, and the tunable bottom tom head. What he did in “Sing, Sing, Sing” impacted the entire swing movement and allowed drummers to become bandleaders or stars in their own right.
Now, I do mention Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich, and both of those guys saw Gene as their hero. It’s very well documented that Gene and Buddy would perform at Jazz at the Philharmonic in L.A. together, those all-star concerts that occurred when the swing era ended, and there was always a drum battle. Buddy could play circles around Gene, but Gene always got the bigger applause. Why? He knew how to play to the crowd.
MD: If you knew nothing about drums, you still knew Gene Krupa….
Daniel: Right. Nobody’s disputing Buddy’s ability, but I think Krupa was more important as far as the development of the kit. Gene came up with some interesting ideas that worked in his particular musical situation. A lot of drummers looked at that and said, “I want to do that too.”