Alan Dawson

Chops And Brains Equal A Boston Master

by Pete Danckert

alan dawson copy“Yeah, Alan Dawson”, Max Roach reflected recently. “I consider him to be a key man. Alan was the drummer we had to contend with whenever we played New England”, Roach chuckled, remembering. “Man, we trembled when we knew we had to deal with him.”Dawson hears of Roach’s praise midway through a lesson with one of the 30 students he teaches each week in the studio of his rambling split-level home in the Boston suburb of Lexington. “That’s real nice of Max”, he says with his typical half-smile. He turns back to the student, a twenty-ish man facing him across a wide practice pad. “Hey Patrick”, Dawson cracks, “you’re not trembling”.

Patrick looks up from his six-stroke rolls just long enough to laugh; he’s only got an hour with Dawson and he wants to make every minute count. But on his way out, he confides to a visitor, “Alan is a monster. For ten years I thought I was playing, but I really just started when I began studying with him”.

Those two appraisals — one from an awed disciple, one from a long-time idol of Dawson’s — tell much about how far the 47 year old Boston drummer has come in doing what he loves: playing and teaching.

As a performer, he has long since won the respect not only of legendary drummers like Roach, but of an astonishing array of jazz instrumentalists he has backed live and on records. Apart from his recently completed seven-year stint with Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Jack Six, Dawson has recorded with Phil Woods, Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, Booker Ervin, Illinois Jacquet, Al Cohn, Reggie Workman, Lionel Hampton, and other luminaries on more than 35 albums.

His live performance credits are more staggering still. From 1963 to 1970, Dawson’s steady gig as house drummer at Lennie’s, the late, lamented Boston Jazz Club, had him backing diverse talents ranging from Roy Eldridge to Mose Allison. His appearance at George Wein’s Festival of Jazz in Nice, France last July found him in the company of similar giants like Kenny Clarke.

But despite his travels (the Brubeck gig included 50 road concerts a year), Dawson has called Boston home since his family moved to the Hub shortly after his birth on July 14, 1929 in Marietta, Pennsylvania. Emerging from a childhood spent banging away on any available table or chair, he got his professional start playing with the Basie like riffs of Tasker Crosson’s local band in 1943. The only formal instruction of his career followed in 1947 when Dawson began four years of fundamental study with Boston percussionist Charles Alden. Army duty in 1951 ended his private lessons, but began Dawson’s long association with top jazz names of the post-bebop era.

Dawson’s short-lived job with Lionel Hampton’s band would seem to have been his first big break. But he discounts that stay with Hamp as “three months that seemed like 15 years”. His 1950 – ’51 gig with Gigi Gryce and Joe Gordon in Sabby Lewis’s eight-piece group was what made him in Boston, says Dawson. Yet even local renown and nationwide rumors of his prowess couldn’t give Dawson steady work in what he calls, “those years around 1956 when that terrible rock of the 50’s took over”.

Regardless of his stature among his peers, Dawson’s name crops up less often than those of younger stars like Cobham or Mason. Part of the reason stems from his reluctance to quit the Boston area for longer than the time taken up by brief tours, clinics, and his numerous New York recording dates. “If somebody ever calls from California and says I can do one three-hour date a day for $200,000 a year guaranteed for ten years, then I’ll go”, he chuckles.

But his influence is everywhere. When you hear Joe La Barbera, Joe Corsello, or any of the drummers produced by the Berklee College of Music in Boston, you’re hearing more than a bit of Alan Dawson. He was the famed school’s original drum instructor, teaching there for 18 years before resigning in 1975 to pursue a lighter, private teaching schedule. His decision to limit his teaching to 30 hours a week has spawned an ever-growing waiting list of students anxious to learn first-hand the coordinated freedom and lightning chops that are the hallmarks of the Dawson style.

It is an oversimplification but no understatement to say that listening to Dawson is like hearing four drummers at once, each devoting all his energies to do the work of one hand or foot. Sure, some guys may have their bass drum together and others have made a religion of freeing the left hand or knocking out hi-hat accents. But Dawson has come as close to achieving ultimate hand and foot independence as any drummer now sitting a stool. Once more, he can switch complex polyrhythms among his four limbs, play them fast, slow, loud or soft and make it all flow out in one logical, musical groove. If that weren’t enough, he swings his tail off.

That he makes it look easy testifies to his musicianship. But his approach with his students makes it obvious that he’s put in almost as much time figuring out how to teach the instrument as how to play it. So, because he’s thought through the different technical methods- innovating some and improving others-Dawson has most answers at his fingertips. And, he relishes clear explanations.

Developing coordination Dawson style is a case in point. He uses Ted Reed’s Syncopation for The Modern Drummer and George Stone’s Stick Control according to their original purposes. But, he’s added a few wrinkles of his own. “I’ve got about 35 or 40 different ways to study the Reed book”, Dawson says casually. “One of them involves playing the snare drum line with the bass drum while the hi-hat hits the 2 and 4 and the right hand plays time.


“The more drums you have, the less rhythmic variety
you tend to have. There’s a logical tendency to substitute
pitch for rhythmic variety-everybody on every instrument does that.


But, whenever the bass drum isn’t hitting a note, the left hand fills in playing triplet figures. So, between the bass and the snare, we’re playing no more than 12 notes four sets of triplets—in each bar of 4/4 time. Actually, we wind up playing in 12/8.

“We also work on ostinato exercises- repeated figures which the students help make up themselves. See, we choose a time signature 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, or whatever, and get a basic pulse happening between the bass drum, hi-hat, and right hand. Off that, we play recurring left hand figures like eighth note or quarter note triplets and their partials: the third note of the triplet, second and third, first and second, and so on.”

The results of these exercises can be wickedly complicated, as a visitor discovers when one of Dawson’s students executes a syncopated 5/4 figure and lays eight note triplets in 4/4 over it with the left hand. Dawson listens intently for a minute, then stops him. “Eric, I don’t hear the downbeat. You can be as intricate as you want, but the further out you get, you’ve got to hit the sign posts; touch home base a little more often.”

Dawson elaborates Later. “Coordination is a nice thing to have going, don’t get me wrong. But taken to extremes, you set up rhythmic interference instead of maintaining a groove. It’s not that you’re being too busy. It’s just a case of having things running so counter to each other that the whole thing stops swinging. Grooving means getting into whatever’s happening around you in the band. Basically, it means following the path of least resistance.”

This brings up the varied definitions of cooking and swinging, topics that begin to reveal Dawson’s own roots. “First off, cooking doesn’t necessarily mean swinging. I think of cooking more as a person’s energy level, his ability to project his playing. Swinging, on the other hand, sometimes means laying back like, say, Basie does when he comps on the piano. He’s secure enough and laid back enough not to throw in a lot of stuff; he just lets it swing. So often you hear drummers who are trying so hard to propel things that it doesn’t happen — they don’t let it happen.”

But can cooking or swinging be taught? Dawson is too experienced a teacher to give an unqualified “yes”, but by the same token, he doesn’t subscribe to the “its got to be born in you” school. “I don’t think you can teach energy; that’s inbred or picked up real early. But, I do know that you cannot learn to swing by playing fast. And youngsters, particularly drummers, are always in a hurry. They always want to play things fast.”

To illustrate, he picks up his sticks and starts laying down some lickety-split quarter notes in 4/4 one-handed. “If you’re playing this fast, momentum tends to carry you along and it really isn’t evident whether you’re swinging or not. There’s not much problem with accents or placement of the notes because your own momentum takes care of that.”

Now he winds down to a slow ballad tempo, still playing unaccented notes in the same meter. “At this slow speed, it’s evident that nothing much is happening swing-wise. The notes are naked, they need something to make them sound more interesting. One of the most basic ways to help is to accent the second quarter note.” Suddenly, the sluggish beat starts to lift and swing. Dawson grins, delighted that the point has been grasped. It’s plain that he gets off by making you understand, not by showing off.

And again, his listening habits come to the fore. “You know, one of Elvin Jones’s biggest strengths is that he can play slow tempos and swing up a storm.” Dawson shakes his head in admiration. “He makes it sound full by playing inside the jazz eighth note feeling, really getting a triplet feel in 12/8 time.” Now a previously hidden point of that 12/8 Reed exercise he explained earlier comes across: relate your studying not just to the instrument, but to music at large.

“That’s exactly it”, he nods. “I try to teach people to play music, the instrument is secondary. We try to look at everything from a musical standpoint. We go beyond using books for technique. We sing tunes to the exercises, learn about the forms of tunes so that automatically, you’re relating the technical things to musical situations. Then, you don’t wind up going out on a gig and saying, ‘Wait a minute, this has got nothing to do with that Stick Control I’ve been practicing.’ ”

But, if relating practice at home to playing on the job is vital in Dawson’s teaching, the link between his own teaching and playing careers is equally firm. Many of the ideas he passes on to his students for practice have been developed from his experience on the gig. That’s where, for instance, he conceived a certain trick for learning how to play softly with control, eliminating the tendency of overdeveloped muscles to make sticks jump around and miss notes at low volume.

“One time”, he remembers, enjoying a joke on himself, “the Brubeck band was playing with a symphony orchestra and I set my drums up directly in front of the conductor. Right away, he started telling me to quiet down, but when I tried to, I started hitting notes that weren’t supposed to be there and missing others that were. After that happened, I started practicing my rudimental chop books on the snare drum quietly enough to hear the metronome ticking. If you can hear that metronome over snare playing and still execute cleanly, then you’ll get the control you need.”

And surprisingly, that same workout will also build the stamina and power needed for loud passages. Dawson again goes to the pad to demonstrate. “I know it sounds funny, but strength is not necessarily equated to volume. Try playing an open stroke long roll pretty fast, but keep your sticks low and the volume soft.” He starts a smooth roll that sounds like a mini-bike warming up down the street. “When you’re down this low”, he goes on, “you have to rely on just your fingers and your wrists to articulate the beats; there’s very little stick rebound to help you. A single stroke roll is even harder. That’s all wrist and it really builds them up.”

Power alone, though, is nothing without cleanliness, warns Dawson. That’s where brushes come in. “Brushes have a wonderful tone color too much neglected these days. But also, the approach you have to use with them makes you pick up and play each note much more than with sticks because you’re not getting as much rebound help.” Won’t brush practice interfere with stick execution? “Not at all. While you’re getting your brush chops together, you’re helping your stick chops all along. If I don’t pick up a stick for a week, or if I’m pressed for time after teaching, I’ll go through the rudiments on the drum set with brushes and be pretty well warmed up for the gig.”


“Coordination is a nice things to have going, don’t
get me wrong. But taken to extremes, you set up rhythmic
interference instead of maintaining a groove. It’s not that
you’re being too busy. It’s just a case of having things running
so counter to each other that the whole thing stops swinging.”


Is sounds a little odd to hear a man famed for his jazz talent talk of rudiments like a drum corps judge, but Alan Dawson believes in the rudiments as strongly as any traditionalist. By this time, though, it’s no surprise to learn that Dawson the innovator uses some 50 rudiments, not just the standard 26, as part of his daily three-hour workout with his 8-D sticks. Apart from the tried and true varieties of rolls, ruffs, drags, flams, and diddles, he exercises on ten Swiss rudiments and 12 patterns called, “innovations—things I got third-hand from a fellow in upstate New York. ‘Course, I added a few elaborations of my own—just logical extensions, you understand.”

Typically, he shrugs off suggestions that he’s doing anything fancy by making up his own rudiments. But such creative effort devoted to exercises long since dismissed by other drummers as mere parade ground stuff is just one more example of how Dawson thinks a little harder than the ordinary player about the instrument. His way of playing them, is also a bit out of the ordinary, again originating from musical considerations apart from drumming per se.

“You hear some guy putting down some other cat: ‘Man, that fella’s too far into the rudiments. He sounds like a march!” Dawson shakes his head. “Well, it isn’t that he got too far into them—he hasn’t gone far enough. See, rudiments were originally intended to help a band march, so all the accents were right on the beat.” He whips off some military five-, seven-, and nine- stroke rolls to illustrate. “The difference with jazz is like the difference between marching and dancing: marching is on the heels, dancing is on the toes. So, if you apply that to the rudiments — take away those accents or syncopate the rolls — you get a nice, floating jazz feeling rather than that obvious, abrupt ‘one-two’ stuff.” And, he plays several five-stroke rolls which manage to lay a 3/4 pulse over two bars of 4/4. “It helps you get across the bar line, too.”

That last saying crops up a lot in Dawson’s conversation, both as an explanation of a basic jazz phrasing device and as a judgment of playing ability. “Getting across the bar line” means creating phrases that don’t start or stop at the beginnings or ends of measures, but which use syncopation to flow over several bars, starting or stopping according to the relationships among the notes within the phrase itself.

That last saying crops up a lot in Dawson’s conversation, both as an explanation of a basic jazz phrasing device and as a judgment of playing ability. “Getting across the bar line” means creating phrases that don’t start or stop at the beginnings or ends of measures, but which use syncopation to flow over several bars, starting or stopping according to the relationships among the notes within the phrase itself.

Playing 3/4 over 4/4 is one way to do it:
alan dawson music 2 copy

“That lick goes all the way back to my other idol, Jo Jones”, Dawson grins. “Now there was an innovator, In the late 30s and 40s, when Jo came up, the bass drum was playing very solid, strict and loud: boom, boom, boom, boom. The hi-hat was played real staccato too, a very definite chaaaa, chit-chit chaaaaa, chit-chit chaaaaa. Jo took the emphasis away from the bass drum, brought it up to the hi-hat more and by half closing and opening it, he smoothed out the sound.

“Max Roach, too, is a master at getting across the bar line. He was doing it with 5/4 and 3/4 in the 50s, before Brubeck did Take Five. You know, with all due respect. Take Five wasn’t really a free, blowing-in-five type of thing: it had a strict lick going on all the time. Max could really play in five. His tunes had form to them, too. They weren’t modal things like Take Five where you didn’t have to keep track of the chord changes.”

Dawson is reminded of his own days with Brubeck and how the pianist insisted on keeping that famous 5/4 riff going throughout all the choruses of that big, 60s hit. “I didn’t need that steady comp”, Dawson confides, “I could keep it in my head. You see, the whole point with these time signatures is to get them to flow. Sure you got to lay down strategic downbeats, but you can’t be too obvious about it. It’s the same thing as the rudiments: change them around a little and you can get that looser type of feel happening.”

Dawson’s stint with Brubeck brought him the attention of his widest audience yet. You might expect, then, that endorsement offers from equipment manufacturers would have followed hard on the heels. But, by the late 60s, he had already been a long time enthusiastic member of the Avedis Zildjian star lineup. Although he uses a standard set of 14-inch New Beat hi-hats, the diameters and tone qualities of his larger cymbals are predictably unusual, each having both crash and ride characteristics. He plays a 20-inch Mini-Cup, an 18-inch Flat-Top and a wondrous 17-inch Mini- Cup he lovingly calls, “my baby” that is capable of both pinpoint precision and broad overtones.

Such precision is vital for a style as complex as Dawson’s-anything less would muddy his squeaky-clean execution. And projecting that sound with minimum effort has converted him from wood drums to the Fibes fiberglass camp. In fact, Dawson was the first player of note to endorse the drums. He tunes them to approximate pitches and intervals spanning a fourth from his 18-inch bass to his 15 x 16 inch floor tom, a major third from the floor tom to the single mounted 8 x 1 2 inch tom, and another third up to the 5 x 14 inch snare. The 15-inch diameter floor tom is an odd size and is surprisingly deeper sounding than a standard 14- inch model. Dawson covers it with a street drum head and says he gets almost as much bottom out of it as he can with a 16-inch.

In these days of multiple melodic toms and bass drums, Dawson has no wish to switch to a larger set. “Using all those drums, that’s all beautiful and I don’t knock it. But two things have influenced me not to do it. One is that I still can’t afford a band boy to lug it all around. And two, the more drums you have, the less rhythmic variety you tend to have. There’s a logical tendency to substitute pitch for rhythmic variety everybody on every instrument does that. You don’t hear much rhythmic variety from sax players, for instance, because when you’ve got all those pitches to deal with, you can’t very well get into that much rhythmically-Sonny Rollins being the exception, of course. And that’s even true with Max. When I first heard him with Bird, he was playing a cymbal, snare, hi-hat and bass, period. And he had a lot of variety he didn’t have later when he added toms and other cymbals. Don’t get me wrong, now”, he says, lifting a finger in warning, “he still sounded great. It was just less varied”.

Variation, then, is Dawson’s goal; achieving it musically, his passion. So, he intends to keep on keeping on in Boston with his quartet, his small drum set, his practice pads and his 30 adoring students. Secure against the fads and dedicated to growth, he shows no inclination to rest on his considerable laurels or to trade on his reputation. “There are two things I like the most; the first is playing, the second is teaching. And they’re compatible provided you don’t get carried away.

“Sure”, he says, gently, “I could teach 40 or 50 hours a week. But then I wouldn’t want to think about practicing or even about gigging most of- the time. So you wind up getting stagnant, not getting any further ahead or even falling behind. And then, I wouldn’t have anything to give anybody.”

Earlier, he’s marveled at a student of his who’d arrive for his lesson each week from Cambridge by bicycle, a 25-mile trip which he made even through blizzard conditions. “It was amazing that he went through all that”, Dawson says.

Even more amazing is that Dawson chooses not to call attention to the most obvious reason for the trip: studying with Alan Dawson is worth just about anything.