Good drumming is based on two principles that, by now, must be very familiar to the readers of this magazine: Good taste and good time. Jake Hanna’s reputation as one of the great jazz drummers stems from the unique way he’s applied these concepts with the Woody Herman band, Supersax, Bing Crosby and others. Those who know Jake, regularly count on his straight-ahead, no-nonsense drumming for their concert, club and record dates.
Another part of Jake’s fame is his keen sense of humor that, at times, threatens to overshadow his impeccable drumming. For example, Jake came out with Volume Two of his book first, because he “knew Volume One wasn’t going to be a big seller.” To neglect Jake’s legendary wit, focusing only on his drumming, would be telling only half the story. Even so, sometimes it’s hard to tell when Jake is kidding and when he’s not. Jake’s involvement with drums goes back to Boston, where he was born in 1931.
“When I was young, I just grabbed what I could find. In those days you went around hitting pipes, pots ‘n’ pans, stoves and washing machines. Nowadays, they get you a whole set of drums to do that; sixteen drums and fourteen cymbals, so you don’t have to run around the house. You can sit in one spot and take your shots.
“I didn’t start studying until I was twenty-two or twenty-three years old; when I was in the Air Force. My brother showed me the cymbal beat early. Fortunately, he showed me the right way to do it, with underlying triplets—not sixteenths. The cymbal beat is built around the outside triplets, leaving the middle one out. Listen to Basie’s band. Even when they play slow tempos, they don’t play sixteenths. If you don’t phrase that way, you can’t play the off beats with them. You’ve got to play it in triplets. I was lucky to learn that way, Stanley Spector, my teacher, developed that to a fine art.
“I also started with brushes very early. In those days, you were lucky if you could get work with more than a trio. Brushes are soft, yet they still project.
“I learned the basic roll from a trumpet teacher. What did he know about the technical part of drumming? He taught it by sound. He showed us how it sounded and all of us ended up playing that way.
“Near the end of the war, I ran into a guy named Mel Braverman. He kept pounding the word taste into my head. It’s something you have to work on everyday. No one is born with taste. You have to develop it. Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste. Taste is developed through listening and thinking. It’s just another word for common sense. Taste means fitting the music. It’s difficult to acquire. It doesn’t come from the soul or the heart. It comes from the brain. Taste is intelligence. If drumming is mathematics, taste is mostly subtraction rather than addition.
“There was no shortage of good music to listen to in the ’30s and ’40s. There were plenty of great drummers to watch. We had it very easy. We were very lucky. Buddy Rich was with Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey; Buddy Schutz was with Jimmy Dorsey; Morey Feld was with Benny Goodman; Jimmy Vincent was out with Louie Prima; Jo Jones was with Basie’s band. I had a wonderful time watching those guys. It was the best training in the world.”
George Wettling, Gene Krupa and Jo Jones top Jake’s list of favorites. But Buddy tops even that list.
“Buddy is the most amazing guy I’ve seen on any instrument. Jones and Krupa were great soloists with a great sense of drama, but Buddy didn’t need drama. He’d just knock you out! I’ve seen Buddy take acts that were lousy and make them look great. When the band would leave town and the act stayed, the next band would come in and the act would look as lousy as it was supposed to.”
When Jake joined the Air Force, around 1950, he studied with Lloyd Morales. The service gave him the opportunity to get the technical knowledge he needed to read music and gain more physical control of the instrument. At the age of twenty-three, he started learning rudiments and reading.
“I was looking for the key that would unlock a lot of the music that’s around, and I found it. It’s the right hand. It’s how you ride a cymbal and how you generate time. It happens with brushes and with sticks; in straight eighths and in swing. It’s all in how you generate time. Never mind the licks. Get that cymbal beat going. Just practice time everyday. Practice it with the right hand and with the left hand. Practice time as fast as the metronome will go, and then double it. “I still haven’t devised what I think is the correct technique. I’m looking for some shortcuts to build parts of the hands and wrists which I think are most important. I’m even practicing left handed now so I can find out what the problem is in showing a guy how to hold the stick in the left or the right hand, matched grip or traditional.
“Today I see a lot of matched grip, which is a natural way to play. Why learn two techniques when one will suffice? I discussed the matter for years with Billy Gladstone. He used that street grip for symphonic playing, but he claimed it wasn’t from the street. He said he learned it from the violin, where the left hand plays underhand and the other one plays the bow.
“I can play matched grip. I did with Woody for certain sounds. I would use the butt end of the stick to get a thicker texture. I didn’t have much control with it though, so when I’d throw it at the drums, out would come licks that I could never repeat. I use that grip for power. I use the traditional for speed and sensitivity.”
Another aspect of Jake Hanna’s reputation as a drummer with great sensitivity and taste, is his ability to fit in with a rhythm section.
“The drummer should fit in. He shouldn’t be the dominant factor in the rhythm section. Very few true rhythm sections ever really existed. I’ve been in one or two, that’s all. The worse the section is, the stronger you have to play. The better they are, the less you have to do.”
I depend on the bass player a lot. Guys ask me, ‘What do you do with a bad bass player?’ I do what Louie Armstrong did: I play with the bass player in my head. I always hum a bass line. I might be humming “Indiana” while the band is playing “Stardust,” but at least I’ll be humming the feeling I hear in the bass part. Most guys I play with play that feeling. Some players play with an edge; with a forward motion to get it airborne. Then you’ll play with guys who play in the middle. You have to change. You have to adjust your style even if it’s only a fraction. If you don’t, it won’t work.”
According to Jake, taste must be used in deciding not only what to play, but who to play it with. He is selective about the people he works with and the type of music he plays.
“I got stuck in bebop for a long time. When I came up it was bebop. I’m a melody lover. Even though the songs were based on standards, I’d rather hear the melody. Right in the middle of my bop playing, I was thrown in with George Wein as the house drummer at Storyville. I played with Buck Clayton and Bud Freeman and I never had a better time in my whole life. It was then that I made the decision that even if I starved, I was going to stick with swing music.
“Sometimes you can’t be choosy. As you get older, you try to edit your playing so that by the time you’re forty-five or fifty, you aren’t doing any bullshit jobs. When you’re younger, you do the best you can under the circumstances. If you can’t play what you like, at least like what you play.
“I was always shooting for a better band. In 1957, I was with Woody’s band and I was shooting for a band that I’d like better. It turned out the band I liked better was a later Woody Herman band.”
Jake isn’t the kind of person who says, “I may not know what’s good, but I know what I like.” He knows what’s good, and he knows what he likes. Though he says rock is jive, and he can’t stand modern jazz, he does listen to them and there are performances in every area that he enjoys.
“I’m very lucky that my style fits in. I’ve worked with quite a few bands and I’ve only disliked two. That’s pretty good. You don’t have to be an actor to know if a movie is good. You don’t have to be a classically trained musician to know that some performances are dull, and others take you right out of your seat. But if you haven’t developed taste, then you won’t know the difference.” Like many musicians who have been around a while, Jake grumbles about the music being played today. The current standards of artistry and musicianship have Jake more than a little concerned.
“There was plenty of music during the ’30s and ’40s. It was the heyday of great American music. I can’t say that all the great songs were written then, but the majority of them were written during that period. The year I was born, at least thirty standards were written. Nowadays, you probably won’t find one written this year, or in the last five years. Songwriters today are non-existent. There’s no Richard Rodgers or George Gershwin; not a Jerome Kern or a Cole Porter in the lot.
“Music has changed a lot. Drumming has changed a lot. Rock and roll has changed it. I don’t know whether it’s for the better or not, but I’ll tell you one thing about rock: the drummers are the best thing about it. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the guys who make those tunes, because the vocalists are live, the guitarists are jive, and the tunes are jive! Look, they’ve had since I960 to develop that music. Now that’s quite a while. Jazz came up with Dizzy Gillespie. Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and they were playing pretty damn good The guys today should have come up with a little bit more than what they’ve come up with.
“Rock drummers are a little busy, but I can’t blame them. I’d be playing as much as I could too, just to stop listening to those tunes. I feel sorry for some of them who are losing their hearing I hope Charlie Watts hasn’t lost his hearing because he’s a big Zoot Sims fan. He loves good music—not that he’s playing any of it!
“The best guy around today is Jimmy Keltner. I would rank him with Billy Gladstone and George Wettling as one of the greatest drummers of all time. He gets just as good a sound as Billy got. I listen to sound, not style. Steve Gadd is another good drummer, though I haven’t heard him live. Buddy gets a great sound. But Billy Gladstone was the master. He had the greatest sound—period.
“The great drummers play all different kinds of music, but they’re artists. They take whatever they’re doing and make it art. Keltner is an artist. If he played jazz or classical, he’d still be an artist. How he does it with that kind of music is beyond me. He’s up against bigger odds than most guys.” In 1962, Jake joined the Woody Herman band for the third time. He had learned a valuable lesson earlier in his career and it was finally proven right with the ’62 Herd.
“Get with a band that’s just being formed. I don’t care if you’re Buddy, Jo Jones, or Don Lamond; when you come on a band that’s been around, even if the other drummer was a bum, they’re used to the way he played. They’re used to his fills and his feel. You could be the best drummer that ever lived and they’re going to feel uncomfortable with you for a while. The band I joined in ’62 was a fresh band. I was very lucky to be in on the ground floor. We had Bill Chase on lead trumpet, Phil Wilson on trombone. Sal Nestico on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano and Chuck Andrus on bass. Just like a good baseball team, we had strength up the middle.”
One of the things this particular Herman band was noted for was its ability to play very fast tempos extremely well. “Woody just threw us into it one night. That band could play good medium tempos, good slow tempos, and excellent ultra-fast tempos. It was the best fast-tempo band I’ve ever heard in my life. We could play faster and with more accuracy and musicality than Oscar Peterson’s trio. Woody would count off about 180 and we’d double that. That’s sixteen guys doubling that for twenty eight minutes. Then we’d jump into another tune.”
Jake was initially unprepared for the speed and endurance that was required. But he quickly learned there was a definite technique for fast playing.
“One night I bumped into Charlie Tappan, who was a great teacher. He told me to hold the stick between my thumb and forefinger, in the last joint, and just bounce it so I’d get three clear beats. Then I’d snap it up after the third bounce. I’d use the same technique with brushes, but I’d slap the right hand to get it started.”
Jake was also the original drummer with Supersax, a group that played harmonized transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos. The group won a Grammy in 1972 for the album, Supersax Plays Bird. In 1976, Jake became Bing Crosby’s drummer. “Bing loved to hang out with us. He liked jazz and we just jammed. Bing was a jazz singer. He had perfect time, and he swung. It was different every night. Some nights we’d bring him in in the wrong key. His medleys were so long, we were actually sober by the time they ended.
“Crosby always paid us well and took care of our expenses. He was very generous. What we got wouldn’t be much today, but we had a good time. You’ve got to remember, we only worked a half hour a night. Besides, it was quality music; Van Huesen, Rodgers, Porter.” Like his playing, most everything Jake Hanna has done, no matter how unorthodox, has made sense. His equipment selection follows the same logic. “I got tired of having stuff lifted off the sidewalk while we were moving into clubs. I decided to have just two cases. This way, I could wheel them both in at the same time.”
To accomplish this, Jake asked Slingerland to build him a custom set; 8 x 12 and 11 x 15 tom-toms, and a 12 x 20 bass drum. He cut the bass drum and floor tom in half and put hinges on them so he could pack the drums inside one another. He uses a 1937 Slingerland Radio King snare drum, and a 1946 Gladstone. And until Remo’s Fiberskyn 2 drumheads came out, Jake was a diehard user of calf heads.
“My Radio King has a solid maple shell, small snare beds, and straight counterhoops. It’s simple and it’s the best sounding snare drum I’ve ever owned. The kids today are so strong, everybody has to have the Charles Atlas model. I don’t like the stiffness of the springs on the pedals today. To get the feeling of the old Duplex pedal, I use rubber bands on my pedals.”
Jake’s philosophy towards cymbals is equally direct. “One cymbal has to do everything. It has to ride and it has to crash. It has to be soft and blend, but it has to speak without being dominating. I don’t need volume, but they do have to cut through.”
Jake is also the only drummer to have a Regal Tip drumstick with his name on it. His relationship with the Regal Tip family goes back to the early ’60s.
“I was getting drugged with sticks from the companies. Out of a carton of two dozen, I’d get three usable sticks, and halfway through “Caldonia,” they’d go. Joe Calato was making a hickory stick with a nylon tip and he was happy to make my stick. It was the JC model with a tapered butt, like Charlie Wilcoxon’s Super Balance. It’s a very fast stick, which is what I needed at the time. Lately, I’ve been using the Regal Tip 5A.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Jake Hanna is his consistency. His jovial nature notwithstanding, he is the essence of good taste and practicality. In a world that has become more and more complicated, Jake remains steadfastly devoted to his uncomplicated approach.
“I’m really happy doing what I’m doing. It goes back to finding that one key that fits the music. Whether it’s with a jazz band, or a rock band, or an orchestra, anything that’s in tempo has that key. I use it to play jazz, but the way I look at it, everything else is contained in what I do. That’s as uncomplicated as it gets.”