Driver’s Seat

Hints On Playing With Big Bands

by Charlie Persip

The important difference between big bands and small bands is in the orchestration/arrangements. A conventional big band has trumpet, trombone, sax and rhythm sections. These sections will, at times, play the same melodic and rhythmic figures collectively within the arrangement. At other times the horns might play the same phrase while the rhythm section plays compatible accompaniment. At times, the various sections will play by themselves with the rhythm section. Then the rhythm section will accompany the soloist and the orchestral backgrounds.


Throughout the arrangement, the drummer must hold everything together and keep it moving by laying down an inspiring beat. This is commonly called “swinging” the band. In trying to maintain the tempo and hold the band together, the beat can become stiff and metronomic. The drummer should never be overbearing with his time feeling. He should take command with complete sensitivity for the feelings of the other musicians in the band.

In any ensemble, large or small, the drummer must maintain a good time feeling, but in the big band it is imperative. There are 17 or 18 musicians in the average big band with 17 or 18 different conceptions of the time. The band will not groove until the individual conceptions are blended into one. There are many musicians who depend on the drummer for the time. I don’t particularly like this situation, as it has a tendency to hamper the freedom of the drummer, but it is something we do have to deal with.

Maintaining a good time feeling does not mean hammering out the cymbal beat all night with little or no rhythmic or melodic variation. It means that the variations must have the same, or even a better, rhythmic feeling, so that the absence of the basic cymbal rhythm is not missed. The drummer must keep in mind that any variation from the basic cymbal rhythm must have a reason, either melodic, rhythmic, or emotional. Otherwise, they become tasteless interruptions of the arrangement.

There are three basic situations in a big band where drummers may tastefully deviate from the cymbal beat:

1) To suggest or interpret a phrase simultaneously with the ensemble, commonly known as “making cuts” with the band.

2) To fill up the holes or spaces in the arrangement with written fills.

3) In the playing of fills that are not written, but are placed where they will emotionally enhance passages within the arrangement.

Let’s discuss these three situations in detail:

1) In “making cuts” with the band, the drummer should be aware of the highs and lows in the melody, and the long and short sounds. The duration of the various notes in the melody is your key. In 4/4 time, the eighth note gets a half a beat. This is a short sound. A quarter note gets a whole beat. This is also a relatively short sound, but it will be a full or fatter sound than the eighth note. Dotted quarter notes, eighth notes tied together or tied to quarter notes, half notes and whole notes are long sounds. The way to play a long sound is to either roll, or strike a cymbal. The cymbal should be punctuated by the bass drum or snare, depending on the pitch of the sound. I prefer the sound of the bass drum accent accompanying the cymbal crash. This gives weight to the sound.

2) A written fill is a short space, usually one or two and sometimes three or four measures. The drummer should never think of them as short solos (written or improvised). They should be thought of as rhythmically melodic statements that enhance the melody of the phrase.

3) The improvised fill is not notated on the drum chart. They are left up to the discretion of the drummer, based on what he hears and sees on his part. What the ensemble plays before and after the fill should stimulate and inspire what the drummer plays. All experienced drummers have their favorite licks. When the creative juices aren’t flowing, they fall back on these licks. This is fine as long as the lick enhances the melody. The content of the fill or statement is left to the drummer’s imagination. These statements deal with the emotion of the arrangement. One of the most important and effective improvised fills is what we call a “lead in.” Here, the drum statement leads the band into the next passage. It helps keep the band aware of the song structure, while inspiring their entrances. One of the most effective “lead in” fills is the crescendo pressed roll, popularized, and so masterfully played, by Art Blakey, one of the true geniuses in the evolution of drumming.

In today’s big band, it is absolutely essential for the drummer to read music well. True, the imaginative drummer with good ears may play the arrangement well after hearing it a few times, but in situations where there’s no time to learn the tune by ear, he must be able to read. This does not mean that the reading drummer should not use his ears. Drummers should read with both ears and eyes.

Another important consideration is how strong the drummer plays. I said “strong.” Not loud. The big band sound will be stronger and, at times, considerably louder than the small band, because of the number of instruments. The volume must match that of the ensemble. This is not to say that the drummer should bang away with ear shattering sounds. The real artistry in big hand playing is being able to drive the band to maximum volume without being obnoxious.

In order to play your best in the big band, you must be able to hear every section. With the poor acoustics in many places, and the complexities of today’s sound systems, the drummer may need the help of a monitor. Here is the set up I prefer:

The drums are located in the middle offering a birds eye view of the band. I find this set up to be the best for hearing the entire ensemble.

The drummer should always listen. Many people hear, few listen. The difference between hearing and listening is total concentration. There is a popular beer commercial showing a champion pool player doing his thing. When asked how he does it, he answers “Practice, practice, practice.” In order for the drummer to become a champion he must listen, listen, listen.