There is an ancient Chinese curse that says “May your children live in ‘interesting’ times”—meaning, I suppose, a period of calamity and conflict. That also implies that if you grew up in a dull era, it was also a safe one. How safe we drummers are I don’t know; there are a few clouds on the horizon, but we have certainly come a long way during a most interesting time—for our endeavor a revolutionary time—the rock era. Along with the bassists, we have gained quite a lot of technical and artistic ground while most of the other instruments of popular music were seemingly marching in place, playing well, but rarely, startlingly new, except for the advances in electronics. Our act is getting better at a leaps-and-bounds rate, and there is every reason to believe that we are still only on the threshold; that progress will continue and accelerate.
Samba, reggae, disco, fusion: the interaction of all these surging, heavily rhythmic styles has also added new excitement and variety to the long-entrenched techniques of the jazz drummer. The demands of these various types of music are steering set playing down broad new avenues.
Rock, of course, is the single biggest influence, by far the most potent inspiration to drummers that I’ve seen in my time, and the continuing headlong advance in the rhythm department must be largely attributed to the vast number of talented young players involved. It could be compared to the Manhattan project during World War II—the push towards the atom bomb. Get enough brains and inventiveness together, all going for the same objective, and you are bound to see some fireworks. Even some well-established elder statesmen of the drums have contributed to, or profited from, the rise of rock percussion. There are an increasing number of “crossover” stars who can absorb new values, play both jazz and rock, and get a lift from the combination. Grady Tate understood this tradeoff bonus way back in the ’60s when he said, “Rock helps your jazz, and jazz helps your rock.” Find the right approach toward coping with the differences and the cross-references can lead to an outstanding mix. Trying to stay that “one step ahead” in any profession is a worthy endeavor, but when you are involved in a fast-developing art like modern drumming it’s almost a necessity. The trick is to not get too secure or set in your ways. Keep the ears and the mind open or you will find people catching up and running you over. If you stay active long enough it happens to us all, but with hard work you can kid yourself and a lot of others almost indefinitely.
If one can think back to the early ’60s without rose-colored hindsight, and remember how truly banal and one dimensional most rock drumming really was, it’s not hard to realize why older drummers were turned off by what they heard. They didn’t hang around long enough to watch the caterpillar turn into the butterfly.
At that time, there was a lot of advanced jazz drumming in the works, Cuban music was still in full flower, and the Brazilian influence was just coming in. Most serious drum buffs couldn’t have cared less how some British kids, disciples of extreme simplicity, were faring in their reworking of southern, black, country music.
It’s really too bad, because even today there are still those whose ears remain closed to this vibrant phase of the art because of these early misconceptions. They can’t comprehend the quantum strides that rock drumming has made while they slept. Well, it’s their loss.
When these doubters asked, “What good is that drumming?” someone should have retorted “What good is a newborn baby?” because it’s an apt parallel. The art has gone from babyhood to adulthood in a short twenty years and has amazed everyone who has been paying attention. It’s the biggest kid on the block and can’t be ignored.
There are things one should realize, though, about the distinct and separate elements of each kind of music as they affect the drummer. It has become clear by now that jazz does not prepare one to function effectively in rock without understanding, and having experience in the idiom. The reverse is equally true. Rock drummers can run into difficulties playing jazz.
It may be that switching back and forth can also pose problems to other rhythm instrumentalists. A jazz bass player friend of mine was considering joining a very musical rock group several years ago. He rehearsed with them and reported back: “Jim, I just couldn’t get back down to them! I was ahead on every beat, and they weren’t slowing down—I can’t understand it.”
I brought the same subject up while talking to the all-time dean of recording drummers, Steve Gadd. “When I began to play the rock dates,” Steve said, “it took me quite a while to get away from putting an ‘edge’ on the time. I had developed my feel as a bebop player. That meant taking over responsibility, at certain tempos, for keeping everything swinging right up at the top half of the beat. In rock I had to learn to settle way back and, of course, to become comfortable with the feeling.”
There are some older jazz drummers who have mastered many of the special skills necessary for rock. They may start an arrangement or a song with a representative drum sound and the right feel, but very often, after a chorus or two, they begin to lose the backbeat, a subtle “edge” develops, and the time becomes “skatey,” more like up-tempo jazz. I’ve heard this happen often enough to recognize the symptoms. I can spot the tendency in my own rock playing sometimes.
On the other hand are the young rock drummers who are striving to widen their horizons by working out with neo-boppers who are redefining the glories of the Parker-Gillespie heritage.
The burning, ongoing mystery facing many of these drummers is, “Why the ride-beat?” So simple. “Tink-y-ting,” as Lester Young used to.call it, has survived for more than 50 years, more than 40 of them as “the” primary jazz beat, on hihat, on top cymbal, or with brushes on snare drum. An examination of the properties of the beat in question, what it does do, and what it doesn’t do, may offer some hints as to its staying power.
In contrast to the frequently used straight four quarter notes on cymbal, the ride beat, in its usual form, serves to distinguish between “1” and “3,” and “2” and “4.” It is also more forgiving. Straight quarter notes must be relatively perfect to sound good. In contrast, “Ting-tink-ating” can be played in many varied weird and sloppy versions, with strange accents, and still be a supportive framework for a jazz soloist.
The straight 8th-note feel of a rock beat, with the more complex sub-division and inside motion, seems far more sophisticated. The fact is that like Cuban, or perhaps some Brazilian style rhythms, the energy and drive of good rock starts right from the first bar. No waiting. It is instant swing at the outset. Not so for the ride beat. It doesn’t usually get that immediate exciting pulse. You often have to wait for a while for the momentum to build. The rock beats are so powerful and involving, though, that the horns or the other soloists are forced, to a large extent, to stay in the same groove with the busy rhythm patterns, and thus their freedom tends to be somewhat curtailed.
On the other hand, the ride beat demands very little (the more complex harmonic structures common in jazz are demanding enough). As a melodic soloist, you can coast gently, you can stomp madly, you can lay back on the time, you can double up. You are not coerced, prodded, or stampeded by the rhythm section, and therein lies its charm. It swings, and provides a nice supple cushion, but when it is played right it is not intrusive.
After what could easily be too much clinical discussion, young tigers may still fail to find any magic in “ting-tink-ating.” It has been scoring an “A” on the “survival of the fittest” test for a lot of years though, and if you can play it believably you will prove to be an agreeable surprise to older jazzmen, and your mainstream playing will become a joy rather than a puzzle.