Driver’s Seat

Controlling The Band

by Mel Lewis

One of the most important points and most often overlooked elements of good big band drumming technique is how the drummer sets himself up within the band. It is extremely important for the band to be able to hear the drummer clearly, and equally important for the drummer to be able to hear every section of the band as clearly as possible.I prefer to always be on the right hand side of the band (left from the audience’s view).I also prefer to be situated in the second row with the trombones but just a shade higher than them. This position enables you to get your cymbals and bass drum practically into the sax section while remaining on the same level as the trumpet players are standing. This is essential so the trumpets will hear the drums coming up into their ears, especially the lead trumpet. The main thing to remember is that the lead trumpet, lead trombone and lead alto player should never be more than two seats away from you, or more than three to five feet away.

The remainder of the rhythm section (piano and bass) should ideally be to the right of you. This helps you to hear the bass and piano distinct from the band itself, creating somewhat of a stereo effect with the horns coming into your left ear and the rhythm to the right ear. It is usually better to have the bass player behind or immediately to the right of you, however in front is also acceptable.

Keep in mind that the drummer is basically the leader of the band. The leader may call the tunes and talk to the audience, but outside of that, he cannot truly control the band. The drummer is in complete control. There is nothing the leader can do unless he can make the drummer go with him. If the drummer does not go with the leader, and the band does, you have chaos. The drummer has got to go with the leader. To be successful here, the big band drummer must think like a leader. He must be an exceptionally good listener and cultivate his ability to react to what’s going on and control it. When you hear something going wrong, or when one of the sections is having a problem with the time, you control it.

When there is a time problem with the whole band, or in one particular section, it’s not necessary to hammer out after beats to drive the message across as I’ve often heard some young players do. That’s bad taste, it’s unmusical and I disagree with that approach adamantly. When you hear something like that happening, try moving into the cymbal that is closest to the section involved and use verbal instructions. I’ve often said, ‘Move up on it’, if the time starts to fall back. This is best for the lead altoist to hear, assuming the problem is arising out of the sax section.

Driver's SeatIf the problem is in the trombones, I’ll often play melody with them. They’ll usually catch it and move up right away. If it’s with the trumpets, I’ll use verbals, or back beats for maybe one or two bars, no more! It’s sometimes good to play melody with the trumpets as well, or get a little more intense by filling up their rests to move them up. The key is to get them back and maintain control of the band in a musical manner. It is also helpful if your lead men have a big, fat sound with a center to it. A sound that everyone can hear. Ideally the lead men should have the time of a drummer, or at least a good conception of where the time should be.

Another thing you can do if the band begins to get too loud or the time starts to fluctuate is to play softer so they can barely hear you. They’ve got to come down. If they can’t hear you, then they’re playing too loud. As long as the section players can distinctly hear the drums and bass, there should never be a problem.

Remember, it should never be necessary for the drummer to play loud to control the band. Save loud for when it’s supposed to get loud. Normal playing level is just a little louder than soft. If everyone plays at that level, then you have somewhere to go. The trick is to play soft and get a little louder, or a little softer. That’s the best way to get a good sound from your drums and your band. Control the dynamics, control the time, control the band. Always!