Big Band Basics
by Butch Miles
Rule #1: SUPPORT
The band has a difficult ensemble passage and there may be areas to fill. In a case like this it’s often better to lay in a solid, rhythmical background so the band has the rhythm section as its foundation and support. Take for example, the tune “Swee’ Pea” on the Basie album I Told You So (Pablo #2310-767). The band is playing a difficult phrase based on straight eighth’s and sixteenth’s. However, the tune is a dedication to Billy Strayhorn, “Swee’ Pea,” who wrote such incredible tunes with Duke Ellington. Therefore, it’s meant to be in a “swing” vein. I laid down a solid background of “swing” style drums (example #1) with very few fills. I accented certain areas that were available for a fill with little more than a heavy cymbal crash on the first beat so that the band (if they laid back or rushed that passage) would still know the beginning of each or every other measure.
Also, on Basie Big Band (Pablo #2310-756) listen to the tune, “Freckle Face.” I do no fills until the tune is around four-fifths finished. I play nothing more than the swing pattern (see example #1) throughout the opening statement, first ensemble and solos. My opening statement is played on closed hi-hats (on record) switching to the ride cymbal for support of the first ensemble and solos. Since making that recording, I’ve found that staying on the hi-hat until the solos, works much better and that’s how I play it now. It gives the ensemble passage a stronger support and adds a bit more color to the overall sound.
Rule #2: DON’T GET IN THE WAY
There are a number of fills that I took directly from one of m predecessors, Sonny Payne, specifically because they sounded right and worked with this band. The eighth note triplets on snare and floor tom (see example #2), swing. They’re simple and therefore effective. They also have that special Basie “sound.” They work so well that I see no reason to change them. A good, solid fill lets the band know exactly where they are and yet it’s simple enough so that it doesn’t throw the count off.
The triplets are my “basic Basie” fill unless I find something that works better later on. The reasoning behind this is simple: Basie swings, triplets are the basic form of swing, triplets swing. When in doubt, I play triplets. This also ties in with:
Rule #3: DIRECT THE BAND
“April in Paris” is a prime example of rules two and three. The last, or shout chorus is full of one bar breaks leading into a kick on the “and” of the first beat (see example #3). My favorite two fills for this section of the chart are examples #4 and #5. They support the band and let them know where everything is; they don’t get in the way of the ensembles and they’re simple. They direct (cue) the band into the “kicks” passages.
In upcoming articles, I’ll explain the remaining six rules and give you further examples of each. I will also list recorded works that you can listen to and check out against the written examples. The styles of other Big-Band drummers will be discussed with recorded and written examples so that you will have something tangible in front of you to compare.
Remember, no two bands are alike. One style or feel will not fit each band. Basie is different from Buddy, Woody from Duke, Maynard from Harry, and so on. It’s up to you to sort out that difference and adjust yourself accordingly.