Roy Burns
Photo by John W. Wright

Recently, a friend of mine was asked to do a commercial recording session. During the session, it became obvious that things were not going well. Finally, the producer asked my friend, “Can you play like John Smith?” (John Smith doesn’t exist. Put the name of any famous drummer in place of John Smith.)
The point is a simple one. My friend felt like saying, “Why didn’t you hire John Smith?” However, he kept quiet and tried to do the best professional job that he could. When we discussed it later, it was apparent that although my friend plays very well, he just wasn’t the right drummer for the situation.
Why Does This Happen?
Sometimes the other musicians admire and like a famous drummer, such as my imaginary John Smith. They expect to hear and feel that same style. When the new drummer plays, it is not what the others have been anticipating. Hence the question, “Can you play like John Smith?”
My friend was disappointed because he realized that his style was not what the other musicians wanted. Even though he plays very well, he could not really “groove” with this particular group.
Occasionally, this same problem will exist between the bass player and the drummer. However, it is usually the drummer who is asked to change. Rarely is it the bass player or other members of the group who are asked to make the adjustments they expect from a drummer.
I suggest that the reason for this is because the entire group depends so much on the drummer. He is the center of the wheel or the base on which others build. Each beat the drummer plays, or doesn’t play, affects each of the other players.
In most cases, the other musicians (even arrangers and especially producers) do not know enough about drumming to make specific and clear suggestions for what they want. So they fall back on, “Can you play like John Smith?”
This question is not intended as an insult. It is their hope that you will be familiar with the drummer in question. If that is the case, then the drummer could play something that would be close to the feel being sought.
All-Star Bands, both live concerts and recordings, have produced some really strange-sounding music. Players who win polls are usually solo players with very individual characteristics. When thrown together in an All-Star Band, the style combinations can be pretty weird.
I heard one such group at a major jazz festival and the style combination was as follows: a swing-style big band drummer, an upright accoustical bass player who played mostly with trios, a young fusion/ rock/jazz guitar player who knew only his own music, a bebop/fusion trumpet player, a saxophone player from a well known swing big band, a pianist who played with a classical third-stream jazz group, a violinist from Poland, a vibist from Hungary, and a harmonica player from Holland.
All of these musicians are great players in their respective styles. However, when combined into a unit as a result of the polls and the whims of the concert producer, they were not at their best. The music they produced sounded like a bad rehearsal of semi-pro players who all have different record collections.
One famous music critic (who is hated by most professional musicians) wrote in his review, “The group didn’t seem to jell.” As a matter of fact, they all sounded very, very uncomfortable. The music was disorganized and all involved breathed a sigh of relief when it was over. So did the audience.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. All-Star Bands can be interesting and exciting. The point is that some similarity in style or point of view must be there in order for the music to be successful. When this is present, the music can be quite stimulating.
Don’t Take It Personally
This is an important point to understand. Each person works very hard to develop ability and style. Many years of work go into learning to play well. Each of us has a lot of effort and pain invested in our playing. When someone else says, “Can you play like John Smith?” it is not intended to wound your ego. It may be that your style is not right for that group.
Don’t be defensive or put down other musicians. People have different backgrounds and widely varied levels of study and experience. The trick is to find some other musicians who feel somewhat the same as you do about music.
As far as being versatile is concerned, it is a good idea to learn different styles of music and drumming. Some players, such as studio musicians, become very good at playing different styles of music. However, just remember that music is like the ocean: there is enough for everyone. No one drummer plays every style better than anyone else. Play the best you can in every kind of music.
If you hit one of those situations, like my friend did, just remember to do your best and not take it personally. Learn what you can from it and go on to the next one. It is all part of learning the music business.