Driver’s Seat

Listening and Learning

by Mel Lewis

If you’re interested in becoming a competent big band drummer, it’s very important you do some research. When I say research, I don’t mean back ten years or so. You’ve got to dig back further than that, preferably before the bop era. It’s essential to go back and listen to what happened before to develop a better understanding of what we’re doing today.There were numerous great big band drummers during the swing era, and it is important for you to familiarize yourself with the styles and contributions of each of them. It’s essential to go back and listen to what it was that made them such unique, great players. 
For example, listen to Gene Krupa in the 30’s with the Benny Goodman band. Then listen to Krupa in the 40’s with his own big band to hear where he went and how his style evolved. If you’re listening carefully, you’ll hear a distinct difference between the Goodman years and the years that Gene fronted his own band.
Listen to Buddy Rich with Tommy Dorsey in the early 40’s and compare it with Buddy today. Of course, you’ll still hear Buddy, but you’ll also hear a much improved player who evolved after 40 years of big band experience with varied bands and hundreds of different players.
When you listen, develop an analytical ear. Take special note of how the great big band drummers each had the ability to lend something quite unique to the band. Listen carefully and you’ll hear how the same band could be made to sound totally different with different drummers in the driver’s seat. You can hear how each drummer altered the entire feeling of the band. Listen particularly to the Benny Goodman band over the years with Dave Tough, then with Sid Catlett and later Morey Feld. Listen to the Duke Ellington band with Sonny Greer, then Lou Bellson, and later with Sam Woodyard. Note how the band itself changed. Each drummer literally turned the band into their band.
Listen to the Stan Kenton band with Shelly Manne, with Stan Levey, with Mel Lewis and later with Jon VonOhlen and Peter Erskine. You’ll hear how the character of the Kenton band was altered with each new drummer. This should give you some idea of the tremendous influence a drummer can have on a big band.
Perhaps the only exception would be the Basie band, simply because that band has been so great for so long, that actually no one drummer could truly change the character of the band that much over the years. Each drummer did, however, lend something unique to every Basie band. Listen to the band over the years with Jo Jones, Shadow Wilson, Gus Johnson, Sonny Payne and Harold Jones. Listen and learn.
A great many young drummers come to me and complain about being treated unfairly by other musicians in the band, particularly lead trumpet players, piano players and often times, leaders. Surely, we all have experienced this kind of thing as young players, myself included. In retrospect, I’ve learned that, in almost every instance, any musician who criticized some element of my playing, ultimately opened by eyes to something new. I soon discovered that that person was actually helping me to become a better player. A drummer can often learn more in this manner than he could from all the drum lessons in the world. Drummers must learn to avoid getting angered and annoyed at the lead trumpet player or leader who criticizes constructively. If someone says, “I think it would help if you do so and so at this point,” don’t get angry, try it! You might just find that he’s right and it works! You could possibly pick up something from a player who may have worked with a lot of very good drummers. Maybe what he’s trying to tell you are little things that the good players did. He could be laying a little lesson on you in terms of something he carefully observed. Taken in the right frame of mind, you stand to learn from it. He’s helping you, or at least trying to help you.
Of course, if a leader or lead player is harping on you unjustly, or is essentially wrong in what he’s suggesting, then you have all the right in the world to speak up. If someone is unfairly accusing you of dragging when in fact, he is rushing, there is no need to sit back and take it. Be ready to explain how you view the situation. If he’s any kind of a musician, he’ll see the truth of the matter and an adjustment can be made, or at least a compromise of some sort. If he’s not a good musician then you don’t want to be working with him anyway.
Remember, you are in the driver’s seat; a position from which you can control the band and the situation. You can also learn a great deal if you’ll just remember to keep your eyes and ears open at all times.