The Root Rhythm of Jazz and Beyond

The Charleston was a popular dance rhythm during the 1920s that got its name from the popular composition of the same name by pianist/composer James P. Johnson. The syncopated Charleston rhythm is one of the most fundamental figures that makes up the DNA of jazz, as well as many different types of music from around the world.

All of the great jazz drummers throughout history utilize the Charleston. Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, and Elvin Jones, to name just a few, applied it in all sorts of interesting and creative ways. Elvin often phrased this rhythm in 3/4 over a 4/4 meter.

In this article on the Charleston rhythm, we explore ways to create interesting comping patterns by shifting the figure to begin on different 8th-note positions within 4/4. I divided the variations into two sets. The first contains the four ways of phrasing the Charleston rhythm starting on each quarter note. The second set has the rhythm beginning on each offbeat.

Now let’s explore ways to create one-measure comping ideas using the eight different permutations of the Charleston rhythm. In these two sets of exercises, we’re phrasing the figure in different ways with the bass drum and snare. One voice remains constant (bass drum), while the other voice (snare) moves through the permutations. Once you’re comfortable with these, reverse the voicing so that the snare remains constant while the bass drum shifts through the variations.

The next step is to combine the downbeat variations with the offbeat variations.

Here are a few ways you can expand the phrasing further by creating two-bar combinations. Once you get these down, come up with your own comping ideas based on the Charleston. Have fun!

by Jordan Young