Sunday Jazz — June 16th
What do you call a drummer with half a brain? Gifted.
How do you get a drummer off of your front porch? Pay him for the pizza.
What’s the difference between a drummer and a savings bond? One will mature and make money.
Apparently the list of jokes about drummers is fairly lengthy, and all of them arrive at a similar place: drummers aren’t the most intelligent, skilled, famous, or even important parts of a band. There are definitely exceptions to that rule: there’s Travis Barker, the drummer and perhaps most recognizable member of Blink-182; Rick Allen, Def Leppard’s drummer who only had one arm; Tommy Lee from Motley Crue; Lars Ulrich from Metallica, who went nuts over people downloading songs for free on Napster; Ringo Starr from the Beatles; and of course, Animal from the Muppets. Wait, what? You wouldn’t have known the names of most of those drummers if they walked up to you on the street? Me either. I actually had to look up a list of drummers to remember enough names beyond Ringo and Animal to make a list.
One realm where jokes about a drummer’s lack of importance holds very little, or no water at all is in jazz. Sure, guys like Miles and Duke Ellington and Count Basie dominate discussions about the best jazz artists of all time, and granted none of them were drummers. But what is lost in those conversations is the fact that without guys like Art Blakey, Gene Kruppa, Chick Webb, and Philly Joe Jones, the innovations and explorations that the great names of jazz brought to the table probably wouldn’t have been as successful, and perhaps wouldn’t have been possible at all. These guys had to take the changes in musical structure that were being explored and hold the tunes together with their rhythms–in essence, they had to rewrite how the drums were played in order to hang with the constant changes happening around them.
Which brings us to the video for today. While he might not have been the most important drummer in Jazz history, Max Roach could more than hold his own. This was evident by the fact that he played on a lot of the great albums of the bop era. I remember being mesmerized by a video of Max Roach playing solo on a VHS tape of a Dizzy Gillespie show in my early teens. We’ll get to a video of that performance in a second, but first, a more standard drum solo video from Max Roach….
Not too shabby, right? Similar to a guitar player holding down both the rhythm and the tune simultaneously. But what if he didn’t have the luxury of a full drum set? What would he be able to do if he was left with only one element of a full set, and what if that one element wasn’t the obvious choice of the snare? What if all he was left with was the hi-hat? Well, it just so happens there’s a video of that, and it’s the video that left me mesmerized as a teenager and still does today. Enjoy.