Learning from Singers to Be a Better Drummer

SKF NOTE: Paging through books from my music book collection, reading again the passages I underlined, I remember I did so because all of these passages — or almost all of them — helped me become a better drummer.

Breathing properly, phrasing, melodies, lyrics, rising above mediocre band members — I applied all of these to drumming.

Here are some favorite singer passages I underscored in one chapter of Whitney Balliett‘s book, American Singers.

Teddi King

  • The lyrics direct my choice of notes.
  • A good accompanist breathes with you. An inferior one forces you back into yourself.

Mary Mayo

  • The lyrics light up the melody – give the melody a tongue. Most melodies are dumb before they have words.

Barbara Lea

  • I worked with a piano player in Boston who couldn’t read, couldn’t keep a beat, couldn’t transpose, couldn’t play the songs of the day, and hated to play the piano. And that gae me a great musical independence — I learned to sing with anyone, anywhere, under any conditions.
  • Phrasing has to do with the meaning of the lyrics and the play of rhythm against rhythm.
  • The most important quality musically in an accompanist is rhythm, and that means being able to swing and to control the motion of the song.

Source: American Singers, by Whitney Balliett, Oxford University Press 1979

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Art Blakey on Chick Webb’s Drum Lesson

art blakey photos

SKF: Here’s Art Blakey recounting his drum lesson from Chick Webb.

Down Beat: [T]he public in the swing era always looked to the drummer for a wild solo. After that, as time went on, people began to appreciate the drummer for what he was doing all around, musically.

Art Blakey: When I first started playing drums, we had a trap table. I had temple blocks and a stick with a black string on it to the ceiling. …I wasnt playing drums, I was twirling sticks, and I’d say “bam” and throw the stick out, and the people would say “aaaah,” and it’d come back, and I’d catch it. Big deal.

Chick Webb came in to hear me, and he said, “You’re a drummer, kid?”

And I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “Bring your drums in the dressing room.”

So I brought my drum in there; he said, “Roll.”

I said, “Rat-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.”

He said, “__________,” slammed the door, and walked out.

I said, “Mr. Webb….”

He said, “Look, rhythm is on the drum — it ain’t in the air.”

Source: Drum Talk – Coast to Coast, Down Beat, 3/26/64

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Harry Stone: Lost Opportunity to Replace Dave Tough

SKF NOTE: I really don’t know anything about Harry Stone. My friend, Chris Conrade, interviewed Harry Stone on June 6, 1979, hoping the interview would be transcribed, edited, and published in Modern Drummer. None of those things happened. Last week, digitizing this cassette, was the first I had listened to this one-hour interview since 1979.

5110a5QIFCLHarry Stone had written the book, music, and lyrics for the Off-Broadway musical, Chase A Rainbow. There are references during the interview to a song, Listen, Little Boy, which was part of Chase A Rainbow. Chris Conrade may have been rehearsing with the show band, but that’s only my best guess. If I can get better information I will update this post.

Mr. Stone was a drummer who played with Jack Teagarden and other bands. What caught my attention in this excerpt is Stone’s story about his missed opportunity to replace Dave Tough in Woody Herman’s big band. This is an interesting bit of history from a drummer who saw Tough play and revered Tough as a drummer. And this is a timeless lesson on grabbing opportunities when they show up in our lives.

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Between Beginner and Buddy Rich

582301_downbeat_drumads (dragged)

SKF NOTE: This 1958 photo of Chico Hamilton brings back memories of a turning point in my learning to be a jazz drummer. The first two jazz drummers I noticed, who really grabbed my attention, were Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. A little later, I added Max Roach to that list.

Well, the road from beginner drummer to the level of Krupa, Rich, and Roach, viewed from step one seemed very long. Would I have to walk the entire length of that road before I could play jazz?

Chico Hamilton was one of a few jazz service drummers I discovered early on, who gave me a valid drumming goal midway, I thought, on the road toward Roach, Rich, Krupa. Mr. Hamilton is a wonderful drum soloist, but it was his great role as supportive timekeeper, as bandleader and band member, that knocked me out. His brush playing, his bass drum accents — just perfect.

I found out early on that bandleaders often preferred service drummers, players who could swing, who had ears, who didn’t overplay, who saw their role in a band, first and foremost, to make the leader and other band members sound, feel, and look good.

Getting back to this Chico Hamilton photo, it was memorable for three reasons. It’s a wonderful addition to this Gretsch ad series by photographer Chuck Stewart.

Chico’s odd-size toms were unique. And it was the first time I had seen a drummer using single-headed toms on purpose, not because a batter head broke and they lacked time and/or money to replace it.

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Cleo Laine Remembers Kenny Clare


SKF NOTE: Singer Cleo Laine remembers her friend and fellow band member, drummer Kenny Clare.

“This was not the last image of Kenny Clare I have; many more ridiculous moments occurred to keep that hard-drinking, chain-smoking, Humphrey-Bogart lookalike drummer alive in my memory…. [H]e always agreed with me that he should [give up smoking], but never achieved it.

51qmNJ3VyUL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_“When John [Dankworth] and I went to see him when he went into hospital with cancer, his first words to me were, ‘I know what you’re going to say, Cleo…”I told you so?” I replied cheerily. ‘Oh! Kenny, how could you think such a thing of me?’ He truly believed he would be out in time to do the next gig with us, apologizing for missing a recent one; but he never recovered.

“He left a large gap that hasn’t been filled — as a drummer or as a traveling companion. He was remembered by a host of his fellow musicians who performed at a memorial concert given at the Wavendon Stables, where a fund was created in his name to help young musicians.”

Source: Cleo, by Cleo Laine, Simon & Schuster, 1994


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Jack Sperling ‘Leedy’ Drum Ad 1958


SKF NOTE: A 1958 Leedy drum ad of one of Dave Weckl’s early drum influences, Jack Sperling.


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Fred Below: Playing with Dynamics

SKF NOTE: This is another excerpt from my July 9, 1982 phone interview with Fred Below. I am a great admirer of dynamics in music – rather than music played loud only. The Chicago blues artists recording for Chess were masterful at using dynamics to build tension and release in their songs. And my early exposure to Fred Below’s drumming was on those Chess records.

After mentioning my disappointment in how so many blues playing bands play that music LOUD only, with no dynamics, Fred Below shares his perspective on that phenomenon and gives some tips on how musicians and bands can avoid that trap.

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