Alan Dawson – Respect for the Roots, History of Jazz

SKF NOTE: This interview circa 1986-87 is from my sit down with Alan Dawson in his Massachusetts home for Modern Drummer‘s 10th Anniversary issue. I’ve posted several excerpts from the interview — audio and print — on this blog.

In this excerpt, I had mentioned to Alan Dawson that jazz journalist Burt Korall recently asked me to identify the top jazz drummers to emerge in the 1980s. Not jazz drummers still playing in the 80s, but drummers who first caught the drumming public’s eye in the 1980s. I didn’t have an answer for Mr. Korall, and I asked Alan Dawson if he had an answer for Korall.

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Alan Dawson: I’m not sure who we consider jazz drummers in the 80s.

Scott K Fish: How about Harvey Mason and Steve Gadd? Are they jazz drummers?

AD: They can play jazz, but I think they themselves would disagree in being categorized as jazz players. I have heard a number of purists say, “No, they don’t play jazz. I’ve heard them go ding-dinga-ding, but they don’t do it right.” I guess you’d have to ask, Who’s a mainstream [jazz] drummer of the 80s? Who’s a fusion drummer of the 80s.

SKF: Years ago, were people referring to drummers as swing drummers and bebop drummers?

AD: Yes, I must admit they were. I first came up in the Swing Era, so I bridged swing and bebop. They had terms that I remember, at least locally in Boston. When they first started talking about bebop drumming they used to say, “Yeah, he’s on the kick.” I don’t know exactly what they meant by that.

Guys here in the mid-40s were very much influenced after having heard Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey and Bird playing with Billy Eckstine’s band.

When I was playing swing I’d say, “Well, that guy’s not modern. He’s not into the swing thing. He’s playing the Dixieland thing.”

As people mature they have a tendency to have more of an open mind toward the things that came before. When I was coming up I didn’t want to hear any Dixieland. I didn’t want to think about Dixieland. Jo Jones was it. If you didn’t play like Jo Jones — forget it.

Later on it was, “That guy’s still playing the swing thing. He’s not bopping. He’s not playing on the kick,” when Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and those guys came along.

I guess there’s that kind of tendency when you’re young. I think as you mature, not only do you gain tolerance for what came before, you gain respect for the roots and history of the music.

As that happens you start playing more along with your own style of things you’ve heard in other [previous] styles.

For instance, when I started out I really didn’t want to hear the bass drum going boom-boom-boom-boom. I still don’t really hear it, but I didn’t even play it. The bass drum was the last of the three essential pieces of equipment that I got. I had the snare drum first, then a hi-hat, and I played that for a couple of years before I got a bass drum.

When I got a bass drum, it wasn’t the bottom of things to hold things together. To me, it was another voice. It was another piece of equipment. It was bigger than all the rest of them, so I had to do something with it other than boom-boom-boom-boom.

I had to learn later, when I was with Lionel Hampton, that, yes, you’ve got to learn how to go boom-boom-boom. Then you do whatever else you want to do, but if you can’t just play time with the bass drum — forget it.

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