Great Jazz Drummers of 1980s – Would I Change My Mind?

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SKF NOTE: Somewhere 1980-1983, when I was on staff at Modern Drummer, I received a call from author Burt Korall. Mr. Korall was among the writers I absorbed in Down Beat magazine and jazz album liner notes.

Getting phone calls at MD from “my teachers,” which happened only now and then, was always an exciting surprise.

Mr. Korall was calling, he said, to gather my opinion for a jazz drumming history book he was writing. Who did I think history would consider the great jazz drummers of the 1980s? That was the gist of Korall’s question.

There was no easy definition for jazz drumming in the early 1980s. Was it the jazz fusion of Weather Report and Return to Forever? Was it Creed Taylor’s successful CTI label music? Or was it the more all-inclusive-but-always-looking-ahead music of, say, Jack DeJohnette’s bands on ECM records?

Finally, I told Burt Korall I thought history would consider Jack DeJohnette a great jazz drummer of the 1980s. Other great jazz drummers of the 1980s were still unknown, I said. Had Korall asked me his question a year or so earlier, I would have still included DeJohnette, and there would have been obvious other drummers to include. Like Steve Gadd.

But when Burt Korall asked me his question, most of Steve Gadd’s playing had shifted to CTI and pop records like Rickie Lee Jones’s “Chuck E’s in Love.” Gadd’s drumming was phenomenal – but would history think of it as jazz drumming? I didn’t think so.

Of course, DeJohnette had been playing great jazz drums since the 1960s. But at the time, it was my impression that Jack’s playing on his “Directions” and “Gateway” ECM band recordings would stand the test of time and be viewed by historians as among the great jazz drumming of the 1980s – even though the albums were released in the mid- to late-1970s.

If I could turn back time would I change my answer to Burt Korall’s question? No.

Korall’s history books, thankfully, were published. But years after our phone conversation. “Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, The Swing Years,” was published 1990, and “Drummin’ Men–The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years” came out in 2004.

Both excellent books that sit proudly on my bookshelf.

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