Monday, February 20, 2012

Tiny Kahn: Over 300 But Less Than 30


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Tiny's ears are what really got to me. I don't know if he had absolute pitch. Very likely he did—or came very close to it. He instinctively knew how to read an arrangement. Right off he would find what to do with a chart. Another thing—Tiny tuned his drums assiduously. He was concerned with the pitch of each drum. And he was very particular about cymbals; each one had to serve a particular purpose. He was like a modern Sid Catlett. He would have had that kind of influence, had he lived.

Tiny was very advanced harmonically. His arrangement of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" for the Barnet band indicates where he was going. He wrote it in Salt Lake City in two days.

The loss of Tiny Kahn was devastating He meant so much to music and to those who knew him. Everybody learned some­thing from Tiny. If you talked to or hung out with him, played in one of the bands that employed him or analyzed his writing, you came away with something.”
- Manny Albam, composer-arranger

“Tiny was melodic on drums ….. He probably was the most melodic drummer of all time. And the most economic. He made every stroke mean something. A whole school developed around his style.

Tiny could do so many things easily. When I was in the Army, the leader of the dance band at my base in Dallas told me he couldn't buy the "Jump the Blues Away" and "Wiggle Woogie" Basie stocks anywhere. I wrote Tiny about the problem—how all the cats in the band, including me, wanted to play this music. What did he do? He just copied all the music off the record­ings and sent the transcriptions to me. And that was an eighteen-year-old guy who had never taken a lesson.

How about this? When I came home on furlough, as World War II was winding down, Tiny hipped me to what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing and explained their music in detail. He knew every note and what to do with it. He would sit at the piano and play complete tunes for me, in some cases including all the solos. He always knew what was going down before anyone else.”
- Terry Gibbs, vibraphonist and bandleader

“Tiny Kahn was really a gigantic influence to all of us. Es­pecially all the young white players who were in the big bands and still trying to play jazz. He was such a marvelous musician. He was a dy­namic drummer with great time. He didn't have great hands, great feet, he wasn't really a showy drummer. He was just a real father time-type drummer. And he was a self-taught arranger, piano player, ….. Tiny knew how changes went from one to another. He was a tremendous influence on me and many others too.”
- Red Rodney, Jazz trumpet player and bandleader

“He was a very rare talent. Completely natural. He was the most unstudied musician in the whole world. And yet he wrote some excellent charts. He was a swinging drummer. A very unstudied one. But yet a natural swinger. He really wasn't a pi­anist. He would just sit down and kind of noodle away in the most illegitimate, unschooled way. But what came out was beautiful.”
- Frankie Socolow, Jazz saxophonist

“Tiny, believe it or not, was with Kenny Clarke, I believe those were the two distinct changes at that time. Tiny changed it from the Buddy Rich sound, from Gene Krupa, Louis Bellson. He came in with an opposite sound, and Mel [Lewis] came in right on the heels of Tiny, every one of us knew that.”
- Chubby Jackson, Jazz bassist and bandleader

“ Tiny never let anything deter him. He wanted to know! And he wasn't shy about it. He was curious about certain fills that I used when I worked with Parker and Dizzy. He dug their sound and feeling. So he just came up and asked. ‘How do you do those things? Show me how to play them.’

“Tiny was the one who led the way into the soft pulse—not a hard edge to it, [Ed. note — Stan more than suggested this concept in his own work, partic­ularly with small bands.] Drummers changed because of him, making their approach to sound and comment more musical, less percussive. Tiny had a rare understanding of the inner workings of a band because he was a writer. He knew how to control the time feeling, the tempo, how to take hold of the sections, the entire orchestra.

Everyone borrowed or stole from him. For a guy to die at the beginning of a great career is criminal. I know musicians who can't play or write who live into their nineties.”
- Stan Levey, Jazz drummer

[All of the above quotations by musicians and friends of Tiny are excerpted from Ira Gitler, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s or Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men, The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years].


The subtitle in our feature about Tiny Kahn refers to the fact that for much of his brief life, this terrific composer, arranger and drummer weighed over 300 pounds [at one point, he topped out at 415 lbs.!], but didn’t live to reach the age of thirty [30].

Perhaps the two were related?  It would seem so for according to Johnny Mandel: “Tiny had warnings before he passed. He almost died in the late 1940s of a bad blood clot in his leg. Coronary problems, difficulties within the vascular system, were common for several years”.

During his tragically short lifetime, Tiny Kahn influenced and impressed just about everyone he performed with during Bebop’s nascent decade [1943-53].

So much so, that when news of his death reached drummer Stan Levey, a big, brute of a guy whom I never knew to fall prey to easy emotion or sentimentality, it caused this reaction:

“The day he died I was in Europe with Stan Kenton. We were about to begin a concert in Copenhagen for a tremendous audience. Somehow the word got to us that Tiny had died. Well, I just totally broke down. I finally pulled myself together and thought: ‘I'll play this one for Tiny. He gave me and other musicians so much.’”

Other than such references about his reputation from other musicians, I never knew much about Norman “Tiny” Kahn. I had heard him on the 1951 recordings that he made with Stan Getz Jazz impresario George Wein’s Storyville nightclub then located in Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel and I had even played on a few of his big band arrangements such as T.N.T and Tiny’s Blues.

So when the marvelous Dutch Jazz drummer, Eric Ineke, suggested Tiny for a feature on JazzProfiles, I thought it would be great to do a bit of research into Kahn’s career and to “get to know him better.”

Here are just a few testimonials about how Tiny was universally loved and respected:

Johnny Mandel: “The first time I came across Tiny Kahn was late one night at Child's Paramount, after we had finished the last set. There he was, standing around in an overcoat, indoors. Tiny sat down at the piano and started playing some funny stuff. I said to myself: ‘Oh, what's this?’ Then he got into some good things, and I was really impressed. I remember mumbling: ‘Oh,  my God!’ I didn't know until later that he was a drummer and arranger. I so admired Tiny's ideas and musicality and his qualities as a person that we were pretty much inseparable for eight years—until he passed.

He probably was one of the most honest and humorous people I ever met. Certainly that came out in his playing and writing. He was unlike anyone I've ever met. You can't compare him to anyone else. He was just different.”

Stan Getz: “Tiny was one of my favorite drummers of all time. He was the closest thing to Sid Catlett. He would musically get underneath you and lift you up. Most drummers batten you down from the top. And he wrote as well as he played. He was just the best!”

Elliot Lawrence: “Everyone insisted I hire Tiny. He was a great, ego-free player and a writer who knew how to develop material in the most meaningful I way. His charts almost played themselves. Everything swung.

He and Buddy Jones, our bassist, laid down what felt like a new kind of time. It was light and flew along. It didn't feel like the band touched the ground. The band was marvelous and wanted to make a new statement. Tiny, Al [Cohn], Johnny Mandel, Al Porcino, Nick Travis—a whole bunch of wonderful guys—had so much to say. This was a band that wanted to roar every night.

Tiny and I were together the better part of four years, …. It was going so well for him. And suddenly he was gone.”

[All of the previous quotations excerpted from Burt Korall, Drummin’ Men, The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years].

© -  Burt Korall, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Burt goes on to give this overview of the prominent aspects of Tiny’s brief career:


“Norman "Tiny" Kahn, one of Brooklyn's major gifts to jazz, has assumed legendary proportions since his untimely death in 1953, at twenty-nine. The drummer-composer-arranger-pianist-vibraphonist-humorist was a natural— a musician who had great instincts and a well-developed sense of what worked best in every circumstance. Had he lived, he certainly would have had an increasingly meaningful career in jazz and very possibly in other areas of music as well.

His sudden death was most deeply felt in New York, where he did some of his best work. But the impact extended through the country to Europe, where his recordings with George Auld, Stan Getz, Serge Chaloff, Red Rodney, Chubby Jackson, and Charlie Barnet and Lester Young certainly had more than a passing effect.

Kahn is remembered not only for his talent but for his warmth and sensitivity as a person. He was liked by everyone. He didn't have an evil bone in his rather large body.

Music consumed his waking hours. All kinds of music. He listened, then analyzed and evaluated what he heard. He had his own concept when it came to drums. Outside of instruction with drum teachers Freddie Albright and Henry Adler, covering sixteen months in all, at different times, Kahn was self-made—as a drummer, composer and arranger, pianist, and vibraphonist.

His drumming made bands sound better than they ever had before, particularly during his last years when he had all the elements of his style in enviable balance. His time was perfect—right down the center. He wasn't too tense or too laid-back. Kahn had his own sound and techniques on drums and could be quite expressive, using his hands and feet in a manner that was his alone. Certainly not a technical wizard, he transcended his relative lack of technical ability by developing a manner of playing that not only made up for this but raised his and his colleagues' performance level.

His primary contribution as a drummer was the inspiration he provided, motivating musicians to feel good and give the best of themselves. He played a classic supporting role in small and large bands, bringing a small band approach and flexibility to his work. He concerned himself with giving players the security and the wherewithal needed to free them. Kahn had so much going for him that was not immediately apparent. You had to listen and listen some more before it became completely clear what he could do for music. Then the revelation came in a rush.

Kahn the writer gave you much to hear and think about. Often his compositions and arrangements practically played themselves. Musicians remember how easy his charts were to perform; they felt right for all the instruments and never failed to communicate and make a comment. His unpretentious writing mirrored his concern for expressing ideas in an economical, telling, swinging manner.

It was immediately apparent to all who knew him, as a kid in Brooklyn and later on as well, that Kahn had music within him. As he grew older and ad opportunities to share his views and ideas with others, he became a great source to the many musicians drawn to him. He was a leader without ever desiring to be one.


Kahn set an example not only when it came to playing and writing but i how he lived. While others turned to hard drugs, drink, and an underground life, he moved ever more deeply into music. His only harmful habit" was food. A food junkie, he ate often and excessively. His need and great capacity for food could well have been the basis for more than a few sessions with a therapist. Many of his close friends feel he would have lived much longer had he managed to deal more logically with this problem.

Tiny Kahn's life had unusual consistency. He immersed himself in music early and did everything he could to further his knowledge and under­standing of all of it. …

Kahn hung out where the music was happening. He got to know players and writers in all the bands. Many of his friends around town loved Basie, Lester Young, and Jo Jones — the Basie band of the 1930s and early 1940s. A little later, they became fascinated with the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Bud Powell. They sought a rapprochement between the floating rhythm and musicality of Pres and Jo, the economy of the pianist Basie and the relaxed swing of his band, and what the modernists [i.e.: Parker and Gillespie] were doing. …

1949 was a key year for Tiny Kahn. He helped organize and rehearse the Chubby Jackson band, for which he wrote almost the entire library of arrangements. The band lingers in mind, even though it didn't last too long. Kahn played and wrote for the Charlie Barnet modern band that year. He also briefly became involved —because of Gerry Mulligan's strong recommendation — with Benny Goodman's bebop band. But the leader's peculiarities, when it came to drummers and things in general, negated a regular working relationship with the drummer-arranger. …

‘The Chubby Jackson band was the greatest band I ever played with,’ Kahn told Pat Harris. "The records give you a poor idea of how it sounded. Columbia didn't put as much effort into the record date as it could have - poor balance, etc. The idea seemed to be to get the date over as soon as possible. The band did ... the date before it ever had a job… .

The Jackson band had extraordinary impact for its size - fourteen piece - and swung with unusual ferocity. It really communicated! Kahn's charts were among the best examples of bringing together elements of bop and Basie. The soloists - tenorist Ray Turner, altoist Frank Socolow, trumpeter Charlie Walp - were unstintingly pulsating and creative. Kahn brought unusual life to the band from the drums. Jackson was a supportive, enthusiastic leader. He had all that was needed to make it. Unfortunately, poor business practices and the time [late 1940s] - which was notable for the decline of interest in big bands - denied the band the success it deserved. …


Swing Idol Charlie Barnet also hired Kahn in 1949 …. The Kahn-Barnet legacy is small – six Capitol recordings - … - 5 are arrangements by Manny Albam and the sixth is the imaginative ballad treatment by Kahn of “Over the Rainbow.”

All these Albam charts have a number of things in common: modern coloration, warm voicings, unfolding, developmental linear qualities. The rhythmic line provided by Kahn is uncluttered. His comments around the drums provoke yet remain a matter of telling simplicity. He's inspiring without disturbing the balance and forward motion of the band. …

Phil Brown, who replaced Kahn in the Stan Getz group in 1952., has an excellent grasp of what Kahn did as a drummer. He loved his playing back then and remains fascinated by it to this day.

Tiny was the first drummer to play matched grip almost all the time. He deviated only when brushes were called for; then he would revert back to the traditional/French grip in the left hand. Tiny was more comfortable with matched grip because his hands were on the fat side and he couldn't easily accommodate to the traditional grip in the left hand: the stick is lodged a fulcrum between the thumb and index finger and extends through the opening between the second and third finger.

Matched/timpani grip really worked for him. He was able to get around the drums more easily. His solos had their own sound because he used the tympani grip. Many of the guys performing back then didn't get the strokes  [Ed note: —in Tiny's case, mostly singles] to sound as even as Tiny did. He played some unusual things, and they were drummistic to a certain point without being technical.

What made him different? He let the time flow and roll along. He didn't play "four" on the bass drum. He didn't emphasize the "2-and-4" clicking sound of the hi-hat.


I got the best shot at him, in person, at the Showboat in Philadelphia, shortly before I joined Getz's band [Ed. note—Al Haig (piano), Curly Russell (bass), Jimmy Raney (guitar)]. I noticed he left beats out of his right-hand ride rhythm. It made it possible for him to rest, particularly on up-tempos, and add to the fluidity of the pulse. He was a precursor of today's rock drum­mers; they also skip beats in the ride rhythm.

To balance things out, he would comment with his left hand, on the snare or a tom-tom. He divided the ride rhythm while bringing into play other elements of the set. By breaking up the rhythm, he made the time more relaxed, more exciting and provocative. The way he used his left hand on the snare and how he played accents increased the rhythmic interest of his performances.

Some drummers said he played the way he did because he couldn't execute the traditional ride rhythm in fast tempi. But what he did was better, different. He was the first free drummer—in that he didn't strictly stick to playing time. What he thought and how he executed his ideas may have been dictated by lack of technique, but he proved necessity is the mother of unusual invention.

There was great honesty in Tiny's playing. He wasn't trying to copy. He wasn't into commenting on Max Roach or being like him. So many other people did that. He was just pure Tiny Kahn. He was one of truly great drummers. I'm including everyone in this comparison.

Tiny was the embodiment of a very singular time in jazz. He personified a generation of guys who grew up listening to Basic and Pres and then shifted a little bit to Charlie Parker and started to come up in the bebop world.

I was very conscious of the way Tiny sounded in Stan Getz's band and how effective he was. I wanted to see if I could perpetuate that tradition.

Others worked in this tradition. Osie Johnson is frequently mentioned as someone who took this manner of performance and brought to it his own vision. But Mel Lewis was Kahn's most widely listened-to disciple. He found himself within Kahn's style and enhanced and built upon it in a major way, emerging with something that had his stamp on it.

“My relationship with Tiny began when I came to New York from Buffalo with the Lenny Lewis band in the late 1940s. I heard and liked the recordings Tiny had made with Red Rodney for Keynote. We got together frequently. He came to hear me at the Savoy Ballroom. Soon after that I returned the compliment and went to hear him with the Boyd Raeburn band.

We got a chance to really talk during the afternoons we spent drinking egg creams on Broadway. I realized we liked the same drummers and the same sort of music. Apparently we were two of a kind. He even used low-pitched cymbals—same as I did. He tuned his drums in a highly individual way. I came to realize, by hearing Tiny, that I needed nothing larger than a twenty-inch bass drum.

Tiny was an innovator in so many ways. He brought a looseness and the improvisational feeling of small band drumming to the big band. I heard him every time I could. I loved what he did. He played great fills and lead-ins to explosions that kicked a band along. I must admit I even stole a few.”

My thanks to Eric Ineke for without his suggestion, I might never have looked into the creative brilliance of Tiny Kahn.  After reading about his story, is it any wonder that those musicians who knew him during his relatively brief lifetime were crushed by his untimely death?

Here’s a video which was filmed at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s 4-day East Coast Sounds May 30, 2010 concert of The Terry Gibbs Big Band Plays the Music of Tiny Kahn. The audio is Tiny’s arrangement of his original composition of Father Knickerbopper.



And this single slide video has an audio track featuring Tiny’s drumming that is taken from Stan Getz’s 1951 Storyville recording. The title of the tune is