Saturday, September 21, 2013

Sam Woodyard: A Real Swinger

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


“Woodyard is a temperamental musician, but at his best is one of the greatest Jazz drummers. His work with Ellington was frequently of the highest quality, combining an understanding of the leader’s requirements with an individual, earthy kind of swing.”
- Eddie Lambert, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

“From Woodyard, … [Kenny Burrell] learned the importance of clear melodic statements and the advantages of taking the music outside in incremental steps, chorus by chorus.”
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz

“Sam wasn’t a flashy player, but few swung harder; he drove the Ellington band like no other drummer in the band’s storied history.”
- Chris Kelsey, Drummer World

“Sam Woodyard? He’s a swinger?”
-Duke Ellington

Along with the band leaders themselves and its arrangers, drummers give big bands most of their "personality."

Typically, there are three or four trumpets, usually four trombones with one of them a bass trombone, and five saxes in a big band.

But there’s only one drummer.

Sure he’s generally part of a three-piece rhythm section, but most of the time, you can barely hear the bass player and other than taking a solo chorus or two to give the brass players’ chops a rest, who can remember a meaningful big band piano part?

Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman’s big band; Buddy Rich with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Harry James let alone his own power house orchestras; the Davey Tough, Don Lamond and Jake Hanna led versions of Woody Herman’s “herds;” Shelly Manne later followed by Mel Lewis propelling the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and then the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, the Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Big Band and later the big band he co-led with Thad Jones; Chick Webb’s Savoy Ballroom big band; Jimmy Crawford lifting the Jimmy Lunceford Band; Papa Jo Jones and Sonny Payne booting the Basie bands along; Louis Bellson’s “explosion” – the list is endless.

But the common ingredient is that each drummer gives the big band its particular “feel.”

Jeff Hamilton played drums with Woody Herman’s 1970’s big band and made it swing differently than did Tough, Lamond and Hanna.

“That’s what I want,” Woody would say. “I want the drummer to make the band his own.”

You recognize the impact of a great big band drummer immediately because the band is under control. While a big band can generate an incredible amount of pulsating, forward momentum, if the drummer is not “in charge” of it, the outcome is the proverbial “train wreck.”

Both the players and the listeners want to experience the “joy ride” of a swinging big band, but neither of them want the sound of it to rush madly into oblivion. Everyone wants to be on the edge of the flashing sound created by an excited and energetic big band, but no one wants to experience a jumbled mass of sonority.


Sam Woodyard joined the Ellington band in July 1955 and remained with it until 1966. He was certainly one of the longest serving drummers with Duke Orchestra. Sam took charge of it, gave it “his feeling” and he modernized the sound of the drums within the context of it.

He did this essentially by applying what drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Art Taylor, Roy Haynes and many other drummers were doing on the New York small group Jazz scene to Duke’s always-progressing big band arrangements.

The knocking sound of the stick played over the snare on the 2nd and 4th beat of each bar, the huge 22” riveted ride cymbals with their all-encompassing overtones the accentuated high-hat instead of a thumping bass drum, all served to loosen/lessen the “feel” of the beat while accenting it in a modern way.

Duke never stopped modernizing the sound of his arrangements and Sam’s adaptation of what was happening in modern Jazz small group drumming made Duke’s charts sound more “of the moment” instead of throwbacks to the 1920’s Cotton Club days, or the Swing Era of the 1930’s or the big band sound of the 1940’s.

Sam rarely got any credit for his contributions to the overall, transformational “feel” of Duke’s band basically because he worked very hard at being a part of things. In other words, he didn’t want to stand out, he just wanted to swing the band.

And Sam swung the heck out of it.

Unfortunately, all too often, Sam is less remembered for the overall “personality” he injected into the Ellington drum chair and more for his drum solos on Skin Deep, a piece used to launch an extended drum solo which brought-down-the-curtain on many of Ellington’s Jazz Festival performances.


You know the one: after playing a brief melody, the band walks off the bandstand to grab a smoke leaving the drummer alone to pound the dickens out of the drums.  All too often, the band wasn’t the only one doing the exiting as very few drummers know how to play extended drum solos and still fewer audiences know how to listen to them.

As was the case with many drummers of his generation, Sam was self taught and had relatively poor reading skills. But his inability to read music well didn’t matter because there weren’t any drum parts!

And when Duke wanted something more exotic out of Sam as Bill Berry explains in the following excerpt from his insert notes to Duke’s Such Sweet Thunder, the Columbia/Sony Entertainment LP/CD whose music was dedicated to the Shakespearian Festival in Stratford, Ontario, he would say to him:

"Imagine this great golden barge floating down the Nile River: beautiful dancing girls, mounds of food and drink, elephants, ostrich feather fans, a hundred slaves rowing the barge and Cleopatra is lying on a satin bed."

How’s that for a drum chart?

Besides, when you have cats in Duke’s band like Clark Terry [trumpet], Paul Gonsalves [tenor sax] and Jimmy Woode [bass] watching over you, everything is going to turn out fine.

We wanted to remember Sam Woodyard on these pages and what better way to do so than to turn to Stanley Dance, the ultimate chronicler of all-things-Ellington, for some excerpts from the essay on Sam in his definitive The World of Duke Ellington[New York: Da Capo, 1970].

“Clark Terry encouraged me right from the start said. He said:  ‘Everybody’s scuffling and tomorrow you’ll be three hundred miles from here.’ He taught me the whole book in about a week, and he had a very good way of teaching without hollering and making you feel conspicuous, so that people out front wouldn't be thinking, ‘Well, they've got a new drummer.’ He'd indicate things with his hand, or say, 'You've got four bars at the end of the chorus,’ and so on. He sat at the end of the trumpet section, next to me.

Clark, Paul, Jimmy Woode, and Willie Cook were in my corner from the first, but even those who weren't speaking soon came around, and we'd have a little taste, and they'd say they'd like me to play like this or like that behind them, and so we all got together. They found I wanted to play for the band, and that it didn't make any difference to me if it was with sticks, brushes, or hands. There's no sense in your building a house and my building a garage for it if we're not on the same property….


I've never been able to read fast, but there's never more than just so much you can get out of a book. You've got to get out and do it sometime. I have a fast ear and if I hear a thing down once I'll play it the second time, I don't care what it is. A teacher may say, 'Now you're qualified to play,' but you get in a band, and the tempo drops, and the leader says, 'What's the matter with you? Just play! You're a drummer. Listen, and keep swinging.' And you can't do it. What the teacher taught you was correct procedure, but what does 'correct' mean in a situation like that?

There aren't many opportunities today for young drummers to get experience in carrying the weight of a band like Duke Ellington's. You sit there behind the drums, look around the bandstand, and there are those fourteen musicians, and it's an awful lot of musical weight. Everybody's patting his foot, and thinking right, but you've actually got fourteen different tempos, because everybody's got his own way of patting his foot. One's a little bit behind the beat and another's on top of it. It would be easy to be swayed, but you can't let yourself be. You've got to think, too, in terms of sections and the overall scheme. To keep the whole thing going, plus pleasing the bandleader, often means sacrificing yourself.

I had the chance to play with Basie's band one night when we were laying off. This scared me, too, as long as I'd been with Duke's band. You might think it would be the other way 'round, the kind of arrangements and the way we play in this band, but I didn't want to be a drag and it had been so long since I played with a guitarist. When I got on the bandstand, I soon felt the difference between four rhythm and our three—often two when Duke is conducting. I didn't know the arrangements, but Freddie Greene was sitting right in front of the bass drum and Thad Jones was on my left, and between the two of them they cued me in, just like Clark Terry used to do….

No one is perfect. To me, anybody who can sit, stand, lean against a wall, or hang by his toes and say he's perfect is a damn liar. Because man made it, even a metronome isn't perfect. In a rhythm section, it's all a matter of listening. The tempo varies for many reasons. Maybe it's fatigue. It may drop through disinterest or go up through enthusiasm. Sometimes the tempo doesn't change, but the color of the tune changes. It may take fire in the last choruses and the extra excitement makes listeners think the tempo went up. You go with the change of feeling, but the tempo hasn't necessarily changed. The main thing is if you've got it off the ground and are still swinging. There is, though, a tendency for musicians to start climbing together, and before you know it color and dynamics go out the window—and if there isn't a window, then they make one.


A rhythm section is often criticized from different angles by people with different conceptions of how it should play. A drummer may have a four-bar break in an arrangement, but if someone doesn't come in on time afterwards, some people will say it's the drummer's fault, because they didn't really listen to what he played. They'll say he should have played something more simple, but those were the drummer's four bars and as long as he got back for the first beat of the fifth bar he could have gone out and run around the block. It's not his fault if someone else can't keep time.

I've come up through those grooves where there are not so many in the rhythm section, where the drummer has got to be the strong one all the time. Jimmie Crawford, to me, was one of the greatest drummers in the world. What that cat got under the Jimmie Lunceford band was something else. Papa Jo Jones is another one.
I heard Chick Webb mostly on records, but I stood outside the Savoy once when I was too young to go in and they had the windows open. He was the first drummer who made sense in a big band, and that stuck with me. His time was right there. He knew how to shade and color, and how to bring a band up and keep it there. Big Sid Catlett was like that, too. I heard him at Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook in New Jersey when he was with Benny Goodman. The difference was that Chick was a bandleader and obliged to do things that you wouldn't do as a sideman, not that he wasn't a great accompanist. Sid was a big man and anytime he wanted to get powerful you knew it, but the personal touch, in the sound of his drums and in his style, was very crisp and tasteful. Dave Tough influenced me, too, with his simplicity. If there was any way he could get out of taking solos, he would. He had a good sound to his drums and he always kept his bass drum under the bass fiddle, so that you could hear the tune the bassist was playing.


In fact, you could feel his bass drum rather than hear it, and it didn't conflict with the rest of the band. Even on those old Chick Webb records, you could often feel the bass drum as much as you could hear it, and that's how it was at the Savoy. It's very easy to get over-enthused at the drums and overshadow other people in the band, especially if you've got the drums too tight so that you sound like a machine gun back there. Then you start playing rim shots and all the people near you begin to flinch….

I love everybody who's playing from the heart. I just dig people who like to live. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and you'll never get them back, so you do the best you can however you can and wherever you can. 'Wherever' has been a big word for our band the past few years, we've traveled so much, but everybody really speaks the same language. It's just a matter of putting the pots on!

It's an old Southern expression, Woodyard explained. ‘Give the man some ham hocks, greens, and cornbread!’ Originally, when the man came home for dinner and there wasn't anything ready, he'd say, 'Well, put the pots and pans on!' What we mean by it in the band is,  ‘Swing and get off the ground—and stay off until you're ready to come down!' I could add that the prettiest meal in the world isn't anything unless you have salt and pepper to go with it, and that's how it is with a band if the rhythm section isn't right. [1965]”

As you would imagine, given his propensity for staying in the background, it’s not easy to find photographs of Sam. But I’ve managed to collect a few of them and you can “see” Sam at work “putting the pots on” in the following video tribute to him which features Sam’s work on Duke’s Such Sweet Thunder [Cleo].


1 comment:

  1. Sam Woodyard sure was a hell of a swinger. As Louie Bellson himself once stated : "My, how he swung that band!" (i.e. Duke Ellington's). I doubt many English speaking people ever heard about such a book since it's been published in France but Alain Pailler's "Duke's place" (Actes Sud publisher, 2002) has a whole chapter whose subject is Duke's drummers. About thirty pages deal with Sam's drumming with The Ellington Band. Of course, you have to understand French if you want to read it. But if ever you do, fortunately, it's very rewarding.

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