© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In the 18th and 19th centuries and even into the early 20th century, British civil servants [to think of them as bureaucrats would be a misperception; these were largely the sons of landed gentry and successful businessmen], many of whom were educated in the Greek and Latin Classics during a three year stint at either Oxford or Cambridge, went off to the far flung reaches of the British Empire there to build postal services, police forces, governmental agencies, roads, bridges, ports, railroads and other forms of administrative services and infrastructure.
None of these makers and preservers of The Empire were schooled in logistics, engineering, hydraulics, mechanics, architecture or had any type of professional, let alone, practical training.
But their Classical education gave them the ability to think, observe and, most of all, communicate, especially in writing which, at the time via the mail, was the only viable way to transfer large amounts of information and knowledge over the far-flung British Dominions, Commonwealths and Member Provinces.
[This was also the bulk form of communications during the nascent years of the telegraph and telephone when transmissions of data and communiques were largely short and to the point.]
Many of these Classically-trained representatives of His or Her Majesty were especially adept at expository writing; the art of reducing complicated matters into the clarity that comes with good storytelling.
To put it another way, they were very good at describing things in lay terms, language that the average person could understand.
As per the title of this piece, what does any of this have to do with Jazz drumming in general or Jazz writer Whitney Balliett in particular?
Born in New York City and educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, upon his graduation from Cornell University’s College of Letters and Science in 1951, Whitney became a staff reporter from the highly-regarded New Yorker magazine where he remain as the Jazz columnist and critic for over forty years!
But Whitney was not a trained musician [“I played some baggy Dixieland drums in high school.”] How could he write about anything as technically complicated as Jazz?
As Ben Ratliff noted about him in his 2007 obituary for The New York Times: “In describing jazz during its years of greatest development and ferment, “Mr. Balliett used comparatively little technical vocabulary; he was after a sensual rendering.”
The distinguished Jazz educator and writer Grover Sales in his book Jazz: America’s Classical Music describes Whitney as “... The New Yorker’s venerable literary stylist who describes the sound of Jazz like no one else.”
Not everyone agreed with Grover’s assessment It was a style that had some detractors, including the English critic Max Harrison, who felt that it was not serious or specific enough for its subject.
Mr. Ratliff also noted the following about Whitney in his New Times obituary:
“Influenced by Joseph Mitchell, his basic prose style was formed by his late 20s; changes came mostly as a matter of journalistic format. In the late 1950s he started bringing interviews into his work, and in 1962 he started writing long profiles of musicians, letting their voices tell much of the story.
Mr. Balliett did not use a tape recorder. Instead, he took notes furiously over several days of conversations and played them back as long, extravagant solos; this new emphasis on long-form quotation forced him to concentrate musical descriptions into highly poetic, cumulative glimpses of a musician’s sound. [Emphasis mine.]
‘Music is transparent and bodiless and evanescent,’ Mr. Balliett wrote in defense of his approach. He pointed out, on more than one occasion, that jazz improvisation itself could not be perfectly notated, anyway.”
Put another way, like the OxBridge graduates who formed the backbone of the British Empire, Whitney was a keen observer, who thought well and deeply about his observations and converted these into pellucid, written descriptions of Jazz.
Whitney perhaps summed up his talents best when he wrote.“It’s a compliment to jazz that nine-tenths of the voluminous writing about it is bad, for the best forms often attract the most unbalanced admiration. At the same time, it is remarkable that so fragile a music has withstood such truckloads of enthusiasm.”
See what you think about Whitney’s approach to descriptive Jazz writing that essentially shuns musical terminology in this essay from one of his earliest anthologies: The Sound of Surprise: 46 Pieces on Jazz by The New Yorker Critic [1959; paragraphing modified to fit into the blog format].
Roach, Blakey and P.J. Jones, Inc - Whitney Balliett
“ONE OF THE most remarkable things about Charlie Parker at the height of his powers was that he influenced almost every type of instrumentalist of malleable age, in an order that went roughly like this: pianists, other alto saxophonists, trumpeters, drummers, baritone saxophonists, tenor saxophonists, trombonists, and bassists. There were Charlie Parkers everywhere, all of them unavailingly attempting to convert their instruments into alto saxophones. Trumpeters, in particular, were notorious imitators; for a time, they abandoned all the rude, brassy properties of their instrument for a bland, rubbery, saxophone-like tone, which acted as a perfect cushion for the thousand and one Parker-inspired notes that constituted the average solo chorus.
Although many alto saxophonists are still indistinguishable from Parker, most of the other instruments have, if permanently changed in other respects, begun to regain their original shapes. There is one startling exception—the drums. Led by Max Roach, who first worked with Parker at the age of seventeen and who at the same time was absorbing the work of such pre-Parker innovators as the drummers Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, and Kenny Clarke, the performers on these instruments have almost completed a revolution that represents possibly the broadest technical change ever to affect a jazz instrument. Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones (no relation to Jo Jones) have been the most headlong rebels (their most avid disciples include, among others, Elvin Jones, Art Taylor, Roy Haynes, and Louis Hayes), and three of their recent records—"Deeds, Not Words: Max Roach New Quintet" (Riverside), "Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk" (Atlantic), and "Blues for Dracula: Philly Joe Jones Sextet" (Riverside)—provide ample and occasionally brilliant demonstrations of their various gospels.
(There is another and quite different school of modern drummers, headed by such men as Shelly Manne, Joe Morello, Ed Shaughnessy, and Louis Bellson, who are, by and large, no less accomplished than Blakey, Roach, and Jones. But they fall between the great swing drummers and the avant-gardists. Though under the spell of Roach, Manne is fundamentally an extremely sensitive swing drummer, with overtones of Jo Jones and Dave Tough in his work; Morello, a crisp, crackling performer, owes much to Buddy Rich; Shaughnessy, an expert wire-brush performer, has listened to both Jo Jones and Roach; and Bellson, an extraordinary technician, resembles both Rich and Gene Krupa.)
The rebellion has gradually altered every piece of drum equipment. In the thirties, the average set of drums recalled a late-Victorian parlor. It included a large parade-size bass drum that emitted subterranean Robeson-like tones; a thick, sonorous snare drum; two or three tomtoms that were lesser versions of the bass drum; four or five cymbals, often hung from looped metal stands like those once used to support bird cages, and including the high-hat, a crash cymbal, a Chinese cymbal, and a couple of ride cymbals, mostly similar to the invincible Bismarckian cymbals used by nineteenth-century German brass bands; a variety of bric-a-brac, consisting of tuned hollow gourds (called temple blocks), chimes, wood blocks, timpani, and at least one cowbell; and, finally, drumsticks that frequently approached billy clubs in size and heft.
Modern drummers have whittled away about fifty pounds of that equipment. The bass drum has shrunk in some cases, to half its old size, and gives off a pinched, final sound. The snare drum, now the thickness of a frying pan, produces— partly because of its shallowness and partly because it is usually tightly snared and muffled—a flat, clapping sound, as of palm fronds in a strong breeze. There is generally one tomtom, again a diminutive version of the bass drum, while the cymbals, which are uniformly lighter, now number only the high-hat cymbals, a slightly heavier crash cymbal, and a thin, tremulous ride cymbal the size of a hoop. The drumsticks, more often than not, are elongated toothpicks. (For some reason, the Roach-Blakey-Jones division of modern drummers has just about given up wire brushes, which is too bad; in the hands of men like Jo Jones, Catlett, O'Neil Spencer and Tough, the brushes, with their subtle, needling delicacy, could be even more exhilarating than sticks.) The total effect, which is nearly the direct opposite of the earlier drum sets, is falsetto, chattery and nervous.
Indeed, an aggressive nervousness is the secret of the new drumming. While the older men, with all their equipment, filled a fairly unobtrusive supporting role, setting off ensembles and soloists with relaxed, comparatively simple highlights—rimshots, the swimming sound of the high-hat, the pad-pad of brushes—performers like Roach, Blakey, and Jones, with practically no equipment at all, have pushed themselves perfervidly and steadily into a queer, semi-independent position in the ensemble almost level with that of the melody instruments. (As a result, they are frequently and confusingly termed "melodic" drummers, which apparently means that they are melodic in that they use, like the great drummers of the past, a fairly wide degree of shading and timbre, or that they are melodic because they are attempting, through the use of overbearing, frequently uninterrupted rhythmic patterns, to raise the drum from the role of a supporting instrument to that of a melody instrument.)
This invasion has been brought about by sheer force and by some radical technical departures. The modern drummer has shifted the basic marking of the beat from the bass drum, which he uses only for accents, to the ride cymbal and the high-hat, on the last of which he relentlessly sounds the afterbeat by metronomically clapping its cymbals shut with a “choshing” effect. Most important, this drummer worships the rhythmically oblique. Except when he is concerned with the ride cymbal and the high-hat, almost every motion the drummer makes, whether in the background or in solos, goes toward a collection of purposely disjointed out-of-metre patterns, which, carried to their farthest limits (Roach) result in a totally separate, arrhythmic wall of noise.
As a result, three essentials of background jazz drumming—taste, variety, and control—have been practically lost sight of. Unlike the older drummers, who valued silence, dynamics, and the emphasizing coloring effects of using different parts of their set behind different instruments—sticks on a closed high-hat (the ticking of a large clock) behind a clarinet, wire brushes on cymbals (rustling silk) behind a piano, sticks on a ride cymbal (a cheerful belling sound) behind a trumpet—many modern drummers rely loudly and exclusively on the ride cymbal, an addiction that, after a time, creates an aggravating monotone that seems to drain all individual color out of the melodic instruments. In addition, many of these drummers have not yet mastered the complexities of out-of-rhythm playing, particularly in their solos, so the conflicting arrhythmic patterns they build tend simply to cancel each other out, leaving no rhythm at all.
Roach, unfortunately, is an excellent example. A first-rate technician, he has an intense, mosquito-like touch on his instrument. Yet the effect of his backing up is that of ten drummers playing at once. He fills in every chink with an unbroken succession of dum-de-da strokes, triplets, rolls, and staccato accents scattered, as if he were sowing seed, on every part of his set (he is, however, never far from the ride cymbal), and punctuated from time to time with bass-drum "bombs/' which unlike true punctuation, are not pauses but only intensify the din. Consequently, when Roach takes a solo he is dismayingly like a non-stop talker who finally forces the group around him into silence while he rattles on and on. And, though perfectly executed, his solos are made up of so many contradicting rhythms and disconnected, rapidly rising and falling pyramids of sound that the beat, which they are supposed to be embroidering, disappears. Indeed, it is not unusual to find oneself hypnotized by the lightning concatenation of sounds in a Roach solo, and then, astonishingly, to discover that it has been managed wholly without imparting rhythm.
Blakey, five years older than Roach, who is thirty-four, has learned from both Roach and Catlett. He is a raucous, uneven, and sometimes primitive performer who gets a stuffy, closeted tone and who plays, now and then, with such nervous power that he is apt to drown the stoutest musician under florid, steaming cymbal work and jubilant, circus-like snare-drum rolls. Since he uses the Roach sort of embroidery only sparingly, the results can be devastating. After a spell of plain timekeeping, he will suddenly slip into a crooked, seemingly palsied series of staccato or double-time beats, snicked off on rims, cymbals, and drums, which introduce an irresistibly wild, impatient air.
Blakey is an extremely dramatic, and occasionally melodramatic, soloist. He may begin a statement with a silence that is broken only by the sound of the high-hat on the afterbeat (which immediately creates a Chinese-water-torture tension), introduce some clicking sounds on the snare rims, abruptly spaced here and there with offbeats on the tom tom or snare, fall silent again, resume his knickety-knacking, this time hitting one stick against the other in the air, and then without warning launch into a fusillade of sounds between the snare and tom tom.
He will then resort entirely to the snare, playing a hard, on-the-beat pattern, as if he were travelling very fast over a bumpy road, before departing on a second roundelay, which dissolves into staccato beats on the bass drum, executed with such rapidity that they blur into one prolonged beat, and climaxed by a crescendo snare-drum roll that calls the horns back from lunch. It is intense, perfectly spaced, declarative drumming that can, in its strongest moments, rattle one's jowls. Jones, who is thirty-six, is, like any perfect revolutionist, both a violent development of the best of Roach and Blakey and a throwback to earlier methods.
Obviously an admirer of Roach and Blakey, he is also an admitted student of Tough, Catlett and Rich. He achieves a neat, clipped sound, which also has much of the richer resilience of the swing drummers. When Jones is in balance—he sometimes inscrutably rolls all of Roach's and Blakey's sins into one enormous, deafening effusion—he is a master of silence, dynamics, and surprise. He will keep a steady, unobtrusive beat on the ride cymbal, repeatedly dotting it with flickering snare-drum accents, and, like Blakey, occasionally heighten it with double-time excursions, which, however, do not expunge the original beat but, instead, set up a fascinating undertow beneath the basic rhythm. (This tug-of-war technique is apt to baffle the soloist, who will grope confusedly from rhythm to rhythm, like a blind man.) Jones is becoming an increasingly formidable soloist. Close to Blakey and Catlett in this respect, he will open a medium-tempo solo with heavy, on-the-beat strokes that move inexorably back and forth, like ponderous seven-league strides, between the snare drum and the tomtom.
Gradually, he will complicate this boom-boom-boom sequence by sliding in and out of double time and, after settling into full double time, with the listener running at top speed to keep up, he will abruptly fall back to the original beat, drop his volume, and begin soft, shuffling snare-drum rolls tamped down by a rhythmic pattern of rimshots that goes directly back to the work of Zutty Singleton. He will then rear up again and, like Catlett in his most inspired moments, rumble around his set, frequently bringing himself up short with explosive silences or hammering offbeat bass-drum thumps, which give one the impression of watching a fast uneven tennis match. Carrying this tension into the final ensemble, he will dart in and out of the holes in the melody with quick cymbal splashes (Tough) and fast, rounded double-time effects, as if he were a mongoose piling into a cobra, and then close with a giant, simmering cymbal stroke.
The LPs mentioned above are striking evidence of the power of Roach, Blakey, and Jones, for, with the exception of the one in which Monk appears, the records would be worthless without their leaders. In fact, Roach's record (with him are trumpet, tenor saxophone, tuba, and bass) is chiefly interesting for an unaccompanied medium-tempo drum solo (there are six other numbers) called "Conversation," which displays perfectly all of Roach's tendencies toward intricate, overlapping, rhythmless crosscurrents of sound that are, nonetheless, absorbing simply because they are carried out, in the manner of Art Tatum's piano playing, with such precision and authority. "Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk," on the other hand, is a superb rhythmic exercise from start to finish, largely because of the unique combination of Monk and Blakey. (Also on hand for the six numbers-five of them Monk's—are trumpet, tenor saxophone, and bass.) Monk has his own devious, irrepressible, built-in rhythm section, and Blakey is the only drummer around who knows how to supplement it without getting in its way.
The result is the very best a rhythm section can do-all the soloists sound twice as good as they really are. Blakey is a wonder behind Monk. On "In Walked Bud" a medium-tempo number, Monk begins with irregular, offbeat chords (Blakey counters with a long string of seemingly irrelevant tappings, as if he were a mason tunking bricks into place); Monk continues with expanded variations on the same figures (Blakey dodges lightly back and forth between the snare and tom tom, planting quick, skidding sounds); Monk loafs (Blakey loafs and then starts knocking his sticks against each other, as though baiting Monk); Monk, baited, resumes (Blakey joins him and closes the chorus with a swooshing roll that picks Monk up and drops him neatly into his second chorus). Jones' record would collapse without him. Working, in its five numbers, with cornet, trombone, tenor saxophone, piano, and bass, all of them rather diffuse performers, he employs every supporting mechanism in the book, including hushed, quick-breathing double-time figures on the high-hat at the start of the piano solo in "Blues for Dracula," pushing, ramshackle snare and tom tom work behind the tenor saxophone in "Ow!," and, at the end of the same number, some stunning ensemble accompaniment that recalls the best of Tough and Catlett. His solos, particularly a long one in "Owl," are careful, remarkably graduated structures, full of surprises, varied timbres and good old-fashioned emotion. Jones, practically single-handed, is winding up the insurrection.”