Friday, February 13, 2015

OSIE JOHNSON: An Undistinguished Distinctive Drummer [From the Archives]

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


“In studio work, you’re always under the gun. You’re expected to play the parts right no matter how difficult they are …. It’s a matter of being precise and right, all the time. It’s brain surgery, that’s what it is. And every operation has to be a success. There are no failures – a failure and you’re gone.”
- Alvin Stoller, drummer

Burt Korall, a writer who, among his other significant writings about Jazz, authored two books on Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, only makes one reference to him when he cites him as “… the gifted drummer, Osie Johnson,” on page 200 of the second volume, The Bebop Years.

There is also a reference to Osie in Gary Giddins’ Vision of Jazz: The First Century where in the context of talking about Bud Powell and the drummers he performed with he notes: “He worked only with the best: Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Art Taylor, Osie Johnson – percussionists who complemented his dynamics, speed, and shifting rhythms.” [p. 321]

Outside of incidental references such as these, you’d be hard-pressed to find any information about Osie other than in the ever-reliable Encyclopedia of Jazz.

The lack of mention of Osie is made even more striking by the fact that this was a drummer who was everywhere, and I mean everywhere apparent, on the New York studio and Jazz scene especially in the 1950s and mid-1960s.

Osie worked with all of the top arrangers –Manny Albam [with whom, he was close friends], Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Bob Brookmeyer, Hal McKusick, Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan, George Russell – the list is endless. The Lord Discography cites Osie’s name as having appeared on 670 recording sessions!

He toured with pianists Earl “Fatha” Hines, Erroll Garner and Dorothy Donegan as well as tenor saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins and clarinetist Tony Scott. Osie, who made his own album as a singer – A Bit of the Blues [RCA CD 74321609832] -  was a favorite of vocalists Carmen McRae and Dinah Washington, both of whom he wrote arrangements for in the 1950s.

Osie had studied theory and harmony in high school in WashingtonD.C. and privately, so he knew music and was an excellent reader, both of which may help explain why he was so heavily in demand at recording sessions.

He was the staff drummer for extended periods of time on both the NBC and CBS studio orchestras in New York City and he appeared as a freelance percussionist on a slew of independent TV commercials and radio jingles.

Perhaps, part of the reason for his obscurity was due to the fact that he died in 1966 at the relatively young age of 43 from renal system infections that led to kidney failure.

Fortunately, Georges Paczynski in the second volume of his prize-winning Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz has three entire pages devoted to Osie and his style of drumming. Fortunately, that is, for those who read French as the work has not [to my knowledge] been translated into English.

Paczynski includes Osie along with Harold “Doc” West, Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson, Gus Johnson, Gordon “Specs” Powell and Alvin Stoller in his chapter entitled – La fin de l’ère swing - les batteurs charnières.  With charnières translated to mean “hinge” or “pivotal,” the author is grouping Osie among those drummers whom he considers to be among those who made the successful transition from the Swing Era to Bebop.

Many better known Swing Era drummers never did make this transition, among them Davy Tough and Gene Krupa.

To be able to do so was a considerable accomplishment as it required getting out of playing down into the drum kit [think hands on snare and an incessant bass drum beat] and playing up, onto the cymbals using the snare and the bass drum for accents.

Keeping time in this manner involved a total reorientation in the way in which a drummer thought about time.


Drummers like Osie and the other transition drummers in Paczynski’s grouping who accommodated the change in style did so by keeping things simple.

They became, first-and-foremost, timekeepers with a steady ride cymbal beat and an accent here and there.  Nothing complicated requiring the independence and heightened coordination of a Max Roach or a Philly Joe Jones or a Joe Morello.

More drumming to establish a pulse and to keep things moving along. Clean, simple, and staying out of the way; Osie just blended in with the musical environment instead of trying to dominate it – it was a style of drumming that was more felt than heard.

In fact, Osie’s drumming bordered on the indistinct and yet, everyone loved playing with him precisely because as Paczynski explains:

« En fait, il est absolument impossible d'identifier Osie Johnson. A l'inverse d'un musicien qui ne peut investir son jeu trop personnel et « engage » dans tous les contextes musicaux, il est capable de s'adapter avec plus ou moins de bonheur a toute proposition musicale, et est constamment sollicite en tant que tel. »

A very loose translation of which would read:

“In fact, it is absolutely impossible to identify [in the sense of classifying] Osie Johnson. He was the opposite of those who try and interject their personality into the music. Instead, he tried to contentedly fit himself into all musical contexts, and he was sought out by other musicians precisely because of his willingness to do so.”

A number of times in his essay, Paczynski stresses the fact that Osie emphasized drumming “fundamentals” in his playing: a rock solid beat, precision in the placement of accents, a perfect placement of kicks and fills and a clear and uncomplicated sound from both the drums and the cymbals.

Oh, and he was an excellent reader for as Alvin Stoller, Osie’s counterpart as an in demand studio drummer on the West Coast stated: “In studio work, you’re always under the gun. You’re expected to play the parts right no matter how difficult they are …. It’s a matter of being precise and right, all the time. It’s brain surgery, that’s what it is. And every operation has to be a success. There are no failures – a failure and you’re gone.”


More indications of what makes Osie’s style so distinctive can be found in the following question that was put to the online drummer chat group:

What do you all recommend for tuning a 5x14 brass snare to capture a tight, crisp sound with minimal after ring? The snare sound I'm after is similar to the following:

1. Osie Johnson's playing on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" from Sonny Stitt's Now! (mp3 attached). The first 20 seconds of the track provide a good snapshot of Johnson's crisp snare sound.

In order to achieve that kind of sound, do I need to have

a) both top and bottom heads tuned the same
b) the top head tuned higher/tighter than the bottom head
c) the bottom head tuned higher/tighter than the top head
d) ??

At the moment, I have my Tama 5x14 brass snare tuned with top head close to 90 and bottom head a little over 80, I believe (according to my Drum Dial). I have a standard Remo Coated Ambassador on the batter side.

Thanks in advance for any help anyone can offer!”

An answer to this question might also serve to explain the title of our piece on Osie – “An Undistinguished Distinctive Drummer.”

The title is not a Zen koan [an insoluble intellectual problem: think – “What was your true nature before you mother and father conceived you?”]

Osie Johnson was unfortunately undistinguished as a drumming stylist, and yet, his drumming was immediately discernible. He was distinctive without trying to be so.

Most of Osie’s distinctiveness did begin with the sound of his snare drum, which he tightened to within an inch of its "life." How he kept it from tearing in two is beyond me.


So the choice from the chat group options would be – “a) both top and bottom heads tuned the same”  - although a much more complete answer might address everything from the quality and composition of the maple shell that formed Osie’s snare drum to the type of drum heads he used, ad infinitum.

The most instructive portion of the chat group question is the example that was sent along with the annotation - The first 20 seconds of the track provide a good snapshot of Johnson's crisp snare sound.

We have used the very same track - "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" from Sonny Stitt's Now! - in the video below, but we would rephrase the chat group statement to read: The first 20 seconds of the track provide a good snapshot of Osie Johnson's approach to drumming.

For in addition to his distinctively crisp snare sound, this short segment reveals Osie playing time on the hi-hat before switching to the ride cymbal, his gentle but insistent sense of swing and the lightness of his touch which allowed him to fit into the music almost seamlessly.

This is a perfect illustration of the drummer as an accompanist and also the reason why melody and harmony guys loved working with Osie: his drums are not resonating and booming, his accents are not distracting and he isn’t calling attention to himself with complicated drumming figures.

On this track, Osie is a musician among a group of musicians intent on making music and therein lies the key to his success and to his distinctiveness.

Whatever the musical context – piano trio Jazz, small group Jazz or big band Jazz – Osie always sounds just right; he fits in.

And he always nails it, characteristically.

For all of his blending in, I would venture to say that anyone – musician or not – that is familiar with Osie Johnson’s playing would recognize it … “after [listening to] the first 20 seconds” of a recorded track.

Very few drummers have ever been as distinctively undistinguished as Osie Johnson.





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