© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Jazz drumming has on occasion been referred to as The Engine Room with the obvious implication that the drummer powers the music.
Of course, there have been many groups throughout the history of the music that didn’t use a drummer, but the vast majority of Jazz groups employ a drummer and, in some cases, it’s hard to imagine the music without one - think Big Band Jazz.
Drummers push the music according to the way they feel it and play it over the instrument. Some do this very quietly, but no less insistently, while others play aggressively to the point of dominating the music instead of directing it.
Some musicians like to be pushed while others resent the direction that an assertive drummer takes them.
Like the bass player, the drummer plays all the time, but unlike the bass player, a drummer can be heard to be playing all the time - the instrument becomes a force that helps to give the music a sense of momentum [along with the bass].
I think that a crucial element in the continuity and consistency of sound rendered by the drummer is how it answers the question of what this effort is in the service of - to wit -showing off or accompanying?
The point is not to overshadow the music but to get underneath it and lift it by giving it a pulse.
And although it may not sound fashionable, I’ve always thought that the best way for a drummer to become the “heartbeat” of a Jazz group is by using the bass drum, whether sounded or implied [feathered].
As the following tribute to Baby Dodds by George Wettling explains, this precept goes back to the earliest days of Jazz drumming when the Jazz beat and the bass drum were practically synonymous.
“You take a 28-inch bass drum; a 61/2-inch, all-metal snare drum; an overhead pedal; four tuned cowbells; a woodblock; a slapstick; a 16-inch Chinese crash cymbal; a 16-inch Zildjian cymbal; and a 10-inch Chinese tom-tom. You've got the drum setup that Baby Dodds used at the Lincoln Gardens (formerly Royal Garden Cafe) in Chicago when he played there with Joe Oliver in the middle 1920s.
I'll never forget the first time I heard Baby with the great Oliver band. The band had a beat that guys are still trying to get. I can still feel and hear it. From that time on, I became a Baby Dodds fan.
After the Oliver band left the Lincoln Gardens, Baby went with Lil Hardin, Johnny Dodds, and Louis Armstrong to the Dreamland Cafe. This was at the time Louis made his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven records for Okeh.
The Dreamland had a balcony, and you could sit up there and look down on the band, and many a night Dave Tough and I would pool our money and sit up there as long as our money held out and dig Baby. We both agreed that Baby played with a clean, forceful beat and, above all, didn't mess up the band with a lot of technical nonsense.
Baby used both feet and hands when he played. In those days the important thing was keeping time, and that meant a steady foot on the bass drum. The only time fancy foot beats were put in was where they belonged — that is, when you fit them in with the rhythm of the tune they were playing.
Baby was what you would call a subtle drummer with a variety of color and effects. He also had the greatest press, or shimmy, roll I have ever heard.
When Armstrong left the Dreamland for New York to join Fletcher Henderson's band, Baby went to Kelly's Stables with brother Johnny's combo.
The Stables was slightly different from the Lincoln Gardens and the Dreamland, mainly because the prices were higher. I did manage to get in often, but many times Muggsy Spanier, Frank Teschemacher, and I would sit outside on Rush St. in my old Nash sedan and just listen to the wonderful rhythm and sounds coming from inside upstairs, especially Baby's drums, Johnny's clarinet, and Natty Dominique's trumpet.
In the days when Baby was doing his greatest drumming, the recording engineers were not as booted as they are today, so you can't really get the entire picture of what Baby was up to by listening to his records. Most drummers who recorded then were confined to playing on woodblocks or the rims of both snare and bass drum and now and then were allowed to hit a cymbal.
When it came to playing on rims and woodblock, Baby was a master. He had a triplet beat that was really something, and Dave Tough, George Stafford, Chick Webb, and I all did our own versions of it. We used it mostly behind a piano chorus. Listen to Dave Tough with Tommy Dorsey's Clambake Seven playing Twilight in Turkey, George Stafford playing I Want to Stomp, Mr. Henry Lee with Eddie Condon, Chick Webb playing Liza with his own band, or some of the recordings I made for Commodore records with the Bud Freeman Trio, and you will hear what I mean.
If you want to get a good idea of Baby's style, I suggest you try to get the drum solos he recorded for Rudi Blesh on Circle records. These are strictly drum solos with no other accompaniment, and the recording is far superior to that of the '20s.
As I remember, Baby was the first drummer I ever heard play the basic cymbal beat that we all use today on our ride cymbal, that is, in 4/4 time, a quarter and two-eighths and a quarter and two-eighths, or one, two an, three, four an, etc.
Baby usually played this beat on his 16-inch Zildjian cymbal. I often told Baby how crazy I was about the cymbal and how I wished I had one like it.
In what I thought to be a kidding way, Baby said he would will it to me. All through the years, whenever I would go to hear Baby play or we would happen to meet some place, Baby would always say "Don't forget, George, I'm willing you that Zildjian — that's yours." The last time I saw Baby was at a party I played for Francoise Sagan, the French writer. We posed for pictures together. Baby was crippled by a couple of strokes he had had. Shortly after that night, Baby went back to Chicago. After a couple more strokes, he died.
A few weeks later, I received a phone call from Frances Reitmeyer, who had also been a friend of Baby's. Miss Reitmeyer told me that she had attended Baby's funeral and had talked with Dorothy Dodds, a relative of Baby's.
Miss Dodds told her that Baby's drums were being sent to Tulane University in New Orleans for posterity, but she had told the men who came to pick up the drums that everything could go except the Zildjian cymbal. That was to go to George Wettling. You can imagine how that touched me — to know that Baby had remembered after all those years.
I wrote to my nephew, David Shutter, who lives in Chicago, and had him pick up the cymbal. He brought the cymbal to me in New York, and I made some recordings recently using it.
It sounds better than it ever did.”
March 29, 1962
March 29, 1962