Sunday, June 11, 2017

Jazz Drumming - Whitney Balliett

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

Whitney Balliett was the Jazz critic for The New Yorker magazine from 1957 - 2001 and during that time no one wrote about the music in a more literary and elegant manner.

He wasn’t a musician, but his skills with narrative prose were put to good use in finding just the right descriptive phrases to bring out the essence of the music and its makers.

He was, however, an amateur drummer and he wrote the following succinct description of the evolution of Jazz drumming in which he brings to bear the advantage of that background.

“Jazz drumming grew out of military drumming. The pioneer jazz drummers picked up syncopation from ragtime and translated it into after-beats and offbeats and press rolls, most of them carried out on the snare drum and tomtoms. By the thirties, the center of jazz drumming had shifted to the cymbals and the snare-drum rims, although the snare and tomtoms were still heavily used in solos.

The bebop drummers moved the center again. They transferred timekeeping from the bass drum to a "ride" cymbal, using the bass drum only for offbeats, or "bombs." In the twenties, drum sets, or traps (which were invented when drummers began to play sitting down), consisted of a tall, fat bass drum, often decorated with a painting of a bucolic scene and lit from within by an electric bulb, which also kept dampness at bay; a wooden-sided snare drum that resembled a parade drum; an Indian tomtom, its skins fastened on with brass studs; and a cymbal attached upside down to the wooden top of the bass drum.

By the late twenties, the snare drum had become sensitive enough to be used with wire brushes—sprays of steel wire fastened to metal or wooden handles. There were several tomtoms and several cymbals, which were hung over the bass drum on goosenecked or straight rods. Two more cymbals, called a high-hat, appeared at the drummer's left elbow on a three-foot metal stand, and were opened and closed by a foot pedal to produce a marvellous variety of whispers, shushes, splashes, and whaps. Drummers had begun to pay attention to the sound of their instrument; they tuned their snare drums and tomtoms and bass drums, and they spent long reverberating hours selecting their cymbals at the Zildjian factory, in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The bebop drummers did disturbing things to the drum set in the forties. Their snare drums grew thinner and thinner, and emitted a high nervous chatter; the bass drums shrank, and their sound grew sharp and elbowy; and the cymbals became larger and larger, and gave out a heavy, high hum.

The drum sets now used by many rock and "fusion" drummers are works of fantasy. The drums, which are frequently made of translucent plastic, seem to multiply before one's eyes, and may include a couple of bass drums and snare drums, and at least four tomtoms. A dozen giant, steeply canted cymbals form a reflecting shield around this assemblage, which is lit from below, so that it produces an aurora-borealis effect, with the drummer at its brilliant, frenzied center.”

Whitney Balliett, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, [Oxford].

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