Jazz Essentials

Bob Lark | October 2008

At the start of the year I explain that we are a team and play to make each other sound good. With any piece of music this means that everyone has to determine who has the lead. In contemporary big band literature this is usually the lead trumpet or alto sax part. There are exceptions, but in the vast majority of arrangements that is the case.

I also explain that the most important member of the band is the drummer, and I say this as a trumpet player. In almost every arrangement the drummer is responsible for maintaining the pulse, igniting the dynamic shape of the chart, and setting the style of the tune. If any of these three is out of whack, the entire band suffers.

I go on to explain that when reading a new chart, half of their attention should be on the drummer. In swing music the drummer usually sets the pulse with the ride cymbal and the hi-hat. It is not enough to play your part correctly. You can’t play your part correctly unless you are listening to the drummer and the lead voice, which should also be listening closely to the drummer.

Certainly everyone in an ensemble is responsible for subdividing and keeping the pulse but in truth we are subdividing and keeping the pulse in relation to the drummer. A band with a good drummer can sound pretty good with average brass and saxophones. However, even terrific brass and saxes playing with a mediocre drummer will give a disappointing performance.

During the early fall rehearsals I often take all of the toys away from the drummer except the ride cymbal, hi-hat, and the snare drum. This way I force the drummer to concentrate on what is important instead of adding a variety of nuances. This works great with student ensembles, and I will even do this with graduate students. The most important skill for any drummer to learn is timekeeping, and this is true whether the music is a swing chart, samba, rock tune, or ballad. On the snare drum the left hand can subdivide important figures to guide the horns if necessary.

At the outset I want to train the drummer and band to listen to and think about how the time is kept. It helps the drummer to focus on the basics if there are fewer equipment choices. With junior high drummers this works remarkably well. I may restrict the drummer to playing a simple pattern with the right hand on the ride cymbal and have the hi-hat close on beats 2 and 4. In my experience many drummers feel that they need to use all of the drums on an eight-piece set. Many can’t handle this without changing the pulse. At first drummers may claim that they can’t play with just three instruments, but they can. Gradually I let the drummer earn the entire drum kit, one drum at a time. I explain that it is like a stew: the other drums add flavor but the essential ingredients are the three pieces of equipment they start with.

When working as a guest director I may say “I bet your drummer gets yelled at by your director more than anybody else in the band.” Usually there is a round of chuckling until I remind them that this is because the drummer is the most important person in the band. My technique of taking instruments away forces the drummer to focus on the basics.

Sometimes I also ask drummers to pretend that they are back in seventh grade and have only limited technique. Many can’t help themselves and play fancier figures after a couple of bars, but I correct them and explain exactly what pattern I want on the ride cymbal. At those moments the band is not a democracy. The focus is on a comfortable pulse with a simple sense of style.

Depending on the context I might play a Basie recording with a great drummer, such as Sonny Payne, whose playing always swings and consistently supports ensemble figures. then I ask the band to listen to his ride cymbal, hi-hat, and drums. After a few moments it is far less complicated than people initially realize. I first learned this technique 15 or 20 years ago and find that it also works well with talented grad students who get bogged down by playing too many notes and fills.

A great many jazz directors grew up playing a horn, as I did. They often focus too much on getting the horn parts right and neglecting the rhythm section. My advice is to focus on the drummer at the start of school and work forward.

Early on I also focus on the dynamics. When young drummers get to the shout chorus, they often forget to play louder. I explain that the shout chorus may start out softly, but when the lead trumpet hits high notes above the staff, you have to give support and play louder. So, too, do the trombones, saxophones, and trumpets need to support the lead voice. Everyone has to listen left to right and front to back.

The focus of big band charts is typically on the drummer, but he and the bass player have to be in lockstep. The bass is the next most important person in keeping the pulse. Phil Woods commented a few years ago that sometimes his bass player (Steve Gilmore) plays just a little in front of the beat of the drummer (Bill Goodwin). He added that this actually steadies the pulse. This sounded like a crazy concept to me, but later I discovered that it is especially helpful on faster tempos, which is when young groups tend to fall apart.

I first tried his idea with the DePaul band and then experimented with an all-district high school band. It usually helps some right away when the bass player pushes the tempo and the drummer pulls it back just a hair. However if the drummer pulls back too much it will melt. Often after a couple of cracks, it gets better. I don’t know why this works but it does. One answer may be that everyone is thinking about the tempo. Phil Woods said that this is an old technique, and other professional players have confirmed this. I taught for many years before I ever heard of it.

As a rule, at faster tempos students get tunnel vision and concentrate mostly on playing the notes correctly. They still listen but the focus is on their playing rather than the tempo and blend of the ensemble. Music goes best when we don’t have to think much at all. I have picked the brains of such great improvisers as Clark Terry, Phil Woods, and such contemporary players as Jim McNeeley and Joe Lovano, and asked what they think about while improvising. The most common answer is “I’m listening.” In my experience when I improvise the best I am simply listening and reacting.

I have observed that when these great artists play with the student band, if someone forgets to go to the bridge or the piano misses a chord, the pros still make it sound good. When I look over and watch Phil Woods improvise, he isn’t looking at the printed page but simply trusting his ear. This is a lesson for all of us to remember: always listen.