What do jazz drummers play? How is it that the sound of the cymbal "ride" patterns of great jazz drummers is so personal that it can be identified by an experienced listener in a matter of a few measures of listening? What is it that identifies so clearly the playing of Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Pete La Roca, Larry Bunker, Donald Bailey, Bill Goodwin, Mel Lewis, Billy Higgins and other great jazz drummers with identifiable personal styles?
It has been recommended in jazz education articles that student drummers ought to play strong accents on both the high hat and on the ride cymbal on the 2nd and 4th beats of every measure. This seems a perverse suggestion in light of the fact that not one of the above mentioned great drummers remotely approaches this way of playing! In fact, this way of playing could not possibly "swing" in 4/4 time as it would effectively create a discontinuity in the rhythmic line, cutting each measure into two disparate parts. This would only be useful and appropriate in creating a strong "2" feel such as might be needed in the last chorus of an Ellington composition of the 1930's. Even then, the strong accent is confined to the high hat and snare while the ride continues to be played in a more evenly accented "4" pattern.
So, to return to the question of what the playing of these great drummers may have in common, it is important to recognize that judged over a period long enough to be heard as a musical phrase, they all share an approach that creates a certain even proportion of accents in all parts of the measure. The ride cymbal beat expresses a rhythmic "line" rather than a "one note at a time" pattern. That line is built on a base (not bass) line of evenly accented quarter notes into which are added subtly accented nuances. This takes place over rhythmic phrases that last over several measures and which create an expression of human breath.
Into this quarter note line, shorter note values are interjected at a reduced volume before the 3rd and 1st beats. The relative dynamic level and rhythmic placement of these smaller notes create an identifying characteristic of each drummer's style. It is more enlightening to consider these notes as interjections in the basic quarter note line than to try to understand them from the point of view of conventional music notation, which over emphasizes their importance and intensity in relation to the more important 1st and 3rd quarter notes of each measure. They are better understood as embellishments of the essential quarter notes which follow them rather than as individual entities. (See notation examples 1-4.) They act in fact as "grace" notes and are usefully understood in that way.
These small note values serve a tremendous purpose in establishing the basis for rhythmic unity and swing in the ensemble by delineating the subdivisions within the quarter note pulses that make the duration of those pulses reliably predictable by other members of the ensemble (and the audience). These subdivisions, established by the drummer's cymbal ride, may or may not be adhered to by other ensemble members but the quarter note pulses must be, unless the swing is to be put at risk. It is the help these "grace" notes give to the establishment of the quarter note stability that makes them useful.
This ride pattern must do its job in such a way as to be infectious and inspiring rather than irritating and distracting to the overall effect of the music. It is a wonder that this can be done in such a wide range of ways, from the enormous roar of Blakey at his loudest, to the subtle lift of Kenny Clarke or Larry Bunker. (The most effective drummers are those who are able to whisper and roar with equal intensity at appropriate moments in the music.) As this style of jazz drumming has developed over the last 50 or 60 years, the placement of these smaller notes in the ride pattern has taken on an increased freedom and variety with the result that in the best cases, the tyranny of the down beat has been minimized and the rhythmic line has been equalized and extended. This is done by occasional omission of the expected "grace" notes or placement of them in a less predictable way on other beats. This development has had a felicitous effect on a style of music which otherwise has a preponderance of events happening on the first beats of the measures where most significant harmonic changes take place.
One less fortunate effect of this freedom to place the grace notes differently or to omit them has been the tendency of insensitive or inexperienced drummers to exacerbate the problem of the over accented 1st beat by insisting on playing a pattern that accents both the 4th and 1st beat. It is hard to imagine a quicker or more effective way to destroy the fluidity of the music.
So far the discussion has been confined to ride cymbal patterns and the emphasis on the 1st and 3rd quarter notes of 4/4 measures created by preceding those quarter notes with grace notes. This emphasis is effectively counterbalanced by subtle use of the foot operated high hat cymbal on the 2nd and 4th quarter notes, re-establishing equality and smoothness to the rhythmic line. This in fact, is the most effective use and purpose for the "high hat on 2 and 4". Exaggerated and disproportionate accents on 2 and 4 only serve to interrupt the flow of the music.
"Shuffle" patterns are a variation on the previously described styles in which additional grace notes may be added (usually lightly played on the snare drum) before the 2nd and 4th quarter notes. This technique is most effective at medium tempos in which the extra "weight" on the quarter note pulse is desired as a contrast to the usual more "horizontal" flow of the normal ride pattern.
Also usefully interjected into the flow of the ride pattern are light accents played on the snare, bass drum and tom toms, which provide "conversational" encouragement to the music. These accents must correspond in volume and intensity to the prevailing dynamic level lest they overpower other elements and become interruptive rather than supportive.
All of this being said, it is important to point out that the most interesting drummers, those who make the greatest contribution to variety in the rhythmic texture, are those who are most willing to abandon the "ride cymbal beat" in order to play fills and accompanying patterns in the drums. While the ride cymbal sound can make an enormous contribution to the rhythmic life of the music in the hands of a great drummer, nothing can so quickly freshen the ear of the listener as periodic relief from its sound. In the best cases, every opportunity to add interest to the music by changing the role of the drums must be sought. In seeking ways to make these changes, balance must be maintained by continuing some rhythms for a long enough time to set up a pattern of expectation in the music, lest constant change become a predictable pattern in itself.
Variety may be created in one way by doubling the time values of the cymbal ride pattern, slowing it down and creating a "2" feel while keeping the high hat playing on the 2nd and 4th beats. The bass player should participate by basing the bass part on embellished half notes. (It is essential for the drummer to avoid playing anything on the 2nd quarter note of measures which establish a "2" feel and conversely, to make sure to play the 2nd quarter as soon as a change to 4/4 feel is desired.) Another way to find variety is to double up the occurrence of the high hat beats while maintaining the 4/4 ride. This creates a lilting "double time" feel and can be used to stimulate or support solo passages that contain a prevalence of 16th note patterns.
All of the preceding techniques can be equally effective when performed with wire brushes on the snare drum rather than with sticks on the cymbals and drums. This is a much under-used texture and a return to the use of brushes would do much to improve the balance and general acoustic blend of jazz ensembles.
Another technique best reserved for ensemble sections with a 2 beat feel or specialized 4/4 sections, is to play on the high hat cymbal with sticks - alternately opening and closing it. This is a common sound in opening sections of compositions in the style of Count Basie's band and listening to that music will go a long way towards showing how that technique might best be applied to other music.
Whatever happens in the form of the music, it is usually the drummer's responsibility to direct changes of texture and dynamics in jazz ensembles. In order for this to be accomplished effectively, these changes must occur in the drum part (and often in the bass and piano parts as well) significantly earlier than they occur in the rest of the ensemble. The implications of this aspect of the role of the drums are far reaching and are little understood by most drummers and arranger/composers, let alone by other musicians less involved in rhythm section practices. Volumes could be written about ways in which to realize this element of the drummer's role but the best way to learn it is to study the wonderful examples in the work of Philly Joe Jones, Larry Bunker, Bill Goodwin, Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Pete La Roca, Donald Bailey, Max Roach, Mel Lewis and all the others I can't think to mention. This is a significant, though certainly incomplete list.
Many other techniques have been established in Jazz drumming and rhythm section styles that can usefully be studied and applied to new situations.. The Amahd Jamal Trio of the 1950's, with Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby provides a wealth of examples. Connie Kay's work in the Modern Jazz Quartet offers a number of useful techniques. Elvin Jones and Tony Williams offer passionately varied ways of playing that might apply to a number of musical situations.
Much remains to be done in the development of jazz drumming styles and an informed knowledge of the creative choices made according to the musical surroundings by some of these extraordinary drummers can provide fertile ground for the growth of new styles.
"It's the drummer's sacred duty to make sure the rest of the band knows where it is at all times." - Dizzy Gillespie quoted by Bill Goodwin.