Jazz drummers are important. Not only are they responsible for keeping time, they’re a key part of the rhythm section, alongside the bass and the piano. For me, they are also the spiritual center of any musical ensemble. I’ve heard the phrase “give the drummer some” used in multiple contexts, crossing musical genres, so today, I want to talk about giving Black drummers some of the respect they have earned.
I’d planned to write about Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, and other great legends in the jazz drumming pantheon, as well as covering some of the younger greats, like Greg Hutchinson, but I got sidetracked. I beg forgiveness in advance.
I have focused on Black musicians in this series, yet I have not excluded, nor failed to give props to, key not-Black artists. But while I was researching this edition of my #BlackMusicSunday series, I was somewhat taken aback when I ran across numerous lists rating jazz drummers—and some had white drummers ranked in the top five or 10, or even in the top spot. Despite the magazine’s rock focus, Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list includes some jazz drummers; I’ll admit that seeing Gene Krupa (#7) and Buddy Rich (#15 ) ahead of every single great Black jazz drummer perturbed me.
Now, I have an intense personal and spiritual connection with music, as far as drums and drumming are concerned. The highly lauded drummers I named at the top are great showmen, but they leave me cold on the soul connection side. So instead of profiling jazz drummers as planned, I wrote this rant instead.
Let’s start with some history. Early jazz drumming was heavily influenced by African elements. Since we often view New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, it is key to understand that drumming was central to the African experience brought there, primarily from the Caribbean, with the slave trade. I covered some of this history when exploring Mardi Gras and the second line.
Still annoyed about the Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich thing, I stumbled across a very sensitive, empathetic and well-informed post by jazz pianist, composer, and writer Ethan Iverson on his blog, called Do The Math. Iverson was responding to the 2014 film Whiplash, whose central character is a young white jazz drummer. The film opened to critical acclaim and went on to get five Academy Award nominations, winning three. However, Whiplash also got some really negative reviews from people who actually know something about jazz and about drumming. Iverson, for one, understands drummers’ spiritual connection, and rhythm’s African roots.
Drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath discussed the spirituality tied to drumming in this interview with Iverson, where he speaks about asking the ancestors for permission.
But when I was young, I followed my ear and heart. There’s a kind of divine intervention that helps. Alan Dawson always said that it was 90% rudiments and 10% divine intervention! That was his philosophy, and it makes a lot of sense. That divine intervention is what I always relied on, and how I was able to create a unique conglomerate of everything, rudiments included. Whenever I sit down to play, I’m quiet for a couple of seconds. Then I ask permission from the ancestors to allow me to do these things that have already been done.
What also struck me in Iverson’s Whiplash analysis was this observation about Buddy Rich.
Buddy Rich had a long career. A total natural, Rich was a monstrously talented drummer from an extremely young age. His specialty was chops. His hands. Rudiments, rolls, cadences: the stock-in-trade of military snare drums, going back hundreds of years to Europe and other places.
How fast and flashy were Buddy Rich’s hands? For many, they were the fastest and flashiest ever.
Why are fast and flashy hands important in a jazz drummer? The short answer: they aren’t.
Good drummer in the band: good jazz.
Bad drummer in the band: bad jazz.
It has very little to do with the drummer’s fast and flashy hands. It has much more to do with the drummer’s devotion and feel. Some of the cognoscenti’s best-loved jazz drummers had hands only fast enough to go to church every time they sat behind the kit.
Some of those giants would barely even take a solo.
Yes, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa were flashy. Yes, they got a lot of play and major television appearances, aided and abetted by racism in the industry. Yes, they will continue to make “top drummer lists” and be taught in introductory jazz courses. But are they the greatest?
Jazz and music writer Richard Williams wrote his own critique of Whiplash on his blog in 2015.
The college band in which the young drummer tries to establish himself contains plenty of black musicians — trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonists, a guitarist and a bassist. But it seems very strange to me that the four young men competing for the drum stool, the struggle around which the film revolves, are all white.
Of course white drummers can play jazz with feeling and originality. I’ve always loved the work of Stan Levey, Shelly Manne, Phil Seamen, Paul Motian, Han Bennink and John Stevens, and that wholehearted admiration continues to be extended to the likes of Matt Wilson, Joey Baron, Steve Noble, Jeff Williams, Tom Skinner and others. They’re as far away from the template of Buddy Rich, a boorish show-off to whom technique was everything, as you could get.
It’s nice to think of today’s jazz world as being colour-blind. But I always felt that my inquiries had taught me where this music originated, and the answer was in the African diaspora, most particularly and obviously — although not at all exclusively — in the area of rhythm. So Elvin Jones and Tony Williams symbolised the kind of drumming I most admired, along with Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Frank Butler, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Pete La Roca and Sunny Murray. There was a principle involved, and an issue of authenticity.
This tweet from sax player Jaleel Shaw weighed in on a point made in Iverson’s post, addressing a comment made by Iverson, and also offering some insights that speak to the all-white college band presented in Whiplash … and critiqued by Williams.
Shaw continued his response in a tweetstorm which, expressing mild regret for going off on Twitter, he later posted to his own blog.
For one, I think we have to remember there was a time when Blacks couldn't use the same entrance to clubs as whites. If a club told me I had to use a separate entrance, I still wouldn't want to go to that club once things changed. We also have to remember that there used to be clubs in Black communities (like Harlem) that Blacks went to & even owned … Of many things that have changed, It's very clear that there aren't many "jazz" clubs in Black communities anymore.
We also have to consider education. I never learned about "jazz" or anything that had to do with my culture in grade school. Luckily, I had a mother that was into this music and exposed me to it and other styles of music at a young age. In school, (we) learned about Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. I love Bach, but looking back, I wonder why I wasn't taught about Bird, Ellington, and other American musicians in school.
I was a music (education) major at Berklee. When I went to do my student teaching I noticed the urban schools had no music classes. Meanwhile, the suburban schools were learning all about Ellington, Monk, Armstrong and other American musicians/composers. Almost all of the suburban schools I visited didn't have many, if any, Black students. The urban schools were all Black. I can't say this is exactly why "many in the Black intelligentsia aren't interested" in jazz, but I think it's beyond a start.
What stood out for me was the fact that Shaw notes that he got most of his Black music education at home (like I did), and his observations about the differences between curricula offered in white schools, where students were learning about jazz, and the deficiencies in those with Black student populations, where the focus of music education was on European classical composers.
Moving past the film, as a non-musician (and even as one married to an Afro-Latin drummer), I’ll omit a discussion of all the musical intricacies of drum patterns, and those that apply particularly to jazz. Yet I appreciated the fact that Iverson was also very aware of the second wave of spiritual drumming that arrived on our shores via Afro-Latino immigration. These drummers were nurtured in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean drumming and religious practices, which played a key role in the music we now call “Latin jazz.”
Suffice it to say that drumming is hard and complex work that far too often is under appreciated, even though we celebrate certain major drummers who made, and continue to make, jazz history.
As an African diasporic religious practitioner, former dancer, and cultural anthropologist, I can attest to the ability of drummers to put listeners into trance-like and transcendent states of being: The power of the drums is real. The flashy playing of Krupa and Rich (and their students and imitators) simply works counter to the role and the power of the drum.
Soloing is not the point. Weaving the conversations of the musicians together—driven by the heartbeat of the drum—is.
Diving back into history, the blend of African and European music and instrumentation we now know as jazz also evolved from other sources like military drumming, as well as the use of enslaved and free people of color as performers in European-style orchestras for social events held by white people.
Early “drum kits” or “drum sets” included not only the bass drum, but cymbals and cowbells, mounted on top of the bass drum, like the one shown here.
While the jazz musicians covered in this series so far played just one instrument in the band—be it piano, or trumpet or bass— most drummers are playing a group of instruments each time they perform. A Jazz drum kit usually consists of a bass drum, snare, tom toms, and assorted cymbals; drummers play with drumsticks and/or brushes, while using a foot pedal on the bass.
Even Latin jazz drummers who play congas play more than one, and often switch to other percussion instruments as they create their wall of sound and rhythm.
Krupa is credited with creating the drum kits we know today. He even starred in films, including his own biopic.
Krupa was flashy.
Krupa is also remembered for a huge first in jazz; he even has a street named after him.
So Krupa is the “man who made it all happen.” Really? In reality, Warren “Baby” Dodds is the man who jazz historians say initiated improvisation on the drums.
I’m blessed to have had a jazz history professor, sociologist Cesare A. Massarenti, who was also a trumpet player on the side. He taught us about Baby Dodds. Cesare was Italian, and even sparked a student takeover on campus in May 1969, led by students of color, when SUNY Old Westbury tried to fire him. I often think of the irony of learning Black jazz history from a not-black, not-American teacher.
From the Encyclopedia Britannica editors:
Baby Dodds, by name of Warren Dodds, (born December 24, 1898, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.—died February 14, 1959, Chicago, Illinois), American musician, a leading early jazz percussionist and one of the first major jazz drummers on record.
At an early age, Dodds played drums in New Orleans parade and jazz bands, and in 1918–21 he played in Fate Marable’s riverboat bands. In 1922 he went to San Francisco to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Dodds recorded with Oliver in Chicago the following year, and, before the end of the decade, he appeared on classic recordings with other ex-New Orleans small-group leaders such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Baby’s brother Johnny Dodds. He also played in Johnny’s bands during the 1920s and ’30s; during the 1940s traditional jazz revival, he was active in New York City as well as in Chicago, including a period with Bunk Johnson’s popular band (1944–45). Poor health led Dodds to perform only irregularly after 1949.
Even when he was restrained by the limitations of early recording technology, as in his recordings with Oliver, Dodds’s distinctive qualities are evident to the listener. His style incorporated an unusual range of sound colours; his percussion patterns sometimes changed from chorus to chorus, and the offbeat punctuation he provided for soloists and ensembles was often so active that it amounted to interplay.
Serendipitously, there is an entire film devoted to Dodds, including performances and interviews.
Known for his fluid improvisations, Dodds became a drumming role model for those who would follow his drumsticks.
Ironically, in a Modern Drummer article about Baby Dodds and his massive influence, they quote Krupa, alongside Philly Joe Jones of the Miles Davis Quintet.
“Dodds was swingin’ so much, I was late an entire set. But I couldn’t leave. I sat down and just stayed.”
—Philly Joe Jones
“Baby taught me more than all the others. He was the first great soloist.”
Baby Dodds is credited with being one of the first drummers to play breaks and fills between phrases and solos. And though simplistic by today’s standards, they marked the beginning of the drum solo itself. Dodds was also one of the first to convert the press roll time pattern to the basic ride cymbal beat used today. And while he adhered to a military style of drumming throughout most of his career, it was his acute sense of pitch, subtlety, and rhythmic inventiveness that bridged the gap between the strict military structure, and the freer, more flowing style that would soon emerge.
Finally, Dodds was among the first to totally interact with the ensemble through changes in patterns and textures. “I was struck with the range and constant shifting of tonal colors Baby displayed as he moved all over his set,” said Max Roach. “He continued to vary the sound of his beat according to the soloist.”
With a style that has had an impact on virtually hundreds of other drummers since the early ’20s, Warren “Baby” Dodds has rightfully earned his place in music history as the world’s first great jazz drummer.
I couldn’t find any streets named after Baby Dodds, though, or even a memorial. All I could find was his grave.
When proper respect isn’t given to the Black roots and provenance of jazz drumming, we wind up with messes—like this recent racist rant, which popped up during my research on women in drumming.
Hilary Jones is a white female drummer in her mid-50s who recently lost all of her endorsements. Why? In the face of widespread protests after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Jones went viral after she went full Karen in a Facebook conversation with another musician, Wenty Morris.
Here’s Jones’ racist screed, courtesy of bassist Jay Rosado’s Facebook.
Clearly she was never taught to respect the roots of her genre and her instrument of choice.
Fulbright scholar Shirazette Tinnin shared Jones’ words on Instagram, with heartfelt commentary that speaks to her own journey as a Black female drummer.
Dear Drumming Family:
It is with great disappointment that I share the words of female drummer Hilary Jones, who is endorsed by major drum companies just as I am. However, she speaks out of ignorance against those seeking support through racial justice. Clearly, she doesn’t know that many of the great drummers that came before her, including her white counterparts, have learned rhythms that are rooted in the African Diaspora, which is what her, as mine and many drum careers, are built upon. Do your drum history work and understand Congo Square in New Orleans, where the clavè morphed, mutated, and can be found in all types of genres. So dear Hilary, I have a (master’s) in music and no, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t grow up with private lessons daily. I borrowed a drum set and my marching gear from my school each summer. I got called “nigger” while attending college. I was the only Black woman percussionist in my classical majoring percussionist department. My parents (busted) their ass for me and my siblings, and still fell short. But I picked up where they could no longer endure. You play an instrument that is derived out of slave history and you wanna speak ignorance toward your fellow community. Community being your drum community. The drum is the heart of life. The pulse that is suppose to represent life and what its about. Shame on you! Please educate yourself and please stop playing! Do you truly deserve your crown?
Kristinn “Kiddi” Agnarsson, a drummer from Iceland, was one of many in the community who also voiced dismay.
On that note, I’ll leave you with some drumming from Sister Shirazette.
We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming next Sunday.