Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

Making the Connection A Guide to Big Band Drumming for the Jazz Educator

Magazine article The Canadian Music Educator

Making the Connection A Guide to Big Band Drumming for the Jazz Educator

Article excerpt

By establishing the stylistic foundations, leading the energy and dynamic flow, and setting-up crucial rhythmic figures, the drummer provides the life blood for the jazz big band. Legendary band leader Duke Ellington once said, "If you have a great band with a mediocre drummer, you have a mediocre band. If you have a mediocre band with a great drummer, you have a great band!" Through a large amount of responsibility in this setting, the drummer has the ability to elevate the level of any inexperienced big band.

Though drumming is an important aspect of the jazz big band, it has long been a difficult area of pedagogy for public school educators who are unfamiliar with this tradition. This is primarily due to the lack of detailed notation information, as well as the inherent improvisation element found in big band drumming. This improvisation element allows for many possible renditions of the same arrangement. Similarly, the ambiguity of big band drum notation leaves much to the discretion of the drummer, which allows for many different interpretations of the same part.

Many young drummers have a basic idea of the stylistic grooves found in jazz music, so the most common confusion deals with the interpretation of notated figures ("hits"). Hits are unison ensemble rhythms that can be articulated by the drummer. The ability to properly interpret these hits and provide the appropriate "setup," or preparatory figure, is an essential aspect of big band drumming. By providing the proper setups to the written hits, the drummer creates a bridge between the horn section and the drum part. This connection elevates the drummer from the role of human metronome to that of band leader. The drummer then has the power to lead the band dynamically and stylistically through these rhythmic figures. It is the job of the educator to assist the inexperienced drummer with navigating the written notation to create a quality drum part.

As shown below, there are 3 common ways these hits can be notated in a drum part: exact notation (A), slash notation with cues (B), or rhythmic notation (C).

Exact notation provides the precise combination of drums and cymbals that are to be used for the given rhythm. This notation method is common in beginning jazz band writing, since many beginning drummers are unaware of the basic rules for setting-up and playing the notated hits. Slash notation and rhythmic notation have become the traditional methods for writing big band hits. Many composers view the cues in slash notation as a discretionary tool for the drummer, while rhythmic notation is an absolute "must play." It is also important to note that sometimes there are important hits that have not been notated in the drum part. In this case, it is essential to reveal these hit locations to the drummer to improve the impact of these hits through percussive reinforcement.

There are several rules that can help an inexperienced jazz drummer develop the ability to properly setup and perform the notated hits with a big band. Though these rules can commonly be broken, it is important to provide the beginner with a template in which to follow. Here are five rules that can provide a strong foundation:

1. The setup should be an accent on a dry drum sound (bass drum or snare drum).

2. The hit should be an accent on a drum accompanied by a cymbal for long notes, or an accent on a drum without a cymbal (or with a choked cymbal) for short notes.

3. The drum used to play the setup (bass or snare) should not be used to play the hit.

4. The setup should be placed on the beat prior to the hit. …

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