The Heartbeat of Jazz

By Leymarie, Isabelle | UNESCO Courier, February 1995 | Go to article overview

The Heartbeat of Jazz


Leymarie, Isabelle, UNESCO Courier


A jazz instrument originally used to keep the beat, the drum gradually became a solo instrument in its own right.

Drums, an indispensable ingredient of popular music, are the only instruments "invented" by jazz. Resulting from the juxtaposition of various percussion instruments, they have changed over the years and benefitted from several technical improvements.

When jazz appeared at the beginning of the century, the first drummers used instruments borrowed from circus orchestras, brass bands and music-hall companies. With their expressive swing styles, New Orleans drummers of today often evoke African or West Indian music, yet the drums used by their colleagues of yesteryear were not of African origin. The bass drum and the snare drum came from Europe, and other drums came from China. They were used more to impress the audience than for purely musical reasons. European- or Asian-made drums were used in classical jazz because in the United States - in contrast to the West Indies and certain Latin American countries where small drums and hand-beaten drums continued to be played despite repression - plantation owners forbade their slaves to play drums, and the instrument quickly disappeared from popular black music.

Not counting the cymbals, a drum-set consists of three sorts of drum: the bass drum, the snare drum and the tom-tom. The first bass drums used in jazz were identical to those used by brass bands, and the drummer's main task was to keep a regular beat. The drum 's powerful sound enabled it to be heard over the blare of the brass. The barrel-shaped tom-toms were covered with thick pig-skin and were usually lacquered in red. Drummers also used Chinese cymbals and temple blocks (thick blocks of wood - a little like wooden gongs - played in groups of four to six). Until the First World War tom-toms, cymbals and temple blocks were imported from China and were extremely popular because of their low price. It is very likely that the immigration of large numbers of Chinese to the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century influenced the drummers of the time as they sought new sounds.

At the end of the 1920s, with the advent of nightclubs and show business in Harlem, drums became more complicated. Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington's drummer, and Jimmy Crawford, who played for Jimmie Lunceford, added kettledrums to their sets, more, it must be said, for show than strictly musical reasons. …

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