WBGO Blog
  • You Don't Know Jazz! with Dr. Lewis Porter: Drum Myths

    October 10, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This is the latest in our regular series of blog features, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Dr. Porter debunks some common myths about early jazz drumming and drummers. Read on!

    Just Keeping Time? No!

    You always hear the same about drumming before bebop: “Early drummers just kept time.”
    “Just keep time?” I don’t even know what that means. To me, the only thing that “just keeps time” is a metronome, and any drummer who plays like that would get fired in a second!

    old_metronome

    Click here to hear what “just keeping time” sounds like to me!

    That’s not what you hear on early jazz recordings. People simply haven’t listened to enough jazz from the teens, twenties, or thirties to know what they’re talking about. It is true that the drums can be hard to hear on too many of these early recordings, so you have to know which recordings to listen to.

    The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB)

    Let’s start with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB). The ODJB was first band to record jazz, and the 78s they made in 1917 for Victor and Columbia in New York launched the worldwide jazz craze.

    odjb1

    On “Original Jass Band One Step,” one of their first recordings for Victor on February 26th, 1917, drummer Tony Sbarbaro (aka Spargo) is very audible. What you actually hear is him going crazy! He plays all over the place; the only piece of the drum kit he uses sparingly is the cymbal.

    onestep1

    It’s ridiculous to say early drummers like Sbarbaro are “just keeping time,” because clearly there’s a lot going on. If anything, if you really hear them, what a modern listener would say is that it’s too busy. What it sounds like to a modern listener is that they’re going crazy all over the drum set, and filling things in all the time with “drum rudiments,” the fundamental patterns every kid in a parade band learns.

    On "Livery Stable Blues," from the same session, we can clearly hear Sbarbaro's booming bass drum:

    liverylabel1

    This contradicts another common misconception about early jazz drummers: that they didn’t use bass drums in the recording studio, because it made the recording needle jump and the engineers couldn’t record it.

    In this case, I’m not going to say this is a complete myth. There is a kernel of truth to this that has grown into a big misunderstanding. Because most people haven’t actually listened to early jazz, too many have taken a situation that happened in certain recording studios, or repeated a story they have been told, and they’ve spread it to apply to all jazz recordings of the early days.

    Even the earliest jazz drummers had bass drums, and big, loud ones (see the photo of the ODJB above)! They were bigger than what drummers use today. And it was an African American drummer from New Orleans, Dee Dee Chandler, who invented one of the first bass drum pedals around 1895.

    Dee Dee Chandler with John Robichaux Band
    Dee Dee Chandler with John Robichaux Band

    The recording engineer on the ODJB’s Victor sessions was a man named Charles Sooy. Sooy had experience recording symphony orchestras, and he allowed Sbarbaro to use his full kit in the studio, including his bass drum. He also carefully rehearsed the band to capture the best possible balance of instruments, to overcome some of the limitations of the acoustic recording equipment of the era.

    Take a look at this 1937 newsreel reenactment of the ODJB’s Victor recording session, with the original band members. At 1:53, you can see Sooy himself at the recording console, as well as a nice shot of Sbarbaro’s foot on the bass drum pedal.

    Beware, though, that this glorification of the ODJB gets many things wrong - for example, it falsely states that Victor transported them to New York to record in 1916, and the band was referring to its music back then as "swinging!"

    Warren "Baby" Dodds

    Warren “Baby” Dodds, from New Orleans, became well known from the recordings he made starting in 1923 in and around Chicago with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton.

    babydodds

    Dodds’ famous early recordings were made in the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana in 1923. Gennett’s recording setup was primitive in comparison to what was used by the big labels in New York – Gennett’s studios, in a converted piano factory, weren’t even soundproof, so bands had to stop playing when trains passed outside.

    gennettstudio63

    Unlike Sooy, Gennett’s head engineer Ezra Wickemeyer didn’t allow Dodds to use his bass drum, or even a snare. So the highly versatile Dodds played primarily on wood blocks and his drum rims, as on this excerpt from “Chimes Blues," accompanying Louis Armstrong's first recorded solo ever:

    chimeslabel1

    Wickemeyer did allow Dodds to play his Chinese tom-tom, which we can hear him play on this excerpt from “Mandy Lee Blues,” as he accompanies his brother Johnny’s clarinet solo:

    dodds3

    So as we can hear, it’s not that Dodds or other early drummers just played the wood blocks or things like that. The truth is it depended on the studio – if it had a rickety wood floor that would shake, and whether the engineer was familiar with how to record drums, because that’s something they hadn’t dealt with so much in the early days. It also depended on the band, and how important they felt it was to get the bass drum onto the record.
    The bottom line is there were plenty of drums in early jazz, if you listen for them.

    By the time you get to the thirties, with drummers like Jo Jones and Sid Catlett, you have a style that’s a lot less busy and is more streamlined, where they’re using the hi-hat cymbals to create a certain kind of propulsiveness and not just going wild on the drums. Then by the Bebop era, you have a heavy emphasis on the big suspended cymbal, what they call the ride cymbal, and much less use of the drums themselves when you’re accompanying somebody.

    "Just keeping time?” I don’t think so!

    FOR FURTHER STUDY:

    —The website jazz-on-line.com has thousands of great early jazz tracks 
for listening or free download.

    Stay tuned to the WBGO blog for more installments of “You Don’t Know Jazz!” by Dr. Lewis Porter.

  • Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part Two

    July 11, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This dashing jazz upstart had a deep bag of tricks...
    This Week We Peek Into Young Louis' Deep Bag of Tricks

    This is the sixth post in a biweekly blog feature, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Louis Armstrong Didn't Come Out of Nowhere! (Part Two)

    This week we will dig into some of the details of Louis Armstrong's art, and present  more audio and other materials which put Armstrong's achievements in the context of what else was happening during his formative years, as a followup to our last column, which you can read here. So if you think you know Louis, read on! Read more

  • Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One

    June 23, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    This dashing jazz upstart didnt come out of nowhere!
    This dashing jazz upstart had plenty of friends to learn from

    This is the fifth post in a biweekly blog feature, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Louis Armstrong Didn't Come Out of Nowhere!

    This installment is inspired by the recent publication on June 21 of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, by Ricky Riccardi. Ricky is a graduate of the Master’s program that I direct at Rutgers. He was already a terrific jazz historian when he joined the program, and he went on to author a great Armstrong blog and to become the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. A book release party will be held there on Sunday June 26, from 2-4 p.m. -- hope to see you there!

    Louis Armstrong (1901-1971; formerly thought to have been born in 1900) was one of the most influential artists in the history of jazz. That’s an objective fact—you can find literally hundreds of jazz musicians who say that he was their inspiration, especially those born between about 1900 and 1915. Then, it seems, for many years his influence was considered to be a thing of the past, and by the 1960s he was perhaps better known as a pop star (via TV, movies, and his recording of  “Hello, Dolly”) than as a jazz soloist. Through the efforts of Wynton Marsalis, his mentors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, and others, the world now knows that Armstrong was a brilliant improviser on trumpet (and cornet) and as a vocalist. Read more