• 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!


    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.


    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.


    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:


    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.


    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.


    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:


    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:


    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!


    —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.

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