Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jazz Appreciation Month: Percussion

Famous photo of Gene Krupa at his drumset with a large shadow cast on the wall behind himDrums are essential to African music, and as a style with origins in African-American aesthetics, it's natural that drums would be essential to jazz. There are many kinds of drums and many types of struck instruments that make up the "percussion" section of a jazz group.

photo of basic drumsetThe classic drumset consists of a bass drum (sideways), a snare drum, a second drum with a deeper sound (tom), and cymbals on a stand. The drummer can add an almost unlimited number of drums, cymbals and smaller instruments to the set-up. These small instruments can be common sounds such as cowbell, or exotic sounds from almost any culture of the world.

The drummer traditionally sits at the back of the jazz ensemble, but could sometimes be heard as a soloist. During the Swing Era, many drummers had their turn in the limelight. One of the first big stars of the drumset was Gene Krupa (above) who got his start with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, then went on to lead his own group. He was followed by Buddy Rich, who started his career as a small child in the 1920s, then led his own band and gained national recognition through television appearances, staying active well into the 1980s.

Most of the best drummers have appeared as "sidemen" accompanying soloists as part of the standard jazz rhythm section (guitar or piano, bass, and drums). Because of this, it's difficult to categorize drummers by style. The drumset is the backbone of all the styles, but different parts will be featured. For example, "cool" or West Coast jazz drummers use "brushes" on cymbals for a distinct, soft tone. In Latin-influenced groups hand percussion such as maracas may be more prominent. Many drummers have led long careers spanning styles and adapted to different circumstances. The following is a rough breakdown:

CD cover of Lionel Hampton album Ring Dem BellsBig Band percussionists:

  • Lionel Hampton (vibraphone)
  • Louis Bellson(Count Basie Orchestra).
  • Mel Lewis (Stan Kenton, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band)
  • Ed Shaughnessy (Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Tonight Show Orchestra)
Bop & "Hard Bop" style drummers:
album cover for Art Blakey's CD Free For All

Cool jazz drummers:


album cover for Mahavishnu Orchestra Lost Trident Sessions

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