“You know the drum was the first instrument besides the human voice.” – Billy Higgins
Certain things will always be cool. A well-chosen pair of sunglasses, worn-out leather jackets, and drummers, just to name a few. But drummers are by far the coolest.
Though Louie Bellson-esque solos are rare today, drummers have made a place for themselves in our culture. Even Jeff Tweedy had to admit that if you’re by a river playing KISS songs in the summer, the chicks are gonna go for the drummer. But it hasn’t always been like that. There was a time when guitarists or brass players, with all their flashy mobility and melodies, kept the spotlight for themselves. Drummers had to carve out a place for themselves, and the beginnings and heights of jazz allowed them to do so. As musicians like Armstrong and Davis began toying with variation and soloist experimentation, drummers like Billy Rich and Gene Krupa were bringing style and mesmerizing technique to the rhythm section. They brought brought rhythm out of the background, blurring the traditional distinction between melody section and percussion section, and making jazz music one tumultuous whole.
Whenever I tease my roommate about her Ke$ha Pandora station, or my sister for her Modeselektor collection, the response is always the same: it’s got a great beat. Maybe it’s almost sacrilegious to open an article on jazz drummers and their artistic innovation with a Ke$ha reference, but it just goes to show that in our everyday dancing, listening, foot-tapping, playlist-creating lives, the beat is everything. Beat is the pulse you feel behind the music and somewhere inside your chest. It’s that element of music that grounds every other part in a shared sense of pace and time.
It’s generally acknowledged that music affects us physically and emotionally, but we don’t need science to tell us that. Anyone who’s ever felt chills at the nape of the neck from a song, or who has looked down to find their foot tapping in time can tell you that "listening" is actually a full body experience. But our emotional response to music can’t be underestimated either. A study examining the emotional experience music creates found that 96% of listeners experienced thrills in the presence of music. Thrills! And drummers set the place to that exhilaration.
There’s a psychological theory that suggests the rhythmicity of music taps into some primordial attachment to our mother’s heartbeat. It argues that music heavy on the bass drum stirs up a feeling of affection toward the music based on that old warm-and-fuzzy womb feeling we all miss so much. And since the range of beats for music spans from around 40-200 bpm, the average human heart rate of 72 bpm isn’t that far off. Maybe there isn’t a ton of evidence to back these theories up, but the suggestion is fascinating - when we tap our feet we’re tapping into our earliest stages of life, that guys like Arthur “Zutty” Singleton and Gene Krupa (now’s the time to leave the mother analogy behind) can take us there.
But if we do believe in all that psycho-babble, beats become part of an emotional dichotomy that ranges from security to ecstasy. Drumming can be as comforting as it is chaotic. Soothing. Reckless.
Jazz, a genre famous for its improvisational elements, owes much of its controlled chaos to the drummers, the ones keeping time and messing with it, to give the music its wild, rumbling sound. Like much in jazz’s history, the drummers had a steady stream of innovators. Warren “Baby” Dodds brought the bass drum to its central place as a rhythmic undercurrent in jazz, and played the drum fills between solo breaks that eventually lead to the prominence of the drum solo itself. George Wettling redefined what it meant to be an accompanist instrument by navigating ways to stand apart while adhering to the musical whole. William “Cozy” Cole pioneered “coordinated independence” in his mastery of playing four separate rhythmic patterns at once, creating the sensation that two drummers were behind Cole’s snares. Part of William “Chick” Webb’s innovation was simply the sheer, awe-inspiring power of his solos, which captivated audiences, making the drummer a crucial part of jazz performances. And of course, Gene Krupa, mack daddy of jazz drummers, “King of Swing,” parted the sea of guitarists and lead singers and thrust drummers center stage. A big band leader in his own right and famed for solo work like what he did on “Sing Sing Sing”, Krupa could make a drum set out of a matchbox and matchsticks. And he did.
Equally amazing is the magnitude of the great jazz drummers’ involvement with the music industry as a whole. Buddy Rich worked with everyone from Artie Shaw and Tommey Dorsey to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Joe Morello worked his sticks on over 120 albums before his recent passing on March 12, 2011. With sadness and lingering awe, we mourn Morello’s passing, remembering that like great drum solos, life doesn’t go on forever. But thankfully, his offbeat rhythm and ever-changing time signatures will.
Of course, the work of Morello, Rich, and other famous jazz drummers hasn’t been lost with the big band stages. Their style, power, and steel drum sass has been hugely influential on modern music. So every time you hear one of those otherwise-meritless-but-has-a-great-beat songs, you can thank Bellson and Krupa for giving us that merit. You can feel a sense of gratitude that for decades these men of jazz worked to bring prominence to the beats that move us. You can feel primeval thrills with the rush of kicks and rush of brushes, the rush of blood to your carotid artery. Pulses in your feet and neck.
So even if sunglasses reach a point when they’re no longer well chosen, and if no one’s willing to wear out leather jackets, we’ll always have drummers – to keep us cool, keep our time, and keep us connected to the hearts of man.
Goldstein, Avram. "Thrills in Response to Music and Other Stimuli." Physiological Psychology 8.1 (1980): 126-129.
Hargreaves, David. The Developmental Psychology of Music. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Martin, Henry and Keith Waters. Essential Jazz: The First 100 Years. New York: Schirmer Books, 2004.
Spagnardi, Ron and William F. Miller. The Great Jazz Drummers. Cedar Grove : Modern Drummer Publications, Inc., 1992.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.