Will Mount


Text settings

The saxophone, the bass, the piano … but what about the drums? In this playlist, I try to trace the role of drums in the history of jazz. From the 'oompah oomph' of the bass drum, to 'pea soup pea-soup' of the hi-hat, hopefully this selection covers the lot:

‘Heebie Jeebies’ – Louis Armstrong's Hot Five

It's 1926, and clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow rushes up to his friends on a street corner in Harlem holding a record of Louis Armstrong singing ‘Heebie Jeebies’, the first recording of him doing his scat singing. Legend has it that Satchmo's lyric sheet fell on the floor and so he started to substitute sounds for the missing words. Word of this new sound spreads rapidly and soon everyone is doing it. There are no drums on this record: the rhythm comes from the strumming of the banjo player. 

‘Summertime’ – Sidney Bechet

By 1938, the drums were a staple of most jazz recordings. The drummer was normally put at the back of the room, as far away from the microphone as possible, with the featured soloists near the front. As a result, you couldn't really hear much detail, and the parts they played tended to support rather than contrast with the other instruments in the rhythm section (the double bass, piano and guitar). According to the Mezzrow, in his highly recommended, romanticised jazz memoir, Really The Blues, Sidney Bechet played every note with his whole being and used to visibly vibrate as he did so. Even the restrictions of early recordings cannot hide the tremendous energy that emanated from his clarinet, and the aura created by his shimmering vibrato. Sid Catlett is the drummer on this one.

‘Moose The Mooche’ – Charlie Parker

1944, a new wind is blowing through America. During World War Two, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike – there is a recording ban and the early efforts of a new brand of harmonically outrageous jazz players go largely unnoticed outside New York. But they burst out, fully fledged, in 1946 when the ban is lifted, and change popular music forever. The new music dispenses with the tyranny of the hummable melody and rejects goofy sentimentality. Players start to ignore traditional cadences and structure and delight those in the know with the liberties they take with old tunes as they turn them inside out. Music now has to be cool. The drum kit will now have its own microphone. Max Roach is banging away on this one.

‘Lil' Darlin’ – Count Basie Orchestra

The big orchestra didn't die out straightaway, and Count Basie was the one who saw off all the others because he stayed cool, his famous rhythm section rocked and his horns blew everyone else away for style, taste and impact. This 1957 offering is written by Neal Hefti, the man who wrote the Batman TV series theme tune (‘dun-ner, nun-ner, nun-ner, nun-ner, BAT-MAAAN!’) and was recorded with multiple mics on a posh soundstage in Capitol Studios. This is one of the best examples of recorded jazz ambience – listen to the little pumps of reverb after each short note in the horns. Sonny Payne on traps (use this word for drums if you are hosting a late night jazz radio show).

‘Jordu’ – The Poll Winners

This is as about as good as it gets for an intimate, natural-sounding jazz recording. Barney Kessel (guitar), Ray Brown (bass) and the inventive Shelly Manne on drums. Roy Du Nann, who was the engineer, recorded this in the record company's storeroom using expensive German and Austrian condenser microphones, eschewing some of the cruder American dynamic microphones that were more often used at this level. He also didn't bother with a conventional mixing desk with microphone preamplifiers, feeling the signal level coming straight out of the mics was strong enough. If you want to hear just the bass and drums cut the left hand channel – this is the brutal stereo sound of 1957. The whole LP is superb.

‘In A Sentimental Mood’ – Duke Ellington and John Coltrane

Not the original 1935 recording by Duke Ellington's Orchestra but a brave 1963 collaboration between the old master and the new young prince, both of whom had everything to lose. Ellington had found it financially impossible to keep his orchestra out on the road and was looking for ways to get out and be seen again. Coltrane was the greatest of the men who had rejected the ethos of the crowd-pleasing big bands and had found freedom in the aggressively freewheeling quartets and quintets of the ‘50s and ‘60s. A beautiful and much referenced and replayed piece of music. You can hear every impressionistic cymbal hit and expressive snare drum roll by Elvin Jones, because he has several mics on or close to his kit.

‘Chameleon’ – Herbie Hancock

Often thought of as a funk classic, this is all about the synthesizer bass, the wah wah-ed clavinet (basically an electric clavichord) and the fat beats of Harvey Mason on drums. Close-microphoned and up front in the mix, Harvey doesn't play the snare on the second beat of the bar, as in rock, but on the quaver before. James Brown's drummers did something similar with the snare, which they often displaced from the fourth beat in the bar (thereby inventing drum‘n’bass). The drums are also compressed, subduing the louder peaks and bringing up the quieter ghosted snare drum parts, something that comes out particularly clearly in the jazzier middle section of this 16-minute odyssey from 1973.

‘Funky President (People It's Bad)’ – James Brown

Perhaps influenced by Herbie Hancock, above, this is in many ways an untypical James Brown record, recorded with a band made largely of session musicians including James Madison on drums. Historians will know that James Madison was also the name of the fourth President of The US, and one of the founding fathers. Funk historians will be amused by that James Madison's Vice President from 1809-1812 was called George Clinton.A withering look at the pretensions of Nixon and Gerald Ford as statesmen from an era when ‘funky’ still retained some of its original meaning of  ‘stinky’, ‘Funky President’ is a cheeky, chirpy record and is propelled by a bouncy, drily recorded beat. The drums on Brown's records were normally quite crisp and echo-y. But this is chubby and intimate.

‘Birdland’ – Weather Report

Everything changed in 1977 with the release of Weather Report's Heavy Weather, the best jazz-fusion album ever made – best recording, best use of synthesizers, best tunes, best compositions, best bass playing, best sound. Alex Acuna is the drummer and he does a great job, playing a straight beat under a swung tune. The band subsequently swung the drums when they played it live, essentially ruining it. It's supposed to be a tribute to a classic era and place in jazz, New York in the ‘50s, but with modern synthesizers replacing the horn section and what would now be called a world music sensibility informing the rhythm section. It also has the incomparable Jaco Pastorius on bass guitar: he hyped up the reverberating ambience on this record and made it sound alive. It's amazing to think that this is pretty much the sound of only five musicians playing together.

‘You Gotta Try’ – Buddy Rich Big Band

A terrible (for 1977) recording of Buddy Rich's ‘Indian Summer’, when his big band played relentless arrangements and Buddy played with explosive power and class. This is from the informal collection of recordings made by the band's alto player. If you can find the version of this tune on RCA's 1977 Buddy Rich Plays And Plays, so much the better. Even in this version, this track is breathtaking, over the top and swinging, from the rambling piano noodle intro to the classic Basie-style finale with classic call and response between the soloists and the sections making up the meat of the tune. 

‘Airegin’ – Maynard Ferguson

If you liked the Buddy Rich tune, you'll love this, which is also from 1977, with Peter Erskine on drums. Recorded with a mic on every drum in a booth in the room with the rest of the band, this is how jazz drums would be recorded from now on. The arrangement of this Horace Silver tune is spectacular (always a good thing and against the studiously downbeat orthodoxy of most post-Swing era jazz), the playing is as good as it gets and the sound is minty fresh.

You can listen to the playlist here.