Jazz Drummers Are Not Any Better: My Take On Musical Snobbery
Well it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing is the famous title of the song released by Duke Ellington in 1931 as well as the point of view of various Jazz musicians when it comes to the thing that makes something musical. I respectfully disagree with their subjective point of view because there are so many different types of feel in different types of music with no particular feel being superior to another. We all simply gravitate towards a genre of music or even a song that simply moves us. Personally I love Rock, Pop, Country, World Music, Progressive Music, Movie Soundtracks, Classical, Fusion, some Jazz and will even admit as a drummer of all people that I like some Electronic music.All of these genres come in handy because I am one to experience a vast array of moods and feelings throughout my week.
Honestly, traditional or straight ahead Jazz is a genre that I never really cared for. The first reason is because my father loved Latin Jazz so while some people want that swing in their music I want some Clave. I grew up listening to the music of Tito Puente and Rene Touzet and we all know that Puente had arrangements of Jazz standards that I frankly found to be a lot more interesting than the original recordings. This is the kind of instrumental music I grew up listening to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KB4iVzf10lY and aside from the amazing musical performances on the recording the sound quality is also pretty amazing. So, while some people like those distant sounding classic jazz recordings I wanted the clarity that one needs when you're recording multiple percussionists with a big Latin band. And, while some people like some of those out of tune performances Puente's arrangements were so good that they demanded perfect performances from each musician (hence the nickname he earned among recording engineers and producers, One Take Tito). Finally, if someone wants to question the absence of that swing I would dare anyone tell me that Puente's arrangements lack any type of rhythmic soul.
Aside from that I grew tired of those elitist snobs who were grouchier than a cranky grandfather annoyed by the neighborhood kids, which is why I stopped playing in Jazz combos. That and I prefer to have regular work and better paying gigs where I can also lay into my drums. I can't speak for other cities but my home town music scene of Tucson, AZ is as dry as bone both geographically and when it comes to the Jazz scene.
Okay, that was my rant and to be honest my reactions were based both on my musical preference as well as too many negative experiences with Jazz musicians. During my music studies at El Camino Community College I was inexperienced with traditional Jazz so I rarely spoke out against those snobs that unloaded on me about what was lacking in my playing. I knew that I was the weak link at times and had to do what I could to keep up because in most cases my grade depended on it. Sadly, this was a school and if there was a place to learn and make mistakes it was there. Still, teachers and students didn't seem to care too much about that but thankfully I was able to get through it and learn all that I had to learn to succeed as a student and to prepare for work with many Jazz groups for many years to come.
I agree with songwriter Adam Mitchell when he says that all artistic awards are ridiculous because there is no objective criteria (see 1:15:32) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqTWqhqe0o4 I think this also applies to judging genres of music because one cannot predict whose work will have an impact on the world as a whole. Aside from not being a fan of a lot of Jazz I will go as far as saying that I despise Hip Hop. Personally, I see NO musical merit in songs with pre-recorded tracks to the same old programmed beats with some fool talking trash over it. And, in Kanye West's case, the rapper is out of time with engineers who have obviously never heard of Pro Tools.
I do respect the fact that there are music fans out there that have been moved by what they have heard in genres that I don't care for and would NEVER try to take that away from them. I really believe this because I must recognize that I am not the only set of subjective ears that is taking in the music. It's like eating food. I hate tomatoes but that's not the case for others. However, while I respect one's preferred choice of music I will give them the same room that I ask for when it comes to sharing one's dislike or disdain for something be it the music itself or the attitudes and actions of those who create it.
What is the Criteria?
Do you ever notice that people judge the validity of a musical form or a performer based on their preferred style? Take these comments by Ginger Baker when he compared his own playing to John Bonham or Keith Moon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nTcXzXSCr4 Of course the Jazz drummer wants swing to be the main criteria for judging a drummer's playing but that's just subjective nonsense because there's more to drumming than swing. One would figure that Baker knows this since he also has a deep love for World drumming. Honestly, I think what irritates him the most is that his candid criticism of Bonham and Moon will do nothing to change the minds of those who love their playing, especially if they were the ones that inspired them to become a drummer. I am not a fan of either of these drummers' bands but I recognize the impact they have had on the music industry and know that they were great drummers since I have learned some of their parts for cover band gigs over the years. Further, if Baker wants to prioritize swing as the criteria for being a great drummer I would suggest he listen to any 12/8 groove played by Nicko McBrain on any Iron Maiden song because those grooves swing baby! However, I would guess that Baker would still dislike it because it's Heavy Metal and not Jazz!
Now let's look at what I would call focusing too much on one style and show how it actually impairs one's ability to do the gig the right way. As a working drummer there are certainly times when I focus on one style of music because that's the one paying the bills at that time. Then I get another gig and while it's a style I have done before it's also something I may not have done in a while so it requires some practice on my part.
The first example of this point will be the classic trio performance from Act One of the first Buddy Rich Memorial Scholarship Concert, which featured Gregg Bissonette, Louis Bellson and Dennis Chambers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOfFzMHH5L8 No one doubts the beautiful swing feel in Bellson's playing that started the trio off or the funky shuffle groove that Bissonette started at 4:02 but, are we only supposed to look at swing and shuffle beats as the highlight of this trio's performance and if so, why? If that works for you then fine but for me I look for much more than that. When drummers get together I think it's also about the energy they bring so if that's the case, Mr. Chambers was in fact, the man, when it came to who really brought it during this trio's performance. Once he joined Bissonette with the shuffle groove he more or less took over as Bissonette all but disappeared. We never really heard Bellson since the funk master's power had already dominated the stage before Bellson jumped in. Further, if you watch Bellson's body movement during this groove you can also see that this was not the type of groove he was used to playing. Now, for all of the swing advocates out there; are you going to tell me that Chambers' beat didn't have any feel?
Fact: swing is not the be all, end all of what makes something musical. Sometimes it is about attitude and power and if you're going to take such a gig you need to be able to bring it night after night. That attitude is displayed in lots of great musical genres such as R & B, Funk, World Drumming and dare I say it, Rock! Drums have a primal aspect to them and that existed for centuries before Jazz and swing were even a thought.
Take for example this clip from a Journey concert in Phoenix, AZ in 2016. I was at this show and can tell you that the classic song "Stone in Love" was not one of the highlights from that night. A musician friend of mine who was also at the show noticed what I am about to share right now: Steve Smith, the Jazz drumming legend who had returned to his old Rock gig appeared to be struggling on a song that he originally recorded and performed on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAHEG5IAGmc We all know that Father Time is undefeated so this performance really made me miss Smith's younger days https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_zfDAOCT84 or the way Deen Castronovo plays the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzmkZTFXOnU because after all, this is Rock and Roll and Castronovo definitely brings the power and attitude. Be it age or the fact that Smith spent so many years after leaving Journey more or less focusing on Jazz, the drive in the groove just wasn't there. This certainly dismisses the myth that has been stated for years by many Jazz drummers that anyone can play Rock music. I disagree.
Noise Verses Expression
Many Jazz drummers cite Max Roach as a drummer with great feel who played tasteful solos. This would make sense since he was also a composer, which meant that he understood more than just rhythm when it came to creating music. He is also known as a master of the hi-hat and like Papa Jo Jones was able to take the stage on his own with just a pair of sticks and a hi-hat and perform a solo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHbqzX1zokk
Now this performance was certainly flashy and appealing to the eye, which is important at times because he is in fact performing with us knowing that dazzling the audience is part of a performer's job. But, how is this musical? Where is this amazing feel that people talk about when he is simply running up and down the hi-hat stand with single stroke rolls? I was actually somewhat disappointed that he didn't roll around on the floor or beat on the stage because this performance looked like something some drunken college student would do at a frat party. Meanwhile, how many Jazz drummers would look a drum solo like this one from the late great Eric Carr and say it's just noise?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8x-76uU7kVA The fact is, there is nothing that Roach did that was superior to what Carr played other than the fact that Roach might have had nicer clothes than the Rocker stage outfit worn by Carr. But, at the end of the day I see both of them playing a lot of single stroke rolls.
In my opinion, Steve Smith's performance with a hi-hat in this video is smoother and more creative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsrwwmJ6Mts but again, it's just flash and dazzle. It's fun to watch and would surely get a nice reaction out of the crowd but I still don't see any musical value in this solo feature. Heck, he even starts twirling his sticks at the end, which is very interesting to me because if he had long hair, wore spandex pants and had 10,000 people in front of him we know that Jazz snobbery would insist that such a thing has nothing to do with real drumming.
Perhaps someone might say, "Well, they're just playing a hi-hat so cut them some slack." Okay, then let's take a look at one of Max Roach's solos and for this discussion I chose the one called "Third Eye." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhdBW_siCFg because he is actually playing a foot ostinato under what appears to be improvisation with his hands. I also chose this solo because of all of the You Tube comments praising Max's work. I will not take away the enjoyment anyone found in this solo but to me it's just a lot of noise. What does it mean to beat on the rim or the side of the shell? His phrasing around the drums is all over the place and as far as I'm concerned, he could use several lessons from El Maestro Tito Puente on what it means to have beautiful phrasing in one's soloing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTN39CIvR7A. All I see is that Roach came up with a somewhat interesting foot pattern and wanted to show off over this foot pattern. In my opinion, if you want to say something with your drums and do it over an ostinato then listen to this solo by drumming master Horacio Hernandez because he knows how to make the entire drum set sing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CimBeu4PWrM
Meanwhile, Bobby Rock's groove called "The Octopus" is criticized on this You Tube link for being a lot of noise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2upQV1Pnf0 when he is in fact doing something much more musical than Roach. Let's face it, the main problem for some is that Rock (I guess pun intended) is a Rock drummer with a massive drum set and long hair. It doesn't matter that his foot ostinato is more consistent and musical than Roach's. It doesn't matter that we see a consistent pattern with him using a lot of his equipment in a melodic groove. Finally, it doesn't matter that we can see how much practice went into creating this groove simply because it doesn't swing.
Now let's focus on grooving. This is where we hear the most comments about the great intangible element known as feel. To me there is a double meaning for the word feel when it comes to music. Feel is that magic one takes in when they hear Ndugu Chancler's performance on a song like "Billie Jean" or "P. Y. T (Pretty Young Thing)." It is also the intangible thing that most people turn to when they speak against the abilities of a drummer that they don't like because that person's skill is obviously beyond their skill or the skill of their favorite drummer (think Baker knocking on Bonham or those hard core Dream Theater fans who prefer Mike Portnoy's feel over Mike Mangini when it is more than obvious that Mangini is a much better drummer than Portnoy).
Many Jazz drummers will knock on Rock beats with a special disdain being reserved for death metal beats that many would describe as senseless noise. First off, we're talking about a musical style of total aggression so it's not going to swing or appeal to most people out there including those who like Classic Rock. But, can anyone really say that this clip of George Kollias is not flat out amazing?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mnxm1qh_1rw Does anyone know how long it takes to not only get this fast but to be able to do that consistently for say, a 90 minute gig?! Compare it to people who like certain sports over others. If you're a true fan of athletic performance you can certainly see the amazing athletic skill in an athlete of a sport you don't like. At that point it's not about one's favorite sport as much as it is about admitting the fact that an athlete is not only great at what they do but also put in a lifetime of work to get to that point.
Meanwhile, I'm supposed to look at this up tempo ride cymbal performance by Tony Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDu6w66F5dU and say, Wow! That's amazing and so musical! I'm not saying that it isn't but how is that musically superior to the devil metal (😝)beat played by Kollias? If anyone wants to argue that then I'll go back to the age old Jazz drummer claim that anyone can play that! Great, knock yourself out and show us. The fact is, any honest musician can be amazed at Kollias' performance the same way non-drummers could see the talent of the late Buddy Rich even if they didn't like the kind of music he played.
You're No Different
For those who have gotten this far because you haven't been turned off by my drumming blasphemies I thank you for respecting my opinions and for at least considering the fact that Jazz drummers are not the only great drummers out there. I apologize if I appear too hard on them but the point I am trying to make is that if you're willing to really open your eyes you will see that drummers in all genres are more alike than many of us choose to admit. It is simply snobbery that makes us think that one style is better than the other.
Personally, this drum solo by Mike Mangini: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oe8XKgOuNtk is the most incredible drum solo I have ever seen! To be honest, I had only read some of his interviews and heard a couple of songs that he performed on when I first came across this video and at that time saw him as pretentious and lacking in so many ways. Truth be known, I had yet to hear some of his best work and this solo really opened my eyes. First off, his groove (even without that swing) was spot on and his drums sounded amazing. Second, his display of polyrhythmic prowess was beyond impressive because the truth is, very few drummers on this planet can execute the rhythms that Mangini does with what I call convincing efficiency. Finally, his technique was down right frightening. Most drummers wow us with their hand speed but Mangini was doing things with his hands and feet that were just mind boggling, and I'm not just talking about his speed.
Mangini's also had great showmanship, which made the solo fun to watch. His cross over patterns that took us to the final shave and a haircut figure was again, convincingly efficient because it was simply perfect...and dazzling! More than that; let's be honest here; how many drummers who have ever lived could actually duplicate this solo? If so, I can't wait to see the Mangini tribute videos on You Tube.
Now, did anyone check the comments? It's all technique! He has no feel! Here we go again. Well let me tell you something, many of your other drumming heroes that you claim have a great feel pretty much do the same thing over and over with a lot of it really only being a display of technique and not feel. Further, another dirty secret is that this improvised form of music is really not as created on the spot as you think. Thanks to You Tube we now have the truth. Let's take a look at this Buddy Rich solo and ask ourselves some honest questions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9esWG6A6g-k
1) In this improvised form of music, how much of what we see in this clip is in fact the same thing we see in almost every other solo we find of Rich on You Tube? Come on, be honest? If you are willing to be honest then you will concede the point that a lot of what he did in this solo was the the same tricks he did for decades on end.
2) When he's flying around the drums, doesn't it look a lot like the cross over patterns at the end of Mangini's solo? Single strokes everywhere, right? But of course, his (or Roach's solo) has much more feel. Ahem...yes, turn to the intangible argument again when you can't look anyone in the eye and say yes, Mangini, the man playing a Rock gig without a shirt on is just as amazing as our Jazz deities.
3) How much of it sounds more like a snare drum display than a full on drum set solo? Mangini had a lot of foot ostinatos going and soloed over these repeated patterns, thus having a much more orchestral drum solo. Further, give Mangini his due in terms of his hand technique the same way you would acknowledge Rich's amazing snare technique. Some would say that Rich was old school and that today's drummers built on what drummers did in the past. True, but these same people would also say that Rich could play anything, which is something I don't doubt because he was that good. Too bad he never left any of that behind. And, dare I say it...Rich also had drummers who influenced him because the fact is, no one is an independent artist.
4) Did anyone catch the size of the crowd? If we compared that crowd size say to this crowd that Peter Criss played in front of at Dodger Stadium on Halloween night in 1998: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jBeKPeoSkk I can only wonder if that had any impact on Rich's and some other Jazz drummers' views on Rock drummers? Oh, and if you want to talk about feel, the Catman brought that to the thousands of people in attendance that night and I am proud to say that I was one of them. He also loved Jazz but was willing to play another style of music in order to make a decent living and retire in great comfort. Meanwhile, his Jazz background helped him execute those amazing tribal type grooves that he is known for that have influenced Rock drummers for over 40 years! Of course we never would have known that if he chose to just ding-ding-a-ding in half empty clubs instead of daring to do something different.
One last shot at the one that many call the greatest because to me, it's a response to something that is just flat out rude. In this particular clip Buddy Rich is criticizing not only matched group but those who play Rock music. He does this by mocking a common Rock fill that is a simple set of single stroke rolls around the drum set. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0V4Aqs2D48 Meanwhile, if you watch him jamming on his drums after making such ignorant remarks he is more or less doing the same thing. How is that any different than a Rock drummer other than the fact that Rich was faster than most drummers? Rhythmically it's pretty much the same thing, even when he messed up. Oh, and let's not forget that many Rock drummers do their thing in front of bigger crowds. I'm sure envy is not one of the reasons for such negative remarks towards Rock drummers.
I'm Not the Only One
The most famous critic of Jazz is the great Stewart Copeland. Of course we know that the Jazz aristocrats will dismiss him as a no talented Rock drummer but we all know that this is far from true. This man's drumming has influenced millions of drummers around the world because he has a rhythmic vocabulary that was formed by his love for rhythms from all over the world. He also used part of his fortune to travel the world in order to hear these rhythms first hand and learn from the masters themselves, which is something I know I would love to do. He is also a very successful film & television composer and has even performs regularly with Stanley Clarke so his talent is unquestioned.
Here is a Copeland quote posted on the Organissimo message board by Guy Berger on 2/15/2007 that is both tongue in cheek as well as direct:
It's a fun party trick, but I am allergic to jazz. I was raised to be a jazz musician, my father was a jazz musician and I was steeped in jazz from the moment my ears blinked open, which is why I am immune to jazz. And my main reason why I love dissing jazz is jazz musicians. (me too Stewart) The problem with jazz musicians is that they are all crap. It's sort of like jazz is the refuge of the talent-less. If you really want to be a musician and you are prepared to really work hard at it, but you don't have the gift and you don't have any soul and you don't have any talent, jazz is what you should do; because all you need to do is just spend hours training your fingers to wiggle very quickly and you'll be a hero in the jazz world. Not so in blues. In blues you need talent, you need X factor, you need heart, you need to have lived a life, you have to have something to say, you need to be an actual musician to play the blues. Jazz, any fool can do it; all you gotta do is practice.
Here is an interesting quote from Jimmy M posted on 6/2//2007 on the Talk Bass message board where he in fact depends Copeland's point of view on the issue:
Look at you babies cry! Jazz musicians...the nice ones without any prejudices against any other kinds of music are few and far between. The vast majority of jazz musicians are smug a$$holes who feel their path is the only right path and anyone who plays anything else is inferior to them. They take blues and pop gigs because they can't get decent paying gigs playing jazz, then they spend the whole night talking about how the gig is beneath them. They have so little respect for anyone who likes to play simpler forms of music, unless of course it's them doing it for twice as much as they could make on a jazz gig.
And now Stewart Copeland calls them out for it, and listen to them squeal like pigs! "Waaaaaaaahhh! Stewart Copeland made fun of me! He's a rock drummer and has no business making fun of me! Waaaaaaaaahhhh!" Stewart Copeland is right. Jazz has become all form and no function. It's all about showing off how scary talented you are, and hasn't had anything to do with conveying real human emotion in a long time. So take it like a man, you wussies!
Wow! I think it's safe to say that my criticisms weren't as bad as these two but if you set the wrong person off this is the kind of response you get. Maybe Copeland is over exaggerating himself in order to get a specific response but I can't say that it hasn't been well deserved based on the actions of some Jazz musicians over the past several years (apologies to those Jazz musicians who are kind and open minded). Like Copeland I too have Jazz musician friends but they are the honest ones that Jimmy M talks about as they too admit to the bad attitude that many of their colleagues have.
Of course bad attitudes exist in all circles of music. I love Rock music but don't play in Rock bands anymore because the business end of it is one of the worst I have ever experienced in my music career. Club owners, promoters and band mates are always looking for an angle to rip everyone off and I won't work with people who won't give people their fair share. This might lead someone to ask, then how can you listen to or support this kind of music?
That's when I turn to my intangible argument: because I like the feel of the music, baby!