In recognition of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential African-American players who shaped the sound of jazz drumming: Baby Dodds, “Zutty” Singleton, Chick Webb, Papa Jo Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Sonny Payne, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. (others not pictured Big Sid Catlett, Kenny Clarke and Art Taylor)
Here are some videos (solos) featuring these amazing players:
The other day I was watching a video of Thomas Pridgen tearing it up on Drumeo when I began to think about how hard he hit the drums. Despite his punishing style Pridgen flowed seamlessly around the kit at the speed of sound as if it was nothing. This got me thinking. When we watch a drum video it’s so easy to forget that there is physical contact taking place between the stick and the drum. There is a strike and a rebound that takes place every time the drummer connects with the drumhead. There is, for lack of a better term, a “slam” that takes place. This puts a tremendous amount of stress on the drummer’s hands and wrist. If you think about it, continuous impact with the drums is an unnatural act. Hitting anything over-and-over has to lead to some kind of reaction. It’s Newton’s Third Law that says for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This reaction can be damaging. Sometimes it’s minimal. Sometimes it’s more. Sometimes it can cause traumatic injury. Repetitive trauma such as this can lead to painful repercussions. This is why warming up, using proper grip and technique is so important. It’s not just the big names who are hitting hard. We suffer from the same physical challenges that the “Thomas Pridgens” of the world do. Just not at a thousand miles an hour.
This past weekend the drumming world lost a giant when Ndugu Chancler passed away. Chancler was a Grammy-nominated artist who worked with some of the biggest names in the recording business to include Frank Sinatra, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Herbie Hancock and George Benson. I will remember Chancler’s brilliant drumming on the Michael Jackson hit “Billie Jean.” Not up to then, or since, has such a simple beat given a song such feeling. In straight 4/4 time Chancler drives the song in perfect synchronicity with the bass line. The rhythm section’s accompaniment is followed by a repetitive synth line with deep reverb added for effect. Jackson’s vocal rides perfectly atop all of the instruments. Throughout the song the drums become hypnotic: Bom-Bap- Bom-Bap-Bom-Bap-Bom-Bap…
The co-producer Quincy Jones is said to have told audio engineer Bruce Swedien to create a drum sound like no other one before. According to Swedien he constructed a drum platform and inserted a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood between the snare and the hi-hat. In an interview he proclaimed that “There aren’t many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums, and immediately tell what the piece of music is. That is the case with “Billie Jean”—and that I attribute to the song’s sonic personality.”
After Chancler recorded the song in the studio Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett took over and performed the song live as Michael Jackson’s steady touring drummer. Although he added a little flavor Moffett never strayed from the original version recorded on the album Thriller. With the untimely death of Michael Jackson the only version of the song that remains is the studio version. Following his own death, “Billy Jean” will remain as an example of Chancler’s work and a testament to the sonic contribution he made on this unforgettable song.