Author: Jonathan Curtis
Date Published: 02.03.2022
Jazz drumming inhabits a peculiar place within drum kit pedagogy. It is often held as the pinnacle of coordinated control and expressive time keeping, yet is also somewhat stigmatised, and locked away behind doors that reek too much of elitism.
In my formative drumming years, I often heard stories of jazz drummers and educators who espouse an elitist view point: if you don't live in New York and play in jazz clubs for ten years, you are not a real jazz drummer. This may sound extreme, but this was exactly one such viewpoint that was thrust upon me be some so-called 'established' players.
For all of my thoughts and opinions about drumming, and the arts in general, one aspect I cannot tolerate is elitism. Music and the arts in general, and jazz drumming in particular, do not belong to anybody, and are not and should not be the reserve of any kind of elites. A ten-year old grade 1 drummer playing a swing pattern along to a simple bassline has just as much right to call themselves a jazz drummer as Jack DeJohnette. There are, of course, differences of scale, of careers, or achievement and ability, but the artform itself, the simple act of trying to play jazz is playing jazz.
I should make it clear at this point that I in no way wish to diminish the history of jazz. Jazz history is at times tragic, fascinating, triumphant, and many other things, and it is not to be dismissed. That said, the artform as it exists today is one that encourages exploration, collaboration, and expression. These three things cannot coexist alongside an attitude of exclusion. I grew up just outside Nottingham, England. The jazz scene here is small but passionate. By sheer instance of where I was born, am I to be forever denied the chance to play real jazz, simply because I have no geographical access to the areas where it now thrives? What of a student who adores Tony Williams but happened to be born in Algeria, or Iran, or South Africa?
Thankfully, most of my own experiences with playing jazz professionally have been happy ones, but cliques exist, and attitudes of exclusion, sadly, perpetuate within this scene as much as anywhere else.
I wonder if the attitude is somewhat founded in the inherent difficulty of jazz. It is hardly contentious to state that playing jazz to a high level is challenging on any instrument. Not only does the player have to have a strong grasp of technique and theory, but the confidence and knowledge of improvisation; the old adage of knowing the rules well enough to break them. Why, a young student asks me, is jazz improvisation not random?
The inherent difficulty perhaps breeds an attitude of entitlement: I earned the right to play jazz because I developed the ability to do so. Though there is some perverse logic in this, pride has not place in art, and this should be resisted. Indeed, the very best jazz experiences I have had have come from playing with other musicians who, while being exceptionally talented, are humble, gracious, and simple nice.
When I was writing Broken Time Drumming, I was fortunate enough to consult with John Riley, jazz drummer and author of the seminal Art of Bob Drumming and Beyond Bop Drumming books.
John was welcoming and enthusiastic in his consultation, yet something he said has stayed with me.
Broken Time Drumming is analytic in nature. It explores concepts and themes which are
really quite deep and complex. I am myself quite analytical in nature, and the act of studying the material and developing my own concepts was not only incredibly rewarding and interesting, but helped me to understand it better for my own playing.
John was not so keen on this approach, and repeatedly told me that he didn't believe many of the great jazz drummers conceptualised their playing in this way. My response was to say of course they didn't. This is how I am conceptualising it, which is the very purpose of the book. It would surprise me very much if Jack DeJohnette were to read my book and state that the way I explain the concepts were the same as how he would explain them. I am not Jack DeJohnette, and he is not me.
The issue here is that jazz has become something of an enigma, steeped in mysticism. Improvisation is sometimes described as being almost spiritual in nature (Jack DeJohnette himself often describes his own approach in spiritual terms), and the same is true of jazz harmony (which is itself extremely complex). We want to say that the true expressiveness of jazz should come naturally, and that we cannot prescribe ways to do it, we just have to feel it. In reality, this approach is useless in terms of its educational value, and harks back to the problem of elitism. In essence, this is saying that you can't learn jazz, you either feel it or you don't. To this, I say nonsense. My book, for instance, tackles a very expressive and improvisational topic in a very analytical way because this is how I learn. That does not then mean that my playing and performance is not expressive, but that I have equipped myself with the relevant tools to better learn and understand.
Ultimately, a student should never hear just feel it from a teacher. That teacher would not be doing their job. Things are easy to feel when you have been doing it for a decade. When you are just starting out, it's as useless as an eagle telling a penguin to just flap their wings.