For the past several months, we've been discussing some of the principal instruments of jazz. Mostly, we've been discussing the glamorous instruments, the pretty-boy instruments that get all the press and attract the best groupies. Have you ever seen a vibraphone groupie? You may, among first-time jazz groupies, sure. But they usually move on to following the saxophone or the trumpet once they realize that the vibraphone doesn't exactly do what it says it will.
Which probably doesn't mean what you think it does.
This month, we're going to look at the rhythm section, the backbone of jazz that transforms a seeming morass of frenetic noodling into a seeming morass of frenetic noodling with a beat. It is the rhythm that is the primary animating force in jazz. It is the skeleton on which the flesh hangs. it is the roux that holds the gumbo together (to borrow a borrowed phrase). It is the crust of the pie, the rudder of the boat, the laces of the shoe. Do you understand the importance of the rhythm section now, or do I have to go through another five or six analogies?
I thought as much.
For our purposes, we're going to consider the rhythm section to be composed of the bass and drums. We're also going to consider the Atlanta Rhythm Section a one-hit wonder from the seventies (Remember So Into You? Neither does anyone else). And while we're at it, we might as well go ahead and consider the lilies of the field. Why, you ask? Because the Bible says to, and who are you to question?
I'll spare you my usual rigmarole about how the history of the drum goes back to the most primitive man who probably used a bone to beat on a stretched skin and blah blah blah. Who can say when the art of drumming began? I can, for one. For my money, it began at Carnegie Hall in 1938, when Gene Krupa snapped his nervous bandmates out of their stage fright with a cacophonous drum break and helped usher jazz into a new era of respectability. It also began a long, proud tradition of erratic behavior by drummers.
In the early days of jazz drumming (Monday and Tuesday), the drum was little more than a timekeeper. A solid boom-chick boom-chick was pretty much all that expected from the drummer, leaving him free to pursue other interests. What set the jazz drummer apart from any other type of drummer in those days was his penchant for syncopation, which is the emphasis of traditionally weaker beats (the second and fourth beats, in common time, as opposed to the stronger first and third beats in the mainstream of Western music). It was said by moralists of that era that syncopation was a cause of immorality in young women, which we know today to be complete balderdash. But syncopation combined with a few well-placed glasses of wine at least gives a guy an even-money chance. I recommend Buddy Rich and a nice Shiraz.
As jazz drumming evolved, the freedom of jazz allowed the drum to evolve into an instrument rather than just a glorified metronome (home of the Vikings and Twins). Drummers began exploring the true musical potential of their instruments, which led to several ill-advised experiments. In 1948, famed drummer Philly Joe Jones' cousin Wilkes-Barre Willie Jones (from you-guessed-it) recorded an interpretation of Flight of the Bumblebee for jazz percussion, which Downbeat hailed as "completely unintelligible." Willie would later be vindicated by history, when that recording served as the inspiration for the Surfaris' Wipeout.
What this means is.
By the Be-bop era, jazz drumming had become as technically demanding as trying to undo a four-hook bra strap while driving a stick-shift.* Drummers such as Max Roach, Kenny Clarke (whose nickname was "Klook Mop." Any gag of mine at this point would be coals to Newcastle) and Art Blakey helped to reinvent the role of the drum. And if you're expecting a "drum role" joke here, you're greatly underestimating me. It can be argued that these drummers helped percussion transcend traditional rhythm-keeping, adorning and suggesting the beat rather than simply marking time. It can also be argued that more bra-related humor may help not only to broaden the appeal of jazz, but indeed, to break down barriers and bring us together as one people. Never let it be said that I didn't use my influence to try to bring about a better world.
And then, with a straight face.
There is the bass. Unpretentious, non-intrusive, sometimes content to do nothing more than occupy the background and mark the chord changes with workmanlike efficiency, don't be fooled by the seemingly unsuspecting nature of the bass. Or, you can go right ahead and be fooled by it. You're an adult, you don't need me to make these decisions for you. Just don't come crying to me when you discover such brilliant, dynamic bassists as Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, and Victor Wooten.
I'll pause here for the collective gasp as I mention musicians who were still alive after I was born.