On Drumming and Boxing
“ Any accomplished drummer knows the value of solitary practice but it's also important to spar! ”
Drumming and boxing are traditions that on the surface may seem unrelated but with further inspection share qualities both primal and sublime. Each can be traced to the beginnings of civilization, boxing being one of the first Olympic games and the drum being the first musical instrument fashioned by human hands. Comparisons can be traced to as early as 1820 with this quote from Pierce Egan's classic "Boxiana": "Drummers and boxers to acquire excellence must begin young. There is a peculiar nimbleness of wrist and exercise of the shoulder required, that is only obtained from growth and practice." Both traditions are generally regarded as primitive except by practitioners and aficionados. Surely we've all heard the joke "four musicians and a drummer" and likewise boxers have been looked upon as the barbarians of the sporting world. With the business of boxing being on a similar level of corruption as the music biz, some of our most noble athletes have lived in the shadow of more popular sports figures. It's hard to believe that boxing was once rivaled only by baseball as America's most popular sport. Just prior to World War II Joe Louis's bout with Germany's Max Schmeling defined the feelings of the nation. Today the media would rather report on the antics of Mike Tyson than the accomplishments of Roy Jones, Jr. Likewise the offstage exploits of Keith Moon or Tommy Lee are better known among the public than the artistic achievements of Elvin Jones or Tony Williams.
I've always been a fight fan. Growing up outside Washington, D.C. Sugar Ray Leonard was one of my heroes. A few years ago my interest turned into an obsession. I began collecting fight films and studying boxer's styles. Here are some things I learned about the art of drumming by watching these master athletes at work.
The mechanics of drumming are similar to the boxers form. Playing the ride cymbal or riding the hi-hat is akin to a boxer's footwork. They set up the flow and feel for both the drummer and boxer and are significant to the style of both. When I watch the footwork of Sugar Ray Robinson I can't help but think of Philly Joe Jones. Ray was probably the slickest boxer ever to enter a ring and Philly Joe defined "hip" not just for drummers but for all Jazz musicians. Ray's dazzling footwork and smooth combinations are much like the way Philly Joe combined rudiments into seamless musical statements. Philly's impeccable ride was as effortless as Ray's footwork, making everything on the bandstand poetry in motion. This concept can be seen among the heavyweights as the determined, ominous stride of Joe Louis is like the greasy, medium swing of Elvin Jones. Both Joe and Elvin are superhuman forces in their fields with Louis's punching power much like Elvin's "bashing" at peak level.
When a drummer plays accents or drops bombs I view this like a boxer's jab. The jab is the boxer's staple and must be timed perfectly to be effective. A drummer's accents also must be timed correctly and placed in just the right spot. Also the boxer doesn't want to be too predictable with his jab. If he bobs his head or drops his shoulders before he jabs, his opponent will pick up this signal and be able to retaliate with a well-timed counter punch. Consequently if a drummer drops bombs or resolves fills in the same place the music will become dry and predictable. In other words don't always jab on "one".
Combinations lead off the boxer's jab as a drummer's fills lead off his ride. Boxing combinations should be a fluid motion not merely a series of disconnected punches. In drumming fills should be organic, integrated with the groove not a static event. Jack DeJohnette is a master of this concept. Jack doesn't play "fills" but a constant wave of rhythmic ideas. To me Joe Frazier is the Jack DeJohnette of the ring. In perpetual motion, Smokin' Joe's combinations flow seamlessly out of constant upper body movement.
Pacing is another important factor in both drumming and boxing. If a fighter comes out with all he's got in the first couple of rounds and doesn't land a lucky haymaker he'll most likely run out of steam if he has to go the distance. Likewise, if a drummer plays everything he knows in the first tune not only will this be unmusical but also he will have nothing left to say and will most likely be spent by the end of the set. In boxing, featherweight Willie Pep took pacing to an unprecedented level winning a round throwing no punches. Years before Ali began boasting (1946) he even predicted in which round he would do it (the 3rd). His longevity is a testament in pacing a career. Pep fought 242 bouts over a twenty-six year period winning 230 times with one draw!
Another aspect of the boxer's style is "inside" and "outside" fighting. The inside fighter prefers being close to his opponent working the body and seeking out uppercuts. I find this much like Tony Williams style; playing on top of the beat, always pushing the music with unexpected flurries and tempo changes. The outside fighter boxes more behind the beat; using his reach, pacing himself and seeking the right punch at the right time, as would a groove master like Bernard Purdie. Two great fighters with these respective styles are Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Seek out any of their three fights together and watch these rivals push each other to their maximum abilities.
Boxing is one of the few sports that is played one on one. The boxer must be determined, focused and in top condition. In the fight game a boxers determination and guts are regarded as "heart". It is essential for a sport hinged on the individual. In music, the gig similarly revolves around the drummer. No matter who is the leader on a date the man behind the drums ultimately leads the band. He determines the tempo, feel and direction of the music. If the drummer isn't focused it can lead to a lackluster performance. If he's at the top of his game it can lead to moments of greatness. Check out Billy Higgins on any of his later recordings. Though gravely ill, he still played with the perpetual bounce and inventiveness that defined Smilin' Billy. In the boxing world an aging Alexis Arguello twice fought Aaron Pryor in his prime. Though losing both fights, Arguello showed great heart and in defeat I see still him as the winner. In short, when making the gig show up with heart.
Training in boxing requires not only sparring but also many solitary hours running and working the bags. Any accomplished drummer knows the value of solitary practice but it's also important to spar! Get out to jam sessions; going toe to toe with other musicians is not only inspirational but also essential. It can also be an eye opener sending you back to the woodshed. The boxer's woodshed (the gym) is in itself a world of rhythm. The sounds of a boxing club in full swing are intoxicating. The heavy bag's bass sound and rat-a-tat snare of the speed bag heard together create a meditative polyrhythm. Sonny Liston new well the rhythms of the gym and used to skip rope to a recording of James Brown's "Night Train". In the hands of an experienced puncher the speed bag plays a stream of up-tempo triplets, the perfect workout for any drummer!
So next time you swing the band think of Sugar Ray Robinson. As you drop a bomb remember Joe Louis. When you play a flurry around the toms visualize Joe Frazier. Think of Ali as you lock into a deep pocket. Try to catch a current fight on HBO or Classic Boxing on ESPN. Vintage fight films are shown weekly and you can see the masters at work. Better yet get some hands on experience at the gym or for a small investment set one up at home. You'll notice a change in your reflexes, focus and concepts on drumming.