Talking Drums

For the JT staff, theme issues can either be a lot of fun or a real chore. When it doesn’t work, it feels like we’re simply connecting a bunch of dots, albeit well-written and sharply designed ones, to form some preset picture. Plus, if we’re doing a theme devoted to a specific instrument, we feel a certain pressure to somehow make it comprehensive, as if it must include all the giants of the past as well as the innovators of the present. If, as with this month, we’re doing a drum issue, then it must include something on the likes of Papa Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes and Jack DeJohnette. But obviously that would take more pages than a single magazine can muster. Or so it seems.

It was only when I read the magazine cover to cover that I realized we didn’t need to connect the dots, because the dots connected themselves. We didn’t need to cover all of those legends and innovators—our featured artists simply did the name-checking for us. Beginning with a cover story on the chronically affable Matt Wilson, we hear not only about his own projects, but also about his affinity for Roach, DeJohnette and other iconic drummers, thanks to a series of toss-up questions posed by our Nate Chinen. Of course Wilson’s list of favorites includes Rich, whose lengthy rivalry with Gene Krupa is the subject of a fascinating piece by Dr. Bruce H. Klauber. Rich also had a rivalry of sorts with Roach, whom Andrew Cyrille recalls fondly in an Overdue Ovation by Bill Milkowski. Cyrille points to bop legend Clarke as his inspiration for taking his music to new places.

In the Before & After feature with Jimmy Cobb, we hear his informed take on the pantheon of great drummers, including Jo Jones, Blakey, Elvin Jones, Ed Thigpen, Haynes and Williams. When it comes to the innovators of the future, look no further than our Opening Chorus section, in which we profile Justin Faulkner, perhaps the most impressive young drumming prodigy since Tony Williams; Tyshawn Sorey, who talks about going back to college to study composition; and Dan Weiss, who connects his music to the masters of Indian percussion. Or, for more on drumming’s bright horizon, read Nate Chinen’s column about new explorations in rhythm. And you can’t talk about drumming without talking about Latin jazz, in all its permutations. Miguel Zenón isn’t a drummer, but his latest project draws on the drum rhythms of his native Puerto Rico, explained by his drummer Henry Cole in a fascinating sidebar story about the plena tradition. Be sure and read that and the Zenón feature, the first JT contributions by Fernando González.

There is something awfully communal about drummers who so intensely keep track of one another. This month it has served us and our special-issue gods quite well, so much so that I wish we could have run some sort of index in the back, the way books do. Apparently, when it comes to great drummers, it takes one to know one.

Originally published in November 2009

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