Drummers with a Capital D

Nate Chinen confesses to his lifelong addiction to drums

Hello, my name is Nate, and I’m a recovering Drummer.

No, not drummer. Drummer, with a capital D. There’s a difference, well worth examining in this percussion-heavy issue. It all comes down to a philosophy, a worldview if you will, though that’s an awfully high-minded way to put it. What I’m talking about, really, is abject geekery, a condition inherently at odds with musicality. More than a few jazz citizens have been afflicted with this bug, some shaking it off only after irreparable harm. My own Drummer problem having peaked in high school, I tend to associate it with arrested adolescence—but there are Drummers in every age group, and all levels of accomplishment. Justin Bieber, the pint-size teen-pop star, seems to be one. So did some of the paunchier fans at a recent Steely Dan concert, though I can’t possibly be sure.

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Billy Martin

A testimonial may be in order. I grew up in a richly musical environment, in Honolulu, assailing my first drum kit at age 4. More disciplined study would come years later, initially from the resident drum guru at Harry’s Music Store, a crumbling temple of instrument retail and repair. Many a Saturday afternoon was spent loitering at the counter of the percussion department, absorbing each word of banter between the musicians who stopped in to trade gig stories and the occasional nugget of technical advice.

And it was at Harry’s that I saw at least a dozen clinics sponsored by the likes of Pearl Drums or the Sabian cymbal company: earnest, nuts-and-bolts demonstrations by Alex
Acuña, Ricky Lawson, Gregg Bissonette and the guy from Bad English. (That would be Deen Castronovo, though I had to look him up.) One especially sanguine clinic involved Dom Famularo, a kind of double-bass-pedal-pushing motivational speaker, who, as Wikipedia now informs me, has often been hailed as “the Tony Robbins or Gandhi of the drum industry.” (I’m not quite sure how to reconcile those two.) With my limited funds, I supplemented this drive-by pedagogy with the occasional book or video, on VHS at the time. Dave Weckl had an especially good racket going, and I studied him Talmudically. One of his videos depicted him in what looked like a portrait-photo studio, wearing a black muscle T, his mullet teased into pillowy shape. He looked like he had just come from working on a vintage Camaro in his driveway, and this was somehow comforting.

Because, see, Drumming is a tinkerer’s art, an emphatically manual preoccupation. Guitarists have their stompboxes, cables and tube amps, which can be the cause of a different sort of mental disorder. With drums and cymbals, there’s a physical connection between musician and instrument, a connection as direct as it comes. “Drums have always played the sound of man’s primal heartbeats,” goes the opening phrase in a promo clip for Complicated Drumming Technique (Drag City), an instructional DVD by Jens Hannemann. That Hannemann is a gag, a character in the repertoire of Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live, hardly undermines the point. Armisen, at least in this case, mocks because he loves: He’s an ersatz Drummer himself.

There is a way in which Drummerism can be a gateway to genuine musical discovery. In my case, the fusillade glories of Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson quickly led to Max Roach and Jo Jones, and later Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. It was Drumming, in other words, that first led me to the wellspring of jazz, though only up to a point. Hearing through that prism was extraordinary preparation for my life as a serious jazz listener, but it left me ill-equipped to appreciate someone like Paul Motian, who has been responsible for some of the most rewarding musical experiences of my adult life. An odd duck as a drummer, Motian is an infinitely compelling musician, as I grew to understand once I borrowed a page from the first book of Corinthians, putting childish things away.

That probably sounds more condescending than it should, and perhaps others have found a better way to survive their geekery with grace. Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find a review of two new instructional DVDs, by Billy Martin and Stanton Moore; watching Martin’s Life on Drums (Vongole) recently, I was struck by the organic overtone of his message, his injunction to find one’s own voice. In a similar vein, Ari Hoenig has just released the second volume of Intro to Polyrhythms: Contracting and Expanding Time Within Form (Mel Bay), a book and video made with his frequent rhythm partner, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller. “Harmony and form play a big role in it,” Hoenig wrote in an e-mail, explaining how these lessons were designed for all musicians. (And I can think of some other fine jazz drummers who might harbor natural affinities with Drummers—Jeff Ballard, Antonio Sanchez and Matt Wilson among them.)

Once, when I was living in Philadelphia in the mid-’90s, I caught a clinic by Jack DeJohnette. He started out at the piano, chiming a sequence of chords like ripples across a reflective pool. Gradually he sidled over to the drums, and for the next solid hour he improvised a solo concerto, expressive in its texture, compositional in its sense of form. The performance was hypnotic and almost voluptuously musical; the deeper it drew me in, the more I grasped how even his cymbals, with their hum of overtones, were agents of harmony. I’ve noted this moment here before, and I’m happy to note it here again. There were a lot of Drummers in the house that afternoon, but I feel certain that DeJohnette was the only capital D on anybody’s mind.

Originally published in November 2010

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