The Genius of Billy Gladstone

A new book about the legendary drummer and inventor

Books on jazz don’t get a lot of attention these days outside of some selected coverage in the jazz and drum press. But periodicals have only so much space, and with booksellers like Borders and Barnes and Noble in trouble, jazz books are rapidly losing the visibility—however limited it’s been—that they once had.

These days, potential readers have to know specifically what they’re looking for before ordering from a site like Amazon.com.

There is, however, something very close to a “jazz book store” on line, in the form of the fabulous EJazzLines.com. If it has to do with jazz, EJazzLines has it, and that includes CDs, DVDs, big band charts, instructional materials and a department devoted solely to rare imports on CD. If there is anything like a “jazz superstore” in this world, EJazzLines.com is it.

I recently visited the books section of their site and was pleased to find a new book by colleague and author Chet Falzerano. Known for his previous book on the history of the Gretsch Drum Company (his knowledge of Gretsch is encyclopedic), his newest work is devoted to the legendary drummer and inventor, Billy Gladstone (1893-1961). I can’t wait to get it.

No, Gladstone wasn’t a jazz drummer, rather, a show drummer best known for holding down the snare drum chair at Radio City Music Hall from 1932 to the latter 1940s.
Buddy Rich always praised Gladstone’s work, specifically his long roll. “My roll is probably the best roll in the world outside of one other drummer, and I’m not modest,” Buddy once said. “The greatest drummer that I have heard in my life as far as rudiments and the roll are concerned is Billy Gladstone.”
Of Gladstone, the Percussive Arts Society’s Frederick D. Fairchild said, “Few players in history had the talent, ability and drive to perfect their art and the tools of the trade to the degree that Billy Gladstone was able to achieve.”
Technically, Gladstone was an early proponent of finger control, i.e., use of the fingers to control the bounce of the sticks, and influenced a number of players in this regard, including Joe Morello and Shelly Manne.

What made Gladstone a true legend in the drum world was his work as an inventor, designer and manufacturer of drums, a “second career” he began after leaving Radio City.

Indeed, his snare drums—and the few, full sets he manufactured—are the most highly valued drum collectibles on the earth. Gene Krupa loved the Gladstone snare drum and used it on several recordings.

He began his association with the Gretsch company in 1937 as a Gretsch endorser. The same year, the Gretsch/Gladstone snare was introduced, which had some pretty fancy features, including the ability to tune both top and bottom heads at the same time, a lightning fast strainer, and something called “fingertip tone regulators.” After World War II, Gretsch gave up on the snare, and by 1949, after leaving Radio City, Gladstone set up shop in his New York city apartment and started building custom snares. The shells? Gretsch, of course. He never gave up playing, and he had a continued presence in Broadway pit bands. Indeed, he was the orchestra percussionist for “My Fair Lady.”

Chet Falzerano is a superior writer and a singular historian who has an unparalleled passion for subjects like this. I have no doubt that “Billy Gladstone: Drummer and Inventor” will be a library essential.

This 80-page work is available at EJazzLines.com—and other outlets as well—for a discounted price of $17.96

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Bruce Klauber