The Plight of the Drummer-Composer

Terri Lyne Carrington, Dave King and Jeff “Tain” Watts on the unique aspects of the drummer-composer

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Jeff "Tain" Watts (photo by John Rogers)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: What’s the last thing a drummer says to their band? “Hey guys, let’s try one of my songs!”

Jeff “Tain” Watts, who’s managed to stick around in a number of bands after introducing his own tunes into their books—including groups led by Branford Marsalis and Geri Allen—has a sense of humor about such clichés. “It’s one of those ancient arguments, like a black guy can’t be a quarterback or a woman can’t fly a plane,” he shrugs. “It’s kind of dumb at this point. Just for your own sanity, you have to act like it doesn’t even exist.”

Stereotypes about drummers lacking the wit to be composers may be persistent, but it’s easy to rattle off a long list of names that refute such condescending old saws. Watts immediately points to Jack DeJohnette, while Dave King, best known for his work in the Bad Plus, says, “John Hollenbeck is considered one of the heavier composers of today and he’s a drummer. Realizing that there’s so much music that’s been composed by drummers can be an asset to think more musically on the instrument and be able to stretch other instruments out rhythmically.”

Drummers come to composition in different ways and at different times. King, who started playing piano at the age of 4, had written countless pieces by the time he even picked up a pair of sticks, while Watts was already an established sideman before he ventured to pick up his first songwriting credit. In any case, the first obstacle to overcome is the perceived disadvantage of not playing a harmonic or melodic instrument.

As Watts points out, though, drummers are in a unique position to take in the structure of the music they’re propelling. “Drummers sit inside of the band and have a good viewpoint on how things develop,” he says. “You also have a certain amount of responsibility as far as helping people develop their ideas, and you know something about pacing.”

Terri Lyne Carrington (photo by Tracy Love)
Terri Lyne Carrington (photo by Tracy Love)

Even without a single piano lesson, adds Terri Lyne Carrington, drummers can begin to write melodies using the most universal instrument: their voice. “Sing the melody,” she says. “Don’t get intimidated by the inability to play an instrument to the point where it makes you not want to compose. Record yourself singing and just start stacking parts in whatever program you use and see what happens. If you hear a melody and you hear a bassline, that immediately lends itself to a harmony. In essence, you can write some pretty spectacular music without sitting down to figure out what the chords are.”

That’s a good start, but it can only take you so far. King insists that any drummer serious about becoming a composer should gain at least a rudimentary knowledge of the piano. “You don’t need to be able to blow bebop solos,” he says, “but you’ve got to get your head wrapped around a harmonic and melodic instrument like piano. Most jazz musicians, even horn players, compose at the piano.”

Carrington agrees. “I think it’s hard to take somebody seriously if they haven’t done that,” she says. “Doing everything by ear is OK up to a point, but people aren’t just writing 32-bar songs anymore. That kind of evolution takes some mind-expanding to compose and to listen to.”

Having to push past the so-called limitations of the drums can also be a blessing in disguise, Carrington continues. “I’m not a piano player by any stretch, so I’m forced to push myself. And when you push yourself, a kind of magic happens. Some people feel like they’re mailing it in when they’re playing; they’re too comfortable. People who are on a path of discovery every time they improvise are the players who are most interesting, and it’s the same thing with composers. When I hear something, my challenge is to get it out onto the piano. I don’t always arrive at what I’m hearing in my head, but I may arrive someplace else that’s equally interesting.”

Drummer-composers are at a particular advantage in the modern jazz world, where highly complex rhythmic ideas are central to so many composers’ work. “Today you’ve got to deal with different rhythmic grids that they weren’t dealing with in earlier ages of jazz,” King says. “Architectural mystery is more a part of today’s jazz than the ethereal, spiritual mysticism of the Coltrane era, and that’s not coming from a lyrical saxophone language—it’s coming from a drum language.”

Dave King (photo courtesy of the artist)
Dave King (photo courtesy of the artist)

Being a composer and being a drummer, then, are not two separate identities; according to King, thinking compositionally applies to a good drummer’s playing even when they’re not putting notes on paper. “The heaviest drummers are deep, deep musicians, and the people known more for drummerly things like Buddy Rich, nobody gives a shit,” he says. “The drums are as musical an instrument as anything else, so drummers should never feel like they need to work on muscle-car chops stuff and not think about music.”

That said, those stereotypes do persist, even among fans. “When people come to see my group,” Watts admits, “maybe 40 percent of them couldn’t care less if I write. They’re coming to get some drum thrills. I try to ignore it or make jokes about it, but you just do the best that you can knowing that you’ll have opportunities to do better and that you learn something from each thing you try to write.”