The Place of the Drum Solo in Jazz

Top drummers share their opinions about soloing and reveal their favorites

Max Roach

Photo above: Max Roach at the Three Deuces, New York, 1947 (William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress).

Last October, JazzTimes surveyed a number of musicians and contributors to come up with a list of 40 Essential Solos. The results ran the gamut of styles and eras, but the article had one (not uncommon) shortcoming: Only a single drummer from the entire history of jazz managed to make the cut. (That would be Elvin Jones on “Monk’s Dream” from Larry Young’s Unity, for those keeping score.)

No one would argue that drummers aren’t an integral component of jazz ensembles, so why do their turns in the spotlight get neglected so often? Are drum solos simply about muscle, technical exercises meant to wow the suckers in the audience with a pyrotechnic display? We suspected that some of today’s top drummers would make the pro-solo argument better than we could, so we spoke to several of them to get their thoughts on what makes a great drum solo (or a terrible one), where a drum solo fits into a set of music and where it should be held in reserve, and some favorites that perhaps should have made our list. The following commentary is in each artist’s own words, edited for space and clarity.

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Andrew Cyrille

Before any other solo—other than the voice—you had the drums. Drums have always been used by cultures around the world for births, deaths, marriages, political situations, whatever it was where you needed to bring people together. So as far as drums being solo instruments, I think that has always been the case.

A long time ago, in the late ’50s or ’60s, when it was time for a drummer to take a solo, a lot of people would get up and go to the bathroom or do something else. People would think some of the drummers who were playing weren’t making good music, which is not altogether true. Sometimes people think of drums as being the noisemaker of all the instruments because it’s not diatonic. It doesn’t have a definite pitch. But it all depends on who’s playing it and how it’s being played. You can tune drums and make them sound marvelous, like the conga drummers, and great drummers, musical drummers, can get great sounds out of a trap set.

People are not stupid, for the most part. If they like something, they’ll applaud for it; if they don’t like it, they won’t applaud. You have to learn how to make music from whatever your drum setup is. It isn’t necessary for a drummer to solo on a ballad, but drummers can play solos where you have rhythms that are played very slowly, which are just as stimulating as any other instrument.

FAVORITES: Philly Joe Jones, “Gone,” Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess (1959)
Max Roach, “Mildama,” Clifford Brown / Max Roach, Brown and Roach Incorporated (1955)
Joe Morello, “Take Five,” The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out (1959)

Cindy Blackman Santana

I love playing drum solos because I love hearing the sound of the drums, I love the feel of playing drums, and I think it adds to the music. Drum solos add a depth of dynamic that is really powerful, with all the different textures and colors that you can create. Regardless of your style, it’s rooted in Africa because that’s where we get the drum set from. So for me, it’s a special position to be in. When they call it the drum throne, they’re not kidding. It’s a seat of honor.

The first thing to think about is the context of the piece of music. I’d rather hear less notes, a beautiful tone, and musical playing than a bunch of fast notes with ugly sound and no sensitivity to the music. If you’re just spurting out big words and stringing them all together and it doesn’t mean anything, it’s not enjoyable for me. I don’t want to hear anybody talk like that and I don’t like hearing someone play like that either. It doesn’t satisfy my heart.

It’s a very old concept that the drum is supposed to be in the back and only takes the last solo. They used to say, “We’ve got 17 musicians and a drummer.” But drummers like Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, and Tony Williams changed that concept. They brought the drums from being a background timepiece, just holding it down for everybody, to being an integral part of the music where they’re conversing with the soloists, making mood changes, directing the dynamics as well as being creative within what the song is.

FAVORITES: Any and every Tony Williams solo. Emergency!, Spring, Life Time, Believe It, the stuff he did with V.S.O.P., “Dual Mr. Anthony Tillmon Williams Process” with Miles—there’s not one solo that I’ve heard that I don’t like.

Tony Williams
Tony Williams at Grachan Mancur III’s “Evolution” session, Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1963. Photo by Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images

Nasheet Waits

There’s a few different templates that they try to fit the drum solo into. Nowadays, soloing over a vamp at the end of a tune seems to be the favorite go-to area, not so much unaccompanied or playing over the form. That can pigeonhole the drummer into doing the kind of interpretation that gets the people up—“I’m gonna play some fast, loud shit”—which doesn’t necessarily represent the music that well. It’s a tired template that’s been used too much, and I feel turned off by it. It’s like handing you a menu but telling you what to order. You see all the other options, but you don’t really get the opportunity to enjoy them.

In the minds of most, the drum solo seems different from a piano solo or a horn solo, but I don’t think of it like that. When Max Roach played with Clifford Brown, he was soloing over the forms of those tunes. It wasn’t like he was using a different set of standards. It was inclusive, in a sense. I prefer to work within the musical context. It’s when it gets into that corny, contrived area than I’m not as motivated to create. The trajectory becomes known before you even start, so there’s no mystery in what’s going to happen.

My father [drummer Freddie Waits] was really a masterful soloist. I remember seeing him on quite a few occasions where all the other musicians would leave the stage and my father would have an extended time, almost a concert within a concert. Billy Higgins and Rashied Ali would do the same thing. It would become almost a master class in theme and development: using an idea, developing it, inverting it, twisting and turning it and then coming back to it.

FAVORITES: Max Roach, “For Big Sid,” Drums Unlimited (1966)
Philly Joe Jones, “Gone,” Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess (1959)
Freddie Waits, “Inner Passions Out,” Lee Morgan, The Last Session (1972) — My father takes his solo at the end of the tune, but it doesn’t serve the purpose of being the big, climactic drum solo. The bass solo ends and then the drum solo emerges out of the tapestry of the rhythm section. It weaves like a cloth throughout the whole song, and it’s not like somebody takes a shear and cuts the cloth and now it’s your turn. You get that sense of a seamless transition.