The Place of the Drum Solo in Jazz

Top drummers share their opinions about soloing and reveal their favorites

Max Roach

Matt Wilson

Drummers are usually [relegated to] trading fours, but you try playing four-bar solos all night. We want to have time to develop ideas and breathe and explore, and that usually doesn’t happen within four bars. I think they should be given as much room as the other soloists. It all depends on balance.

I’m still pretty marveled by the physical drum solos, where it’s just a display of prowess. There’s always going to be that part of me that gets thrilled, but as I get older that’s a very small percentage. I’ve always loved the solos where you can really hear the tune, and where there’s real surprises. Leaving space is one of the scariest things. The problem is the sustain aspect. We can’t hold notes. So when we have to leave space, we have to really welcome the space.

For me, composition is always the thing. Dewey Redman used to have me improvise on everything, especially the ballads. Most drum solos tend to be on fast songs, aggressive songs. But I really like playing on slow tunes. Just because there’s not distinct pitches on the drums doesn’t mean it’s not melodic, and just because you’re playing piano doesn’t mean you’re playing melodically. Roy Haynes is one of the greatest improvisers on the planet on any instrument, as far as playing over songs. Bill Stewart, too. I always remember John Scofield saying, “It’s embarrassing when the drummer plays better solos over the changes than everybody else does.”

FAVORITES: Roy Haynes, “Snap Crackle,” Out of the Afternoon (1962)
Billy Higgins, “When Will the Blues Leave?,” Don Cherry, Art Deco (1989)
Joe Morello, “Take Five,” The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out (1959) — When it’s on the radio I still listen to it. There’s one spot where he plays these bass drum hits and he spaces them out just right.

Eric Harland

I love soloing. I feel like it’s the one time I don’t have to be completely considerate of everyone on the bandstand. It’s just a free moment of me being able to express myself, whatever ideas that are coming to me, and allowing them to just flow through. It’s a different craft when you have to take all the information that’s coming to you and filter it through what’s happening on stage.

A really great solo, one that honors the form of the song, has to do with storytelling. When I listen to a drummer play a solo, I want to hear where he’s coming from. It mostly has to do with the purity of the moment—whatever feels most authentic to that player. The solos of my own that I feel just fall apart come when I’m not honoring the moment. A lot of times drummers can get too much into their own heads. They stop listening to what’s happening and try to reconstruct something that they’ve already done in their practice routine. I speak from experience—you lose the context. It’s like jumping from one song to another without having any type of segue so that people can go on that journey with you.

FAVORITES: To be honest, I don’t intimately know that many drum solos. When I solo, I try to sound like horn players and piano players, so I know more piano and horn solos than I know drum solos.

Jeff Hamilton

Earlier this year I was interviewed by a German critic who asked me about the importance of Gene Krupa playing the first drum solo that was brought to the masses. I think they were looking for my take on how wonderful that was, but instead I said that it opened a lot of doors for drummers to solo when they weren’t capable of doing it. A lot of times the drummer doesn’t have anything to say, and I’d like to fast-forward through to the head.

My favorite soloists didn’t exhibit a lot of technique for the sake of technique exhibition. I like drummers that think like a horn player and utilize the rudiments of drumming to get that across. So many solos don’t have dynamics, don’t have phrasing. I prefer to hear people play melodies and tell me what kind of day they’ve had. I think every jazz musician plays their personality. If you’re a tough guy, you’ve got to look for the gentle side; if you’re a quiet person, you’ve got to look for the fiery side.

FAVORITES: Max Roach, “The Drum Also Waltzes” and “For Big Sid,” Drums Unlimited (1966)
Shelly Manne, “Un Poco Loco,” Shelly Manne & His Men, Swinging Sounds (1956)
Mel Lewis, “Windflower,” Mel Lewis and Friends (1977)

Art Blakey
Art Blakey at the Village Gate, 1986. Photo by Alan Nahigian

Rudy Royston

There’s a certain type of tune that drums always get to solo on, but I think drummers should be able to solo at any moment on any tune. Why not a medium bossa? A great solo is just like a great movie or poem. You have to give it in its purest form. If you do that, it will translate to people. They say it’s not a melodic instrument, but it’s not the instrument that’s melodic; it’s your idea that’s melodic. With that intention behind it and making small references to the rhythm of the melody, people will hear the notes. They’ll hear the tone. It’ll hit them while you’re playing. It’s about how we’re translating that message and how people are receiving it. Or we can just beat a bunch of impressive drums. I think I’m just getting old and I’m tired of doing that.

You can get the same result from playing a solo that’s based in something that people can feel and understand as something that’s impressive to see and hear. You could play one snare drum hit and if it has meaning and content, it will give you the same result as that last-song-of-the-night, “give the drummer some” thing. Let me give you something that you can feel, and that’s going to feel better when the song is over.

FAVORITES: Art Blakey, “Bu’s Delight,” Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Buhaina’s Delight (1963)
Jack DeJohnette, “Straight, No Chaser,” Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note (1995)
Brian Blade, “Jazz Crimes,” Joshua Redman, Elastic (2002) — It’s rhythmic and simple and not too much. There’s no drum point to it. There’s a music point to it.