The Place of the Drum Solo in Jazz

Top drummers share their opinions about soloing and reveal their favorites

Max Roach

Sherrie Maricle

I always like to make the joke that one of the reasons I became a bandleader was so I could play more solos. I find myself quite disappointed when I hear groups where there’s maybe one drum solo in a set. We’re in a time when the drummer should be considered, in most cases, equal to the horn players.

One of the key things is to really pay attention to the song you’re playing. I find it funny when it comes time for a drum solo or trading fours and it sounds like John Bonham in Led Zeppelin. It’s like song, song, song, DRUM, song. The drum solo should not sound like it’s totally foreign to the vibe being created by the group you’re working with. I’ll be bored very quickly if it’s just pyrotechnics, no matter who’s playing. Listening to someone practice études is not exciting.

Drummers, especially in a big band, are also soloing in the context of fills. Whether it’s kicking a big band or leading into a new chorus—we call them fills, but they’re really short solos. Papa Jo Jones’ very famous two quarter notes, the incredible way Buddy Rich kicked the band. Shadow Wilson had that famous fill on “Queer Street” that all drummers know. That’s an example of striking creativity in the context of a straight-ahead swing tune.

Gene Krupa and Chick Webb and people like that pulled the drums to the forefront, but what Ari Hoenig is doing, to have the drum set as a full-fledged melodic instrument, has really changed the instrument. I don’t understand why he’s not on the cover of Time magazine.

FAVORITES: Buddy Rich, “West Side Story Medley,” Swingin’ New Band (1966)
Mel Lewis, “Greetings and Salutations,” Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, New Life (1976) — The tune is funk but with an almost hip-hop vibe, a very subtle swing to it. Mel’s solo, where you think he’d be playing funk, is the purest acoustic, creative, subtle solo. That was a lesson for me.
Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology,” Inversations (2006)

Ari Hoenig
Ari Hoenig in Vancouver, 2011. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Justin Faulkner

All solos should have a certain level of logic. The idea of theme and variation is a very important factor. Pick a theme that’s indicative of the melody, then dissect it and figure out ways to manipulate it so that it tells a story. Baby Dodds has been called the inventor of the modern drum set, and he would play the most simplistic phrases, the kinds of rhythms that children’s nursery rhymes are based on. There’s a reason why they stuck with people: because it feels familiar. It has a vocal quality to it. It’s honest. When I’m playing a solo, I’m sometimes thinking about the way that Lester Young or Charlie Parker approached playing a melody. Drum solos are set apart when there’s a melody, there’s function, there’s logic, and there’s intensity. Those are my pillars.

The intensity of an Art Blakey solo, especially when he’s playing the bass drum on a four-on-the-floor thing, is so incredibly powerful because there’s this push and energy that’s propelling the solo. Some people are very big on playing the “jazz vocabulary” but they forget that this is music, too. I think we’ve lost the entertainment factor. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be a comedian on stage, but drum solos are at times the most exciting parts of a record or a show. And if there’s no point to what you’re doing, it’s like you’re telling a joke without a punchline.

Vernel Fournier’s approach to playing each [Ahmad Jamal Trio] song, if we took out Ahmad Jamal and Israel Crosby, would probably be some of the greatest drum solos in the world. His approach to playing a song has a singular element, but it’s always in service of the music. If drum solos could have the foresight that he has, people would enjoy them a bit more. I also like giving love to people who are alive. Nasheet Waits plays the drums in a way where it’s a voice, it’s not just a beat-keeping mechanism. He’s someone that could take multiple drum solos and he’s going to approach each one based on the song and the overall tone of the set. He understands drama.

FAVORITES: Baby Dodds, “Drum Improvisation #1,” Baby Dodds Trio, Jazz A’la Creole, (recorded 1946, released 2000)
Elvin Jones, “Summertime,” Elvin Jones/Richard Davis, Heavy Sounds (1967) — That was one of the first drum solos that really hit me. He’s playing the form. You can hear each section of the song. If you were to sing the melody along with whatever he was playing at that time, it’s clear that he’s spelling it out to you.
Andrew Cyrille, “Places Birds Fly From,” Søren Kjærgaard/Ben Street/Andrew Cyrille, Open Opus (2010)

Billy Hart

The drum solo should be done as clearly as possible. In other words, it should be interesting and musical. Interesting to yourself, first of all, and hopefully that interest transfers to whoever is listening to it: the guys in the band and the audience. Improvisation implies composition, so all of the drummers that I grew up adoring were composers, from a rhythmic perspective.

When I think of the drummer, I think of him more like a conductor in a European classical ensemble. How does a conductor keep perfect time for 80 musicians? He does it from his knowledge of the piece and the enthusiasm that knowledge produces. That’s what the “multiple percussionist,” as Max Roach called the drum set player, does: He provides that kind of guidance and enthusiasm. That’s what I try to do with my solos: it’s dynamics, it’s musicality, it’s multicultural, it’s democratic.

In America, this one country has all of these different cultures in one place. We’ve agreed to share our ethnicities, so what we’ve come up with involves all these different contributions from all these different cultures. From the European perspective, we deal with the harmonic movement. Then Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and those guys began to embrace the Afro-Caribbean, so that creeps into your vocabulary also. Improvisation includes representation, so it implies the possibility of world peace as we get rid of our nationalistic instincts. I think the kind of solos I want to take reflect as much as I know about all these different cultures.

FAVORITES: Most drummers, at least from my generation if not from all of the post-bop generations, relate to the drum solos that Max Roach played on the Max Roach/Clifford Brown recordings. I’ll put it in Elvin Jones’ words. I went to see Elvin around the time he’d been with Coltrane for about a year and I was perplexed by him. I was standing there watching him take his drums down and I couldn’t move. So he called me up to the drums and said, “Now, don’t ask me to show you anything. Because if I could show you, we would all be Max Roach.”