Sunday, March 04, 2012

1984 MD interview: Ronald Shannon Jackson

Here are some excerpts from an interview I reread many times on the long bus rides on drum corps tour, about the great avant-garde (that's where he's typically filed, anyway) drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. From the March, 1984 issue of Modern Drummer, written by Chip Stern. What he had to say about the bass drum and about cymbals was particularly compelling to me- at one point I wouldn't rest until I got hold of a 14" Paiste Rude. Some other people noticed it, too, because years later that line ended up in publicity for the Rude reissues.

"It's a funny thing," Jackson explains, "because the way I got to jazz was through records; you couldn't see any of those people live where I grew up. Recording technology wasn't nearly as advanced as what we've got today, so when you listened to those records you never heard the bass drum. Consequently, me and a lot of cats grew up thinking that the bass drum wasn't being played. But when I finally got to New York and heard cats like Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe and Elvin Jones, I realized that the bass drum was definitely played.

"Luckily, I had the good fortune to grow up in a dance band environment, so I was always in control of the bass drum, and I simply had to transfer that to the bebop and jazz bands I encountered in New York. I grew up playing traps in an environment where the bass drum was most important, as opposed to bebop or swing where you're playing a lot of snare, and doing a lot of accenting between the cymbals and snare, and keeping time with the cymbal. Whereas in dance music the bass drum is keeping the time. In blues music, the bass drum pulse is the soul of the music.

Much more after the break:

"See, the most important thing is that foot- the master drum. It's the control drum. It's the center. It's the heartbeat, the relaxed pulse, the more musical tonal center as opposed to the more direct speaking tone- that's what settles the music.

"Now you know that it can be really hard to hook up with the bass player. They'll hear some tone in your bass drum and right away they think something's wrong," Shannon laughs. "Or else they'll get on your case and tell you that you're rushing- all drummers know about that. I've found that a lot of bass players rush tempos, and don't understand why. If you think about it, as string players modulate upwards on their instruments, everything gets faster. That's just basic physics- the actual vibrations of the high notes are faster. Now if you're playing with masters like Ron Carter or Buster Williams, none of that matters, because they have a solid sense of their own tonal center. But less experienced players get thrown off by all that bass drum timbre because it falls in the same tonal range as their sound. They will start to play higher so they can hear better. That's when they start to rush and get on your case. That's why, even though it's more pleasurable to have some tone in your bass drum, it's better to tune for a flatter 'thud,' so that in acoustic music, they can hear better, and in electric music, you can hear better. The drum cuts through and lets you control the flow of energy."

"In any ethnic group that employs the drum, you're going to find the large drums, like this Trinidadian drum I have- the long drum; the deep drum. That bottom is where music comes from in most folk cultures. In drums themselves, there have always been master drums- especially in African tribal drumming where there's always that pulse, that center to any social or spiritual event. You can take out the speaking rhythms or the communication on top- that which is portraying the event itself; the master drummer can keep everything going. The pulse, the intention, is still there on the bottom, so you can play the same pulse and change the rhythms on top of it. You can do the same thing on the drumset, when you start with that pulse from the heart- BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. Now everything on top is good; those rhythms are the enhancers- what we emotionally want to say. But if the heartbeat isn't there, things are unstable.

"Life is rhythm: the rotation of the earth; the blooming of flowers; the way we talk; the way we walk. So as long as a drummer knows where the one is, and can project that feeling, everything is cool. One of the problems we had in the avantgarde era during the '60s was that no one ever established where one was, or locked and settled anything. I mean, all of life goes from positive to negative, good and bad, hot and cold, black and white- that's rhythm, too, like saying 'boom-chick,' back and forth. So because no one locked things in, it always gave the people anxiety, as opposed to tension/release. And no one went for it, which was just logical human nature. You don't necessarily have to talk to people to communicate with them- just give them a heartbeat. [...]

"And that's why even when I'm not playing the bass drum, I'm playing the bass drum. Even though the other musicians and listeners may not hear it, they can always feel it, so they know where that space is. I always play my bass drum. What I'm actually doing is locking my big toe and the adjacent toe, so that the beater is locked in place against the bass drum head. I'm holding it there with my toes, and then the heel itself is actually keeping time," he says, stomping down the back of the pedal with his heel to make the point, "so that you can feel the vibration passing through the bass drum. Sometimes the beater will come up off the head, and that will serve to enhance what I'm doing, too. But that pulse is the thing that lets you be creative and still be together. Not beat, not rhythm- pulse."

"It was while I was with Blood [Ulmer] that I began getting concepts for my ideal drumkit, and I began to come down off of the cymbals onto the drums for the rhythms, which is something really hard for drummers to do.

"See, it's hard for drummers to get off the cymbals and onto the drums because cymbals are like a mini-orchestra. We could play cymbals all day long and be satisfied, because there are so many melodies and textures you can derive from the overtone series and because each cymbal has so much color within it. I remember how turned on I was by the K. Zildjian sound to begin with. Then when I heard Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, that was really it. I've played A. Zildjians. My mother bought me a set of Slingerlands when I got out of high school. That set came with a 22" medium ride and a pair of 14" hi-hats, so I've played A.'s all along. But when I was coming up, all the hip guys used K.'s and Gretsch. Every month in down beat there'd be these ads, and everyone looked so clean and sharp in their suits and ties: Max, Philly, Blakey, Art Taylor, Elvin and all of them.

"Basically I find the differences between A.'s and K.'s to be a matter of taste. A.'s aren't bad. I just prefer the warmth of a K., but a K. can be a lot worse if you don't get the right one. I'm talking about the old cymbals, now. I used to be able to go across the bridge to the Gretsch factory when they were in Brooklyn. They'd warehouse all the K.'s, but man, after Elvin and Tony and those guys had picked their way through, there wasn't much left. I couldn't believe how many bad cymbals there were, but I figured somebody's got to be buying them. In fact, some of those warped, funny belled cymbals really work for cats. I've got a 22" K. I bought from Frank Ippolito for $70, from his last shipment of Turkish K.'s. Nobody wanted it because it was messed up with a bad dip in the cup, but you can get some beautiful sounds out of it... sometimes. To me, the tones of a K. allow for a variety of inflections, whereas an A. doesn't change that much. You can get a great sound, but it's always going to have that distinctive A. sound: bright, high pitched; with that big cutting bell sound.

"But see, there are all kinds of K.'s. Some of them were so metallic that by the third set of a gig you'd be tired of listening to it. That's why you have to find the right one. That's how me and Tony Scott fell out. We were playing a gig at a club in the Village, and I had two K.'s: a crash and a ride. Right in the middle of a tune, Tony Scott came over, took my cymbals off the stands and reversed them, putting my crash where my ride was and my ride on the crash stand. He was basically right, because that ride was just too hard, especially for clarinet. But it was the principle of the thing. So Steve McCall was there, and I asked him if he wanted a gig. I packed up and he finished the job."

Upon inspection of Jackson's cymbals, I noticed a groove cut into the cup. "That has to do with the way a cymbal sets," he explained. "Any cymbal you put on a stand will tell you where it wants to set. You can turn it around any which way you like, but after you've been beating on it, it will turn around. I use a little round file to cut a small channel in the bell, so that cymbal will set right on the stand once I know where I'm going to be playing it. I've been doing that for a long time."

Currently, Shannon's extensive cymbal arsenal is stocked with Paistes, in an everchanging setup drawn from the Sound Creation, 2002 and Rude series. "The first person who turned me on to Paistes was Bruno Carr, who's not only a beautiful drummer, but a beautiful man. He got me back into the jazz scene after basically no one would touch me anymore, because I was messing up as a person. Anyway, he gave me a 16" 602 China, and that was a really nice cymbal- it just fit right in with my K.'s. After that I was playing with a singer named Juanita Fleming. I bought a 20" 602 flat ride, because I discovered you could swing your ass off without overriding the vocalist."

Shannon's latest setups have varied greatly due to the demands of room acoustics and tempermental P.A.'s, but one theme remains the same: his preference for faster, quicker cymbals to complement his hard, funky, crisscrossing leaps in register.

"That's because I'm playing mostly drums... and I couldn't have made that statement 20 years ago. The cymbals aren't for duration; they're mostly for punctuation and beat. Also, when the cymbals are smaller, you can go back and forth between them so much faster and sharper, playing double shots and rebounds without extended overtones. For a sock cymbal sound, I prefer them on the heavier side so I can get a nice solid 'chick-chick' with just the foot. I could never really use that splashy 'shook-shook' sound; it isn't solid

"For crashes, Paiste's Rudes are really something else; they'll cut through anything, although sometimes they'll cut through so rudely that that can be a problem. But for really loud electric situations, they're excellent. I suspected the 2002s might not cut as well, which was confirmed when I saw the Police at Shea. I couldn't always make out a lot of Stewart Copeland's cymbals, but he had this little 14" Rude crash. I realized during one song that it was projecting like crazy, and it wasn't the sound system cutting through— it was that cymbal."

"...lately I've been working much more consciously on the older cats like Chick Webb and Sonny Greer. I hope I'm able to project that through the music, because a lot of times, as a drummer, I want to take a solo, but as a composer/bandleader, I have a responsibility to structure the music so it comes out right. Often I'm not even thinking in terms of being a drummer. I'm thinking about orchestration, flow and the organic concept that has to be completed. Sonny Greer was a master of that. He hardly ever soloed, but it's like Ellington said: 'He made everything sound bigger and prettier.' He played music on the drums; he was the conductor."

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