Sunday, May 26, 2013

“What's with that constant cymbal tapping in jazz drumming?”

HEY ROACH, what's with
the constant cymbal tapping?
“...and why do they use the exact same beat on every song?  And who invented this awful, one-man-band percussion concept, with the abrasive and irritating sound of the snare drum leading the charge, and the cymbals clinging and clanging away behind it at full tilt???” 

Inquiring online scholars want to know, but aren't really interested in your answer. I stumbled across this fascinating discussion while looking for something informative, and since I don't like to suffer alone, I thought I'd share it with you. Someone who calls himself Rockist Scientist leads the anti-clinging and clanging charge:

Rockist Scientist: This is one of the things I find annoying in the sound of a lot of jazz. Why did this become so common? Does anyone else find it annoying?

kate: aaarrggghhh, yes, that endless ride cymbal tapping, it drives me NUTS. one of the biggest reasons that i hate jazz. oh, what, apart from it being crap and all.

Rockist Scientist: Well, now, I wouldn't go so far as to call it all crap. I want to like it, and not just for whatever status symbol value it still has. I want to like it because I can hear that there is something going on, but I just can't get into most of it. [...] But I'm glad to know someone else is driven crazy by that sound. It baffles me that it's become such a dominant convention in jazz...

Aaarrggghhh, indeed. There is absolutely no reason for you to continue reading this, but in case you're hurting for empty entertainment calories at the moment, there's more after the break:

Aaron Grossman: it is to keep time. that is the responsibility of a drummer. 
...ultimately the jazz ride pattern is so much a part of jazz that it becomes part of the definition, even if there are exceptions. i mean, you wouldn;t ask "why are there so many singers in choral music?" or "why are there so many synthetic sounds in synth-pop?"

Rockist Scientist: ...surely jazz is not as defined by the ride cymbal sound as choral or synth-pop are defined by group singing and synthetic sounds, respectively. There has been enough jazz made that is not dominated by it (or doesn't feature it at all even) that it's certainly possible to imagine jazz being made without it.

Aaron Grossman: perhaps a better comparison would be to imagine the question "what is with the bass drum in house music"?
here is some more random jazz drumming info: [writes two dense paragraphs explaining what jazz drummers do]

Rockist Scientist: What you've added here is interesting, but I'm not sure you need to get out the drumming texts. (I will read what you post, however, and probably with interest.) I still don't understand why the drums themselves wouldn't be the primary instrument in the drum kit.

David Allen: What Id like to know is why they use the exact same beat in almost every song.

Jordan: To go off what Aaron said, in general the drums in jazz are used for comping and time is kept on the cymbals, i.e. quarter notes are played on the ride cymbal so that the drums are free to be used on any part of the beat in any manner (in bop and later drumming of course). Think of it as creating a context of flexibility for the drums.
An interesting counterpoint to this is New Orleans brass band music, in which cymbals aren't emphasized and the snare and bass drums are definitely the primary instruments, and there is still a large degree of rhythmic flexibility and interaction. This still lends itself to a certain sound though, blues and New Orleans standards (and transfers over well to rock and hip-hop), it just wouldn't sound right for modern jazz. As Aaron said, it was more a case of drummers changing the way they play to fit the needs of the music rather than some arbitrary or tradition-based decision.

[another commenter]: "Live at Birdland." on the track "Afro Blue", the rhythym section of Jones, Tyner and Garrison bang multiple time signatures at the same time. the song is 3/4 but there are some improvised unison parts of them playing a slower 4/4 over top.

Rockist Scientist: I have this. I'll have to listen and see if I can hear what you are describing, but I probably either won't or it won't do anything for me.

NOTE: Here is that classic, universally-beloved recording, featuring the great Elvin Jones:

Rockist Scientist: (I still say that the problem with keeping time with the cymbals is that you then have to constantly hear them, which for me is a negative.)

Rockist Scientist:  Now that I have mulled this over, I see how funny it is that I have missed the fact that it's usually the ride cymbal which is keeping time [Emphasis mine— tb]. I must really not get jazz most of the time to miss something that fundamental. (I know that, though I have no musical training, I have a tolerable sense of rhythm, since I can Latin dance fairly well, with lots of appreciative feedback from many different partners, not just friends.)

ArfArf: Hmm, some jazzers I know would retort "what's that constant whacking of the snare drum on beats 2 and 4 in rock drumming? This is one of the things I find annoying in the sound of a lot of rock. Why did this become so common? Does anyone else find it annoying?"
Aaron's response that it's about time and the switch to cymbals in the bop era to free up the snare and bass drum more creative use is absolutely OTM as far as it goes. But at the same time the function of primary timekeeper in modern jazz switched from drums to bass. This is something of an oversimplification, obv., but as Wynton Marsalis says:

"The bass player is the key. He needs to keep a steady pulse, to provide the bottom and to hold the music together. This frees up the drummer to play".

Insofar as this is true, the cymbal is not a necessary time keeping device (think of small jazz combos that don't have a drummer for example). But it's hugely helpful in enabling drummer and bassist to lock together to provide the rhythmic pulse. It's the dynamic give-and-take relationship between the drummer's sense of where the beat should be - evidenced by the very hard, defined trebly sound of the cymbal - and the bassists, evidenced by the fatter, less well defined sound of the bass - that defines the pulse of much jazz.
What I'm really saying is that to see the cymbal's function as time-keeping is overly simple. It's an aesthetic solution to an aesthetic problem. Other functional solutions could be found (eg leave it to the bassist to keep time) but that one has been preferred because to practitioners and fans of the music alike it best conveys the dynamic interplay of the rhythm section. In short, it sounds better.

Rockist Scientist: In its crudest form, rock drumming often gets on my nerves as well.

edd s hurt: I don't understand this question at all--you're asking what the drums *do* in jazz music or something? It does seem totally rock-centric to me, this question and this whole attitude. Simplistically you could say the evolution of timekeeping in jazz was the shift from two-beat to four-four, which the Basie band and Fletcher Henderson basically pioneered, and what Count Basie was doing in the '30s is the *basis* for what rock and roll would do later. So I don't understand why anyone would put the question so baldly, "constant cymbal tapping," I mean would you ask "constant bashing" when referring to John Bonham? They're just two different ways to keep time, play the drums, right? I'm no serious jazzbo or nothing, but listen to Tony Williams with Miles Davis and get back to me about "cymbal tapping." Not trying to knock anyone, but I mean come on!

Rockist Scientist: I just find it a really annoying timbre most of the time, or an annoying combination of timbre and rhythm. 
Not that the original question was really asking for information. I think it was just a way for me to say: the sound of that constant cymbal tapping--ugh!

Emphasis mine.

Rockist Scientist: ...I think one of the reasons why I got into Latin music in the first place, is because I detest the sound of trap drums or drum kit[...] In fact, I'd like to know who invented this awful, one-man-band percussion concept, with the abrasive and irritating sound of the snare drum (a military drum that was designed to cut through gunfire) leading the charge, and the cymbals clinging and clanging away behind it at full tilt.

negotiable: this thread very informative

n/a: for some reason this thread title is cracking me up


Anonymous said...

I'm kind of liking Rockist Scientist through all of this. He (now why am I assuming it is a he?) is curious and he wants to know and he evens seems to listen, despite his stated antipathy. -- Jennifer

Todd Bishop said...

Really? I thought he just wanted to complain. He kind of brushes aside all of the attempts to explain it to him.

Definitely a guy though-- quite possibly a prog fan...

Anonymous said...

I think he's jazz-curious, hiding behind the jazz-phobia!

Ant(fony) Tillman said...

I think this kind of attitude is going to be more and more prevalent purely because jazz is so marginalised and generally seemed to be an anachronism and caught in the sterile clutches of academe. There's a perceived notion of certain things being played a certain way (conservatism) which frankly annoys some folks. Currently jazz is more and more a 'heritage' art form, rather than anything vital, for better or worse. Add to that the guy is a douche-bag and is rather irritating in his jazz trolling.

Todd Bishop said...

Things are in a weird state, but I'm not seeing the lack of vitality you do-- I'm more seeing a lot of excellent, creative players in search of an audience, while most of the big energy in jazz is leading us away from the club tradition... I'm going to stop myself before I start thinking about the big picture. I try to just do my work and let the chips fall where they may. The guy is just a troll though, you're right.