Monday, March 30, 2020

Kenny Washington on Melodic Drumming

Back in the spring of 2011 I spent some time in New York City, running around the five boroughs, attempting to interview as many jazz drummers as I could for my doctoral research. The topic of my dissertation was melody and the different ways in which jazz drummers deal with melody while playing the drums.

Kenny Washington was gracious enough to offer a very generous amount of his time to answer my questions and discuss the concept of melodic drumming with me. As many can testify, Mr. Washington has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and jazz drumming.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversations together:


Fundamentally why is it important as a drummer to deal with melody?

Well, the thing about it is...if the drummer doesn't know everything about the piece, then the band doesn't have a chance. The band is finished before they even begin. It's just as important for the drummer to know the melodies and what's happening as anybody else. I say this all the time: A musical drummer is like a traffic cop on a busy street in Manhattan on Friday, rush hour at 5 o’clock at 42nd Street and Broadway. That's what a drummer does, you know. A drummer can make a not-so-good arrangement into something much more than what it really is by his musical imagination and how he thinks about music and harmony.

On drummers singing

First thing is, all the drummers that I have ever known: Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, all these cats - they could all sing anything they played. If they played it with a band, they could sing it.

On melodic drumming being a result of the culture of listening

You know, with those guys and with myself, certainly Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey and all these guys, they were interested in the melody not because they had to be, but because they loved it and because they liked it.

It's like when I was coming up, I had no idea. I didn't know Philly Joe Jones and Arthur Taylor and those guys then. I didn’t meet them until I was like 19 to 20. But when I was kid, as you can see, looking here (points to record collection) I love music. So my whole thing growing up, I listened to the records and I had no idea that that's what I was supposed to do in terms of learning the melodies of these tunes. I played these records over and over again not because I had to or because it was required...it's because I liked it. I loved the way it made me feel.

You know to hear a record of Hank Mobley or certainly a Charlie Parker record or any of the bad guys like Louis Armstrong...all of them. I liked the way that music made me feel and I would listen to the records over and over and over again because I liked it. You see these little knucklehead kids I hear now, they do all that. They can sing and recite all the rap things because they like it.

For me, I like the music. Of course, when you like the kind of music we like, it makes you smart. It puts you into a whole different bag. It puts you into a whole other level of consciousness. There's just something about it. It makes me think, start looking at things very differently from people that listen to other styles passively. Classical music is the same way. Same kind of a thing because you gotta listen to the music from the inside out.

So is that nuance and the phrasing and everything that comes with that, for you, was it just a natural extension of listening?

Well, yes. See I wanted to play like those guys too. I also wanted to play with the same kind of high quality as say, Philly Joe Jones or Art Blakey. Any time you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones, especially Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, when you listen to the way he's playing the ensemble figures with the band, you know that he knows the piece. There's no question about it. He knows every nuance of that piece. Same thing with Philly Joe Jones. These guys were masters of what I call ensemble playing.

Like when you hear Philly Joe Jones, like say on a record like “No Room for Squares” on Blue Note records with Hank Mobley and you hear the way he's playing the accents and the way he is playing the ensemble hits. He's the one that ties everything up in a nice bunch, Philly Joe Jones. The rhythms are there but it's the drummer who ties it into a nice bouquet. He enhances what the composer has written.

Can you elaborate more on how that translates into the technical side of things? Like an example of maybe something that he would do?

For example a match made in Heaven is Art Blakey playing any of Horace Silver's music. If you listen to a Horace's piece “Ecaroh”, which is Horace spelled backwards, you hear him playing the same accents as the horn players. He's playing the same rhythms and he knows how to play what I call the “do’s and the dots”, in other words, the long notes and the short notes.

So the idea of articulation...

So you know, if the note is like a quarter note followed by an 8th rest, then an 8th note tied to a half-note, now that quarter note is going to be short or it could be a fat quarter note. So that first quarter note, they wouldn't play that on the ride cymbal, because the ride cymbal is going to ring. So it all depends upon the articulation of what the horns are playing. It could be a staccato or it could be a fat quarter note. If it was something that was real short, that first quarter note would be like say a stick shot. Say if the ensemble or the two-horn frontline or the piano was playing just a little bit fatter than that, or as I call it a fat quarter note. He'd play that quarter note on the snare drum because it's still going to be short. And then the next one, you have the 8th rest and you have the 8th note tied to the half-note. The next part, that's going to be a longer note, it's going to be a longer sound. Because the snare drum is short it doesn't sustain but the ride cymbal does. Now that's going to ring. Short, long...

Many people would associated that idea of articulating figures with big band drumming

It's all the same. As a drummer, the only difference is you're responsible for more players. Like playing with Bill Charlp. It's a piano trio but everything in the orchestra is in the piano. The piano is the orchestra. You could take any of those arrangements and you could write them for a big band the same way but see the rhythm, the rhythm, it's all the same, you know. You could have the brass doing that short – long concept and you'd still play it the same way. The difference is, if it's with the whole brass section or with the whole band, you might play it a little bit louder. Still short – long, it’s still the same thing. It's just how it's played but usually it's the same thing.

So would you say that in the context of approaching the drums melodically that it's not just enough to play a rhythm but it's just as much, or maybe more so, how you play it?

Yes, it’s how you play it, absolutely. The execution and how you think of these things, you know, it's like for all the great drummers, I mean, you know, I've been around the scene for over 30 years and in the last 30 years I got a chance to hang with just about all the bad asses, man, you know....Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey and you know what? They were all....Billy Higgins too, they all were the same, you know. Their thought was: what I can do to make this band sound better?

They felt that that was their responsibility. What can I do to make the band sound better? It's not about you as a drummer. It's about the band. You have to play certain things. You might do this, you might not do that. It’s what the band needs. You might not necessarily want to play that but the band needs it. Maybe it’s to keep it together time- wise or to enhance this melody.

I certainly do it. I always think about: What can I do to make this band sound the best that it can sound? You have somebody present you with an arrangement and I'm sitting up there and I'll play their arrangement the first time around.

For me, it's like an interior decorator coming to your house. Because the first time he comes to your house, he doesn't necessarily come with his tools. He is walking around. So he walks in the mudroom and he says:

"Man, this room is kinda small but with that sofa, it even makes it look smaller. We'll get rid of this sofa, we'll put this someplace else and we'll change the color of the room and we'll make this white that it will appear bigger than what it really is."

I am doing the same thing when I am playing one of these arrangements. And chances are, they still don't write good drum parts! Even with all the advances, the guys still don't write good drum parts. So you have to be using your ears all the time.

So when I am playing something for the first time and I hear something I ask myself: should I enhance this part, or I should play this rhythm? I might ask questions but most guys I have ever worked with, they don't really say too much. They depend upon you to do that. You could ask them questions and a lot of times, you know, they look at you like a deer in the headlight. You ask them: "Well man, do you want this part like this or you want it like this, or you want it like"... and then they say: "Why I dunno, you'll come up with something!" You have to be thinking all the time and you have to figure this stuff out quick.

And what you do and how you react is all based on your experience?

Exactly. For me, it's by association. When I say by association, it’s because I might've heard somebody else do this. My whole concept of playing long and short notes comes from listening to Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe Jones. In a trio situation he knew all the music and could sing all the parts. He knew all the Oscar Peterson arrangements and he could sing all those parts. He could sing all the arrangements. If a drummer can't sing the arrangements, the band is finished, man, flush it down the toilet, it's over. He has to know just as much about that arrangement as everybody else in the band. If he doesn't, it's over. I don't care who's in the band but the drummer has to know everything, he has to know everything about the piece.

You mentioned a few drummers the other night that knew all the lyrics to the songs they were playing. How significant is that?

I'm not saying that you have to know every lyric, but these tunes, you have to know what the composer was trying to express in song. If the drummer doesn't know what the tune is trying to say or what it expresses, he's just tapping on the drums. Take Roy Haynes, for example, he can recite lyrics for you. Of course, he worked with Sarah Vaughan also but he was into that, even before he was with Sarah Vaughan.

Arthur Taylor could, Philly Joe Jones could and I knew these guys. And it comes from listening to Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and certainly Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, all these people, you know.

But for me, it's because I liked it, man. As a kid, I liked the music. So I'd play it over and over. I played these records over and over again. I've picked every one of them apart almost. I've picked every one of them apart. I know what makes them tick, why they play that, how they play that. And at the same time, I'm listening to how they play with these ensembles.

Kenny on his method to teaching this:

What I do for my drum students is I will give them play-alongs. There is no drummer on there so there's no way that they can cheat. I have a whole of disk of things, from Nat King Cole and Oscar Peterson before Ed Thigpen joined. There's a bunch of records like that and so when they get to the point when technically they're together, then that's my favorite time to teach. That's my favorite aspect of teaching. What's in your head? When you're playing in a band, what are you thinking about? And so what I'll do is like I'll give them a couple of tunes and I say: OK, go home and learn these. Live with them for a while. So they might even call me: "but what did you want me to play? I say: "I don't know, you have to figure that out. See, figure it out and bring it back and we'll see what you do". Because I'm curious as to how they are hearing this piece. What goes on in there? You know, what are you thinking? And they come back and you know, and like for example, it's like the Ahmad Jamal thing without drums on “Don't Blame Me”. See, so they'll start, you know...now I imagine the top part of the piano and then there's a couple of rhythmic breaks with the guitar and they are banging the hell out of the drums and I'd stop them right there. I'd go through each one of these little pieces...What part of the piano is he playing in? And they look at me like “what?” What part of the piano is Ahmad playing in? And some of them don't even know. I say: "He's playing up at the top part of the piano". Now as loud as you're playing, people will never hear that melody because the piano may or may not project as if you are in the middle or at the bottom of the piano. So they're banging the hell out of them and I say: no one can hear that. No one can hear what the tune is gonna be, or you're gonna put some fill on there that completely swallows up the melody.

So go through each one of these pieces, each bar. Then I tell them to sing that for me...and some of them, you know, the way they sing it might be stiff. I'd say if you sing it like it's stiff, you're gonna play it stiff like that. So that makes them aware of what they're listening to. This will help you to listen to what I call the music from the “inside out.” So I don't care if you're listening to Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Igor Stravinsky, or Lady Gaga, whatever it is, you can listen to that music and listen to it from the inside out and hear everything from the roots all the way to the top to the tree.

But for me, it was making the association, you know. Listening to Ed Thigpen play with Oscar Peterson's trio and to see how the trio was a unit and the way they play together...but it's the drummer that puts it all together. He's the one that really puts the thing together. And when he is playing and thinking the same way and playing those notes long or short like the rest of the trio, it's really something. I mean, that's the hand in glove.

On the similar musical approaches of various drummers

If all these drummers I mentioned just came in to play, even though they play outrageously different from the rest, there's a certain formula that they all go by. It’s what I call the “do’s and the dots”, the long notes and the short notes, how to phrase these rhythms. How they use the bass drum and the ride cymbal, you know. Cymbals are long notes. The bass drum puts the punctuation in there. The left hand can be short note, I mean, all these stick shots. They knew all that kind of stuff. And while they all play different, you hear that there are things that are the same when it comes to phrasing even though rhythmically they play different and they have different drum sounds. You know, certain things are common denominators. They all do the same things. It's because they all understand that whole thing...and it comes from the big band tradition. But for me, it is by association, listening to those guys. Listening to how they play, how they do different things, you know. Shelly Manne, now he plays differently from Philly Joe, you know. Mel Lewis, Jimmy Cobb, they all play different but, but in a lot of ways, they do things the same. They are all following the same formula.

So I listen to all these guys and I want to play like them. So I try to copy them as much as possible. I copied all of them, man. I listened to every one of them and I was able to grab something from each one of them. Each one of them has something to say. It's like going to all-you-can-eat buffet thing. Oh, I'll take a little bit of that...oh, I'll have some of that too. Oh yeah, I'll take of that. I'll come back for that for seconds. Yeah, oh, I'll have some of that too, you know. It’s the same kind of thing. So by association, as I've said, from listening to these other guys play ensemble figures like that, I can pick and choose.

How does that idea of articulation translate into being a timekeeper or comping?

It's the conversation between yourself, the drummer, and the horn player. Every horn player, piano player or bass player plays rhythmically different. And you have to sit up there and check them out. You're accompanying them. It's the most important thing, man. You're comping. The piano player comps, the drummer comps. So now with your left hand, you're comping. You have to pay attention to how the piano player is comping, you know, so that you're not strangling the changes. Sometimes, some piano players just comp too much, they're all over the place. So, in a situation like that, you have to hear that immediately...you are going to back up with your left hand, play a little bit less.

And it’s the same thing with horn players. They are all rhythmically different but it's a conversation between your limbs rhythmically and what this horn player has to say...He's telling a story, so it's a conversation. So, they all have different conversations and different sounds so you have to blend in with what they're doing. In order to do that, you have to know something about harmony.

But I did it not knowing that stuff man. I grew up listening to all these records and I could sing all the solos on the records. Charlie Parker, you know, all these records. I remember Duke Pearson and I listened to Duke Pearson's “Sweet Honeybee” record. That tune, “Big Bertha” with Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and James Spaulding. You know, I could sing all their solos. I could play air drums and play the same rhythms and everything that Mickey Roker was playing. I could sing the bass lines. When you do that, then that's when you start figuring it out. It wasn't until later that I knew what a bridge was but you start knowing what the form of a tune is, AABA form or whatever it is and if there's going to be a tag on the end.

And so you start thinking along musical lines so while this horn player is playing, you're hearing the changes in your head and you're hearing how he's approaching the changes. Because you've listened to enough music that you know what's going on. You can tell the cat's not playing the changes, you know, which happens a lot of times, nowadays – “skinny dipping”, as I call it. “Skinny dipping” means he's just playing dumb chromatics and he's just BS'ing. And then there's these guys that scuba dive. In other words, if you're scuba diving, you’re going all the way down. You can tell the difference between the guys if you're really into music, if you're listening to music for a long time, you can tell who's really playing the changes and who's jiving. But that comes from listening to a lot of music, man.

Let's talk about the idea of melodic phrasing in terms of drum solos and improvising on the drums

Well, the thing is about Max Roach. Max is the guy, man. He just turned it totally around, completely. Sure there were guys before him that made the band aware that the drummer is a musician and respected the drummer. Before Max, there was Chick Webb...if you talk about ensembles, he wrote the book on all that stuff. Like using different colors and parts of the drum set. For example, there's a record, called “Spinning the Web and it's got a lot of the things that he's featured on. And you can hear, for example he switches and plays wood blocks behind the piano, then when you get to the trumpet solo, he switches back to the hi-hat...or there's one part like where there the ensemble comes in and he switches to the chinese cymbals and he bears down. You can hear the sound textures that depend upon what was happening in the band. So even he was doing that back then.

And then, of course, you know, all these guys: Papa Joe Jones and Big Sid Catlett...Big Sid Catlett was also one of these guys that played very, very melodic solos and would play the form of the tune.

What would you consider to be examples of drumming or drummers that would be non-melodic?

Well, I don't know, man. I mean, all the guys that I like to listen to one way or another, you know there's always some kind of motif that they always played. They are always playing music. No matter what you gave them, they were going to play music. All the great drummers, like I said before, all the great drummers, they just couldn't help themselves, man. I mean...it's inherent in the music.

You know, if a good drummer is playing time he's still thinking of the sound. He’s not just thinking of the rhythm, he's thinking about the sound, how he approaches the ride cymbal and the dynamic level. At least all the guys I know, the guys that can really play, they just can't help themselves when it comes to playing music.

On Max Roach

Max Roach, even more so than Kenny Clarke, is really the guy that revolutionized the whole thing because what Max did...well, Sid Catlett was on the way to doing it and certainly Jo Jones did as well, but Max took it to the next level. Those early drum solos were very rudimentary but that's not a putdown at all make no mistake about it.

But what Max did was he approached the drums the same way Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker would approach their instruments. He took melodic lines and the rhythms of Monk, Bud, Bird and Diz and he applied them to the drums. But the problem is that you have to devise a different way of sticking patterns to make it work, which he did.

Big Sid and some of the other guys, they would mix and match rudiments. He's the first guy to turn all the beboppers on to the Wilcoxon book and I believe he got that from Cozy Cole because he took some lessons from Cozy Cole in midtown Manhattan. And Cozy, like all the early swing drummers, were friends of Wilcoxon. You know, all those guys, like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson and when they would come anywhere near Cleveland, Ohio Wilcoxon would go see them and they would hang out. They would hang out and exchange ideas. See, he was a legit snare drummer. He wasn't a jazz drummer per se. From what they tell me, he could play the hell out the snare drum. But he liked swing music and I figure maybe that's what he really wanted to do.

So he admired Gene Krupa and all these different people and they would hang out and they would exchange these different ideas. Philly Joe used to camp out at his house and study with him. And they tell me that later on, with tears in his eyes, Wilcoxon said that he never thought that his stuff would get this far, how it was taken to the next level. That book was advanced for its time.

And Max Roach took different ideas out of that book. Max was a very good swing drummer too. I mean, you hear him in Benny Carter's band and he sounds like a very good swing drummer but you can't tell it's him.

But he's the first guy, even though guys were doing it before him, he's really the guy that took to the next level you know. If he played a couple of choruses and after a couple of choruses, if he brought the band back in and you turned the beat around and you weren't there on time, he'd want to fight! And rightfully so, because his whole thing is "Well, man I have been accompanying you. Give me the respect by listening to what I'm doing".

And it's still a problem today. It seems like when a drum solo is being played, guys on the bandstand are looking at chicks, thinking about what they're gonna do after the gig. I mean, you come back in and Bam! They're wrong. No matter how melodic you try to play it. There are still horn players that still don't understand drum solos too, quiet as it is kept, you know. But, but a lot of time it's because they're not paying attention, but Max Roach would fight. I mean literally.

I asked him one time about some of these records especially the band with Booker Little...and even the tuba band with Ray Draper...some of those records, he would have a bass player playing while he was soloing. So I asked him one day: "Max, how did you come up with that? What made you start doing that?" And he just looked at me and he said: "Look, man, I want somebody to accompany me for a change, man. I'm always the one who's accompanying others. Why should everybody lay out when there's a drum solo?" It’s funny the way he said it. He said: "Look, I've been accompanying everybody, how about somebody accompanying me for a change."

Max was coming from a whole different situation where he wanted drum solos to be taken seriously. You couldn't say to Max “Hey a band is made up of four musicians and a drummer.” He'd get up and knock you out! He didn't even like for the drums to be called a drum set or a “Trap” set. The man would go off. To him it was “multiple percussion”. And he's right. As great as some of the other early drummers were, he wanted to take the amusement out of the whole thing. I mean, Max had a bit of showmanship in him also but he made it very, very serious. There wasn't entertainment value in it strictly speaking. There is a form of entertainment there but not like Gene Krupa's entertainment. Or like some of the other guys like Lionel Hampton, you know, twirling his sticks around and that kind of a thing. It's much more serious, you know.

How did Max influence you in terms of how you organize your ideas when you're soloing?

What he didn't play was just as important as what he did play Max is like a colossal influence on me right down to the tuning of my drums.

Do you think that higher tuning brings out the melodic aspects of playing the drums?

Yeah. But he's not the first to do it. Ray McKinley had done things like that but in a different kind of way. But Max took a lot of time in getting each drum to sound right and getting each component of the drums to sound they way it sounded, with a nice full sound. He put a lot of time into that, to make sure that the instrument sounded the way it was supposed to sound, you know I mean he's thinking like a horn player. The lines and things he plays it's like he's playing are like rhythmic ideas, like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. He just adapted it to the drums along with the formula to how to do it.

But he was also steeped in the tradition and steeped in the rudiments. He would mix and match rudiments, like paradiddle-diddle stickings and mixing and matching rudiments, putting different rudiments together...The cat was a genius, man. I mean he turned it around for everybody.


Want some more?

- Here's a great interview from a while back with Kenny Washington and Paul Wells from a 2015 Modern Drummer magazine feature

- And a few good ones featuring Kenny and his nice Canopus drums:


  1. Great stuff!! Kenny is amazing. Did you ever see that video of him with Johnny Griffin at the Vanguard?

  2. Fantastic, thank you. I'm having all my students read this!

  3. Man, so much to take in on this. Thanks