Put The Music First by Roy Burns

A cliché that I hear drummers use a lot these days is “less is more.” By this they mean that the effect of playing simply can sometimes be greater than the effect of playing more notes. The opposite of this idea is represented by the jazz drummer who says, “The drummer should not be just a time keeper.” In other words, in certain styles, the drummer should interact with the other musicians- as opposed to keeping a metronomic beat. As you can see, these two overused comments are complete opposites. Which one, then, is true? As a matter of fact, both are true to some degree.

When I was on Lionel Hampton’s band some years ago, he just wanted straight time playing with very few fills. I’ve often thought that Hamp’s band was the first big rock ‘n’ roll band. He loves a strong backbeat.

The other night I heard Elvin Jones play. Elvin has a way of weaving in and out rhythmically, interacting with a soloist in such a way that you sometimes wonder if even he knows where he is. But then he comes right in and you realize that he always knows where he is and where everyone else is – musically and rhythmically. Now, to hear Elvin sit there and just play straight time would be a real disappointment. So in his particular case, less would just be less. In fact, it would be a lot less.

My first recording session was with the late, great pianist Teddy Wilson. I had never met him until the evening of the recording session. It was to be bass, drums, piano and there were no charts to read. So I asked Teddy, “What do you want me to play?” He replied, “How do you mean?” I said, “Would you like sticks or brushes or any special style?” He thought for a moment, gave me a slightly bemused smile and said, “Just play whatever is appropriate!” At first I felt a little confused. And then I understood. What he wanted was for me to put the music first and just play what seemed to fit. I consider that moment to be one of the best music lessons of my life.

Shortly after this recording session I joined Benny Goodman’s band. I was still in my very early twenties and we were doing a television variety show. I had been on the band about two weeks, when Benny called me over and said, “In this band, all I want you to do is play the drum part. That’s why Gene Krupa sounded so good in my band; he just played his part. I don’t want the drummer to be a hero. If someone else is not playing well, I don’t want you to play louder; it only makes the problem worse. So you play the drum part, I’ll play the clarinet part and we’ll get along fine.

I could hear Teddy Wilson’s words echoing in my mind. “Just play whatever is appropriate.” If the music requires a simple drum part, then play it simply and with a full heart. If the music requires something more complex, then play as much as needed.

I guess you could say that my favorite cliché would be “Put the music first.” I do not enjoy hearing a drummer “inflict” his style on a band. This is the type of player who says, “This is my style and this is the way I play.” Drummers who think this way are more concerned about themselves than they are about the music. They usually don’t go too far in the business, because other musicians don’t like to play with them.

Another example of reacting to the music and the situation is recording versus playing live. In the studio, it is important to remember that people will hear your performance again and again. You must be a little more thoughtful about your playing. Overplaying can be very detrimental to the music.

However, when you are playing live-especially in a nightclub- you get to play several sets. You can try things and take chances. If you goof, there is always the next set and what the heck: No one is recording you. This is a time to experiment and have fun. This is the most appealing part of playing in nightclubs.

In New York City, there used to be a club called Nick’s. I was working there when it became obvious that Nick’s was going to close. The last night was a great party. Many famous musicians who had played there over the years showed up. Everyone was having fun. Also, everyone had a chance to sit in and play. There were some great musical moments.

However, the one I remember most vividly was when Zutty Singleton decided to sit in. Zutty was one of the giants of Dixieland drumming. He was also a very warm and humorous man, both personally and in his playing, as well.

There was a pianist named Hank shoes last name escapes me. Hank and Zutty decided to play a duet. Zutty made himself comfortable on my drums and launched into a terrific rhythm on the tom-toms. Hank looked up and said, “What are we playing?” Zutty, without even looking up said, “Just get something to fit it!” That completely broke up both Hank and the audience.

So, the next time you are not sure how to approach the music or the situation, “Just get something to fit it.” I can’t think of better advice.