If you’ve ever studied with a great teacher then you know the feeling of an “aha!” moment. The drumming community is fortunate to have so many great teachers dedicated to passing on the tradition to the next generation. Most of the drummers I’ve ever met has a story of how they or their teacher studied with one of the masters, celebrating how the tradition has been handed down to them.
My first exposure to one of the masters was at a jazz festival when I was in high school. I was seated on the floor with several other young drummers around a man sitting behind only a snare drum. He began to play a series of rudiments with brushes, and though obviously an exercise, it didn’t sound at all mechanical. The whole time he played his feet were tapping out a latin ostinato on the floor. It was Alan Dawson, and it was the first time I had heard his famous rudimental ritual. I’ll never forget the fluid motions of his hands, which I was fortunate to have witnessed on several occasions after that day. I later studied with Les Harris Jr., who was a student of Alan’s, as well as of his own father, who was a student of George Lawrence Stone, and so the story goes…
Jazz drumming presents unique challenges of coordination, phrasing as related to motion, and the nuances of rhythm found in every style. The great teachers bring us beyond the mechanics and help us hear how the material fits together and is expressed musically. Today we have unprecedented access to the masters through recordings, books and videos (and of course nothing beats hearing them in person). As a short list, I’d suggest seeking out materials by Jim Chapin, Gary Chaffee, John Riley and Peter Erskine. They have all dedicated themselves to passing down the language. I’d also recommend a book written by a student of Alan Dawson that presents Alan’s materials (and the rudimental ritual in its entirety!).
So whether you’re just starting out, or have been playing for years, spend some time with the masters. And if you’re passing down the language to others, celebrate that tradition with them by pointing them to the masters too.
PS – If you haven’t heard Alan Dawson, check out his album, Waltzin’ with Flo.