Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Birth of the Drum Set

For the drums are not one instrument, but many. The drum set is a hybrid of instruments from around the world, from cultures that were assembling in port cities like New Orleans. The snare and bass drum were once slung over shoulders in European militaries, the drum heads pulled tight by ropes, and that tradition carried over to American armies. Chinese immigrants came to the United States because they were hired or forced into labor, and they brought with them their own centuries-old theater traditions, highlighted by colorfully-painted tom-toms that made a beautiful full sound, distinct from snares or bass drums. Cymbals evolved from bronze cisterns made in places like Turkey and China; they were later pounded into flatter shapes and supplied to countries around Europe for operas and military music, becoming so popular in the United States that Zildjian, the original Turkish cymbal company, eventually moved to Massachusetts.
The Dee Dee Chandler and the groove:
The drum set was coalescing at the same time jazz was, and they helped to push each other along. The distillation of the different rhythmic instruments into one set to be played by one person meant that the rhythmic interpretation was now codified in one human body. For centuries, percussion instruments in classical music were played by different people, and, perhaps partly for that reason, “groove” and feel were never paramount. For the first time in history, one human body was able to create the pulse, the back beat, the syncopation, and the texture of a percussion part all by itself. The possibilities for more forward, propulsive, linear grooves turned the musical world upside down for decades to come.

Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler was a drummer living in New Orleans at the turn of the century. He played music in two worlds: the down and dirty shows in the brothels of Storyville and the high-society gigs at places like the Grunwald Hotel off of Canal Street. He was of mixed race and could roughly pass for white, but when Plessy v. Ferguson was handed down, it included rules limiting the freedom of anyone with even a drop of mixed-race blood from going to places like the Grunwald.

But again, from limitation comes innovation. Other people had done such a thing before, but Dee Dee Chandler was perhaps one of the first drummers to use a makeshift pedal to play the bass drum with his foot while playing snare with his hands. Before that you would have to have a different musician play each instrument or use a style called “double drumming,” which involved playing bass drum and snare drum simultaneously with both hands and no feet, limiting the kind of rhythms you could express on the snare. The weird contraption that allowed Chandler to play the bass drum with his foot was not smooth like today’s pedals and must have been a challenge to play. But it was a point on the evolution of the drum set as a more dynamic instrument that, in just a few decades, would become the lynchpin of jazz ensembles, whose rhythmic playfulness created some of the best music of the century. And it was the music created in those poorer places, with audiences innovating new dance steps like swing, that made jazz music so alive.
In a comment on the article Samm Bennett links to his page of vintage drum kits from the 1920s and 1930s.

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