Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Theories on Rhythm

I have a few theories about rhythm. When we talk about swing rhythm, there's the general idea, but we can get really specific, and then even precise to the individual. The way Jelly Roll Morton swings is different from the way Kenny Kirkland swings, which is different from the way Wynton Kelly swings, etc....But in the overall sense, swing made a big change from the Swing Era into the Bebop Era. My theory is that it mostly had to do with tempo.

Dotted Eighth Sixteenth
The Swing Bands played medium bounces for dancers. Swing eighth notes were actually oftentimes written as Dotted eighth Sixteenths, which is closer to the jerky jaggedness of the earlier swing. Moving into the late 30's and early 40's, The Beboppers like Charlie Parker took the meaning of fast to new heights; they played Cherokee at tempos of Quarter note= 400! So they wanted to swing in a more streamlined manner, unencumbered by swing that could be too rickety. Hence, they smoothed out their eighth notes. Consequently, when they went back to playing slower tempos, they kept the smoothness.

Sometimes you will see swing notated as above, as a quarter and eighth triplet. And then some have talked about more modern swing as being eighth notes fairly straight with an accent or stress on the second eighth note. This can be used as a teaching tool, especially for folks who haven't heard much music with a swing feel. However, this is where it gets frustrating as an jazz educator, because I don't believe that you can  teach a student how to swing if they don't listen to jazz! Swing rhythm is more than just "put a stress on the second eighth note." There's a whole rhythmic vocabulary that you hear from players who have digested a great number of jazz albums.

Listening to this album and many others might shed some light on the subject....
I don't believe that you "have it or you don't" as some might assume; I believe you can be taught to swing with a combination of listening and guidance. But I believe that the biggest problem facing today's jazz student is that they don't hear jazz in any form on a regular basis. Many students come right from high school stage band into being a jazz major in college, without having any concept of jazz beyond a fun, cool diversion from Concert Band. The great jazz musicians, even the moderately good ones, have listened and absorbed a lot of recorded music, and probably seen a lot of live jazz as well. I know some musicians who listen to recordings a lot more than they practice their instrument. (That might be a clue.)

This brings me to my next theory, which regards Quarter Notes. I've noticed that some of the drum students at PSU will play only quarter notes on the ride cymbal. I've heard older cats do that, but in this case, it never really felt good, so I told some of the students that I didn't think they should only play quarter notes on the ride cymbal, that they should "keep the ride cymbal dancing."

"Yes, but our teacher, Alan Jones, told us to do that."

OK, I guess I didn't want to contradict Alan Jones, who is a great drummer and also a very dedicated and experienced educator. However, I kept this in the back of my mind.

Mel Brown
And then recently, during one of the late night jam sessions I hosted at Ivories, the great Mel Brown came in to the club, and I begged him to sit in on drums. As he played, I watched and listened. At one point, I noticed that he was only playing quarter notes on the ride cymbal. But it sounded amazing! Why did it sound so good when he did it and not when the students did it?

I called this guy to make the gig, but he was always late!
My theory is this, and it's somewhat derived from an idea that drummer Lenny White talked about (which he referred to as the Moveable One.):In order to play quarter notes on the ride cymbal and make it sound "good", you have to understand how it lays with everything else that's going on around it. It's not metronomic, per se, it's quarter notes with other rhythms implied around it. It only works if you work the quarter note into the bass players quarter notes, which in turn work into the piano syncopation and the eighth note and triplet lines of the horn players. Essentially, you have to have the jazz vocabulary in your head as you play quarter notes. It's organic. Otherwise, people would call a metronome to make a gig! (Which is a problem because most metronomes don't have cars.....)

Anyway, these are just theories. I'm interested in bridging the gap between the teaching of jazz and the "university of the streets" way to learn. I mostly learned by listening and going to jazz clubs and trying to piece it together while older cats yelled at me on the bandstand. I don't want to yell at my students, but I do want to see them improve. Maybe there are no shortcuts, but at least I can lead them down the quickest route.....


  1. At Q=400, there is no discernible swing to an eighth note!

  2. In the last few years I've come to think there's something deficient about defining swing only in the context of eighth notes. I hadn't considered quarter notes from the drummer's perspective, but I certainly notice listening to bass players that Paul Chambers or Ron Carter can play four straight quarter notes - without any of the anticipating "skips" (I just realized I have no idea what bass players call that) - and it's clearly swinging in its own right. I haven't studied this enough, but I think in addition to the relationship between bass and drums it has to do with the articulation of the attack and release on each note.

  3. I heard Jimmy Cobb play when he was here a few months ago with Javon Jackson's quartet. A few times during the show, he was literally playing quarter notes on the bass drum, snare, and ride cymbal, and I couldn't believe how swinging it was. But, like you alluded to, it was most likely the result of choosing the right time to do that compared to the context that the other players were laying down.

  4. Great column! I too have struggled to put into words a definition or theory of swing that a person with no jazz context could understand and put to use. SO difficult!
    I really appreciate you taking it to the quarter note level. I've always kind of assumed that what makes the quarter note patterns on bass and drums so important to swing is that it allows the other players to subdivide in their own way without clashing with the rhythm players, but you guys are right: great players swing - all by themselves! - even when only playing quarters.

    So, from there I go to James Brown's "on the One" approach. I wonder if, in the same way that we've generally talked about swing 8ths having a more or less "set" first note and a delayed/accented second note, with a quarter note pulse the downbeat is more or less set, and the subsequent pulses are allowed to be finessed into whatever pocket feels best?

    Anyway, great stuff! Thanks!

  5. Just saw this video and I had to think of your article!

  6. The reason people can play quarters and have it sound good is because of what they hearing in there heads and feeling in there bodies as they play. The subdivisions felt with passion and intensity is the key. To get to that level is a load of hard work.Some people have a lot of natural ability in this area. The rest of us have to work our butts off to get it.After being frustrated with my time I decided to take one tune like "So What" or 'Moanin" and play with the recording many times a day for 3 or 4 months at a time. The other thing is saying rhythms out loud as I play. I got the idea from watching Selva Ganesh and John McLaughlin's Gateway to Rhythm DVD.The Indian classical guys can say anything they can play. It is called "Konkol"Check out the DVD you will be floored at what you see and hear.From seeing that I created my own 'Jazz Konokol" Cheers, Steve Hamilton

  7. HI Steve Hamilton again- Every musician has I believe a basic time orientation. Some people like Trilok Gurtu and Dave Holland play ahead of the beat. While people like Charlie Haden and Jimmy Cobb tend to play in the middle or a little behind the beat.Even the best players may be able to play well ahead, in the middle and ahead ( Peter Erskine)They will still gravitate toward their basic tendency.My Advice to younger players is to record practice sessions, rehearsals and gigs.If you listen to yourself over a long period of time you will see what your strengths and weaknesses are.Over time you will continually make micro adjustments that will get you closer to great time. People need to realize that time is very personal.It will take time for you to figure out where you really feel it. Because my time was weak I was always rushing and playing ahead of the beat with a unsettled nervous feeling.I remember playing one chorus of blues in F for Marc Johnson and Mike Richmond (in separate lessons)both of them stopped me before I got to the turn around and said the same thing- that "I was not feeling the note long enough".Interestingly both those guys spoke of great drummers who they did not lock it up with easily. This shows us how personal time is-When the best do not always feel comfortable with each other.You will notice there are a bazillion books on vocabulary and virtually nothing on rhythm. I think this is because most of the journey in this area is a solitary one.Teachers can guide you and play for you but most of it is hard to articulate. It is something you learn by doing and experiencing it for your self. Training the body to groove-hear groove and feel grove in your body.It is along journey.At least it has been for me!Good Luck

  8. What a great article! I struggle with teaching my singers the feeling of swing and getting them to listen to the right things so they can "feel" what they need in order to produce the "correct" swing feeling.(that's a lot of feelings) I will certainly use this info.

  9. years ago .. i attended a seminar by bassist Michael Moore .. he talked about emphasizing the down beat.. ala Louis Armstrong

  10. This might not be on the swinging quarter note topic, but is very much related to swing as a "feel". I once had a talk with Danilo Perez about this and he gave me the following exercise, which is also a lesson in etnomusicology. the idea was to play a 6/8 Clave rhythm (also known as the african clave in certain circles) and compare it to the "regular" son 3-2 Clave, and comparing both to the New Orleans second-line beat (known also as the marching beat, new orleans beat, and commonly mistaken also as the poinciana beat). In that way you can sort of trace the movement of this feel (from africa, south america to new orleans and then up north). He stressed out, and i strongly agree, that if you get the feel exactly between all three, that is swing.
    Also worth mentioning is Freddie Green as a reference to swinging quarters.

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