Recently, on his facebook page, jazz drumming great Kenny Washington posted a response to a young drummer who asked him, “How do I take my drumming to the next level?” Mr. Washington’s reply is so full of good advice that I am compelled to share it with all of you. Please read on…this is seriously important information.
Abinnet- That’s a very broad question. Taking your playing to the next level means different things to different people. Here’s my first view point. Usually when I hear that term, I think to myself “oh, oh, here’s another cat that wants to take the jazz world by storm trying to play something different.” I’m convinced that it just doesn’t happened that way. I knew some the masters like Elvin Jones, Max and Art Blakey. Hanging with them, I feel that they had something different from the beginning. They played what they felt and heard. Naturally, that came from what they heard their idols playing. It was their musical spin on what they heard. They definitely knew everything about those early drummers. If you got Elvin on the topic of Sonny Greer or Shadow Wilson, he would talk your ear off about them. I really think that Elvin, Max etc. wanted to be great musicians first. They worked hard at that and developed over time. Talking and hanging with these masters, they never talked about setting the Jazz world on fire. Of course they all did, but they just wanted to play the best that they could. What I’m saying is this, there’s a big emphasis and pressure being put on young guys to play something that’s so called different or fresh and new. I think a lot of younger guys have read too many Jazz books. They’re romanticizing about what they think these masters were doing in their early years. Also, a lot of this pressure comes from critics and record producers who never knew anything to begin with about music. A good portion of these younger guys never studied the history and have no experience as sidemen. If you don’t do the homework, you’ll never really get anywhere. Don’t worry about trying to play something new. Practice and study to be able to play your instrument well and swing your ass off. If the so called new stuff happens, it will happen. All the greats played with one foot in the past and the other in the future. Having said all of that, here’s my second view point. For me, I never thought about next levels and all the superficial shit. I thought about the next gig. Your hands and overall technique are very important. I say this all the time. The way below average technical facility of a lot of the young jazz drummers on the scene today is alarming. I’m not saying that all of them are like that, but a lot of these guys couldn’t play an even 5 stroke roll. These chaps are out here on the scene working. I hate to put people down or talk like I’m on some high horse which I’m not, but damn!!!! I’m up every morning at the crack of dawn practicing trying to play better. What helped me coming up was practicing out of Charlie Wilcoxon’s “Modern Rudimental Swing Solos”. Practice these etudes slowly bar by bar and take them apart. This will help your control, brushes and help you to get a better sound on the instrument. Listening to records is very, very important. I checked out tons of music. Too many records to mention. I listened to just about every drummer you can think of. At one time or another, I tried to play like all of them. I learned what made them all tick. All of them have something to offer you musically. If you do that, you’ll eventually get your own sound and start to formulate your own ideas from what you’ve heard. Don’t just listen to the drummers, but listen to how they accompany the other musicians. It’s what I call “musical action and reaction.” Learn the melodies and solos of other instrumentalists as well. This will teach you about musical form which in turn will help you to play musical drum solos. All of these things helped my approach to the drums. As for getting my foot in the door business wise, I would say be ready musically. Put your time in on the instrument before you start trying to sit in with the stars. Be musically honest with yourself. Tape yourself. Remember that a tape recorder never lies. Self criticism is important. Use the greats like Max, Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb etc. as musical role models. It’s not like you want to sound like them, but you want that same high quality in your playing. Playing with local musicians that have more experience than you is also very important. Ask for comments from these musicians. It might not be what you want to hear, but listen and give thought to what they’ve said. When you’ve really put the time in, then try to sit in with the more established musicians. It’s like applying for an office job. First impressions are everything. If the boss is not impressed, you won’t get the job. It’s the same thing with music. If the boss likes your playing, you’ll get hired. If he doesn’t, you won’t get the gig. If you come back months later even if you’re playing much better, he probably won’t be interested. He remembers you from the first time. Take your time and put the work into the instrument. If you do that, you’ll reap the benefits and eventually your phone will start to ring. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to go and practice. As the master drummer Arthur Taylor used to say PLENTY, PLENTY BYE, BYE!!!!
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Great advice, I’m an older guy and Kenny is right on. However let me add something…learn to read! I didn’t want to learn, I just wanted to play and lots of jobs didn’t require me to read. But it ended up hurting me in a lot of ways. Today I can read a little…but I’ve lost lots of opportunities because I didn’t read in my early years.
I agree 100 percent. Reading is essential. Trying to learn drumming without learning to read is just going to make it MUCH harder to learn. You wouldn’t want to learn ANY language without without learning to read and write it, and music is just a language……
Abinnet Berhanu says
I was the one who wrote Kenny Washington. I lived by these words everyday in university. The best advice I ever got. Thanks for finding this.
Hi Abinnet – Thanks so much for letting us know. It’s a great bit of drumming thought, and I am glad to have shared it with people. Thanks again.