The Crime Scene
Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed variations of this conspiracy theory floating around some swing music/dance-related blogs, social media posts and websites:
“The sound that put an end to swing music: Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clark was considered to be the first “bop” drummer. His claim to fame was taking the beat from the hi-hat and snare drum to the ride cymbal thus taking away from the drums’ role as a time keeping instrument.”
The originator of this nonsense relies on conflating two things to create something entirely new. In this case, it’s mixing a perceived change in Swing music causing its “end” with a specific musical innovation.
Cue the Historic Montage
The pulse of Swing Era bands came from their timekeepers, the bassist, drummer (via the bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat), guitarist and pianist. Previously, instruments such as tubas, bass drums, snare drums, choked cymbals, primitive forms of the hi-hat (a.k.a. sock cymbals or low boy) pianos, and banjos provided that pulse.
The use of the snare drum to keep time was a hold-over technique from an earlier period in Jazz. Over time, fewer drummers relied on snare drums rolls to keep the beat and went to the bass drum/snare drum/hi-hat combination to lay down time.
As the music, taste and equipment evolved, drummers began incorporating cymbals to keep time, drive the band, set up ensemble passages and catch shout chorus hits. Drummers continued to reinforce the work of their rhythm section mates by playing a steady stream of quarter notes on the bass drum.
Cymbals, They Were A Changin’
“Avedis quickly came to know all the professional drummers of the day. He became very friendly with Ray Bauduc, who played with Bob Crosby. He also knew Chick Webb and Jo Jones. But it was probably Gene Krupa with whom he had the closest working relationship. “Oftentimes when Gene would visit the (Zildjian) plant, he’d pick out his cymbals and then we’d all go out on Dad’s boat, the Mahal,” recalled Armand. “Gene had many great ideas about playing cymbals, such as using them as the timekeeper on the kit in place of the snare drum.” Source
Did big band drummers vary the classic ding ding-da ding time keeping pattern? Yes.
To hear what bands really sounded like, I enjoy listening to live recordings versus ones captured in the studio. Put on some good headphones and listen to the 1938 recording of the Goodman band at Carnegie Hall. Krupa doesn’t stick with the classic swing pattern during the opening number, Don’t Be That Way. The excitement Krupa generates is because he’s distributing the timekeeping duties among the hi-hat, cymbals, snare drum and laying down a steady four on the floor with the bass drum. He’s teasing out and responding to what’s happening musically around him. This recording is a good example of how early on drummers were venturing past their assumed role as primary timekeeper. OMG! Gene Krupa must have killed Swing music!
Here’s how one journalist describes the playing of Jo Jones with the Basie Band. “…In air checks from the ’30s, you can already hear Jones “dropping bombs,” as it came to be known, moving beyond pure timekeeping into the realm of melodic free association and off-beat syncopations. In his melodic dialogues with the great tenorist Lester Young, you could hear the roots of bebop and modern jazz in the making; and when he tore into a hip-grinding break with Young’s spiritual brother (and stylistic opposite), tenorist Hershel Evans, you could hear the birth of modern R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in the making.” Source
Check out this clip of Jo Jones in 1941 with the Basie Band. At the 2 min 43 second mark, Jo changes from hi-hat to the ride cymbal. Maybe Jo Jones killed Swing music!!!
Even further back, listen to the great Chick Webb Orchestra of 1939, Chick died by this point and a very young Ella Fitzgerald was fronting the band. Listen to the drummer switch from the hi-hat to his china ride cymbal at the 2 minute mark of this recording. Wait, so it was Chick Webb’s replacement who killed Swing music???
The bands on these recordings sure sound like they’re swingin’. The groove is there, the pocket is unmistakable, and my foot is stomping along with the pulse provided by the bassist and the rest of the rhythm section. If the leading big band drummers of the day used ride cymbals and didn’t always play the classic swing pattern note-for-note, then who or what really killed the sound of Swing music?
That hissing sound you’re hearing is the air being let out of this conspiracy theory.
Change Was Afoot
The recordings reveal another innovation. Gene Krupa’s heavy bass drum foot is hard to ignore. Listening to Buddy Rich during the same period and I hear the same thing—a heavy bass drum beat. No judgement, it was the style of the day.
The recording of Jo Jones shows that his bass drum was felt more than heard. The drummer on Fletcher Henderson’s ’38 band doesn’t use a heavy foot. Chick Webb’s replacement, Bill Beason didn’t suffer from heavy bass drum foot syndrome either. It’s without question that these bands SWUNG, the groove/pulse was there, and the dancers loved it too…all without the heavy use of the bass drum.
There’s a long and rich history of musicians latching on to new sounds and techniques that appeal to them. We hear, react and absorb subtle and not-so-subtle innovations by our sisters and brothers and eventually those innovations become the style of the day, some disappear, while other innovations carry on for a very long time and never sound dated. For me, the change in how bass drums were played coincided with the arrival of bands from Kansas City on to the New York City scene. Read what researcher Anthony Brown has to say about Jo Jones’ contribution to the legato groove of the Basie band on page 41 of his article, Modern Jazz Drumset Artistry .
As a drummer this lighter, flowing feel of Swing translates into, play your bass drum quieter to get out of the way of the bassist and use your skills, musicality and gear to enhance what the band is playing. This innovation frees drummers from the monotony of pure timekeeping to enhancing the sound of the band. The bassist provides the necessary strong pulse for the band and dancers.
The Smoking Cymbal
Kenny Clarke relates the following story. “But as Clarke recalled to writer Ira Gitler in Swing to Bop, while playing with Teddy Hill’s big band one night in 1939, an arrangement of “Old Man River” went too fast for his foot to work the bass pedal. Instead, he kept the pulse going on the cymbal, using the bass and snare to “cut the time UP”. It was initially too weird for dancers and bandmates used to four-on-the-floor: Clarke was soon fired.” Source
So let’s get this straight, because Kenny had to adjust his time keeping technique to accommodate his inability to play his bass drum fast enough during one song, he’s the poster child for the demise of Swing music? Our conspiracy theorist is really reaching.
The Big Reveal
It appears that the originator of this fairy tale about ride cymbals taking down Swing music used Kenny Clarke’s often-told story and massaged it into a false conclusion to suit his own needs.
So why would the originator be so motivated to push such a purist agenda and peddle his opinions as facts? Because the originator of this conspiracy theory is a bandleader. His sepia-toned website touts that his bands play with, “stunning authenticity” and the members of his bands are, “an elite aggregation of some of the world’s most prominent vintage-jazz specialists.” It’s plain to see that ignoring evolution and demonizing innovators, is well, good for business.
The only thing Kenny Clarke is guilty of is taking the craft of Jazz drumming to a new level of development–to a more musical place. Drummers are still building on the foundation Kenny laid.
The conflated argument that has morphed into fact needs to be extinguished. This guy is re-writing history and creating click-bait headlines for his own benefit. I’ve heard recordings of his band and they’re totally legit. They swing. People are dancing. The musicians do a good job of phrasing and interpreting the music in the correct style. Why can’t that be enough for this mug?
Hopefully in time, this Beacon of Bounce will learn to stay in his own lane and leave true innovators like Kenny Clarke alone.
Meanwhile, Keep Swingin’ and Be-Boppin’ too. Even though Bop might not be your thing, it’s all valid music.