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Read an extract from As Serious As Your Life by Val Wilmer

February 2018

First published in 1977, Val Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life: Black Music And The Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977 will be reprinted by Serpent's Tail on 1 March

“James Brown recorded this tune and I remember him saying, ‘Give the drummer some!’ That opened a lot of eyes and ears” – Beaver Harris

“Some Africans believe that it was through the sound of the drum that God gave man the ability to speak or to understand one another in contrast to the lower animals, to differentiate him from the lesser creatures. So this is in a way symbolic or figurative, but it is like how close the drum is to them. And you know, in our music the drum is like the mother of the music, it’s like the heartbeat. It transmits the pulse, the energy, the basic feeling of the music, so this is something that is like very, very close. If you take the drum out of most Black music it would probably almost be lifeless – even down to rock, because the whole thing people relate to in rock or rhythm and blues is the drum and the other things are just embellishments.”

Andrew Cyrille, who worked with Cecil Taylor from 1964 to 1975 including two years as Artist-In-Residence at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, lectures frequently on the drum and its historical place in Afro-American music. In 1974, he had a weekly series on the subject on Radio WKCR-FM in New York. He knows that when the drummer gives up in Black music, things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, for the drums, after all, are there to take care of business.

Baby Dodds, who is generally regarded as the first major influence on jazz drumming, once called the drummer the conductor of the band. Roger Blank, a young drummer who has played with Sun Ra, likened him to a coachman: “He’s got four horses and he’s got the whip. He controls the speed of the horses – to an extent. He’s not the leader but he has the capacity to change the rhythm up.” White critics, though, coming from a nonpercussion-oriented background, found difficulty in relating to the drums. They taught listeners – and sometimes their ideas influenced other drummers* – to conveniently overlook that the drummer is the one component of any group of musicians capable of dictating the feeling of a piece of music regardless of the composer’s, ie the soloist’s intentions. It is for this reason that the importance of a drummer should be assessed in terms not only of what he does himself as a stylist or individual – ie playing to a set formula – but also, what he contributes to the band through his playing with the other musicians.

Andrew Cyrille feels that originally most critics tended to compare jazz to the type of European music with which they were familiar. “And that’s foolish to begin with because they’re two languages. The drum, of course, is one of the first instruments outside of the voice. I think after people began talking, they probably started banging on tree-trunks, and as a result drums began to be formed. The drum as it is used in European music was mainly in a supporting role or in a role for accidentals, to mark places, whereas in African music or music of other peoples like, for example, the [American] Indians, the drum played a very important part in everything they did. It was absolutely necessary, and drums were consecrated.”

To Cyrille, the drummer shapes the music “like the skeleton in a body”. Although the drums have not exactly dictated the direction of the music of each era as has been suggested, he feels that the drum is implicit in the work of all the innovators. “By that I mean that their rhythm is very definite and even though [what they are doing] is melodic and harmonic, it’s really playing rhythm. Even Louis Armstrong – what made him such a great innovator is the fact that his rhythm is so strong. So literally it may not be so, but figuratively it is the drum.”

Roger Blank realised this when he played with Pharoah Sanders on Tauhid, his first recording for Impulse. After two weeks of exacting rehearsal, he began to realise that Sanders’s emotional style of playing in the high register of his saxophone sprang directly from the rhythms behind him. “In each tune there is a particular rhythm that identifies itself to the melody. They get together and there’s a marriage, they have children and they branch out. Now if there’s no rhythm to bring it together, then the melody’s just floating out there by itself.”

Elvin Jones, born Pontiac, Michigan, in 1927, was one of the drummers who extended the idea of time-keeping by playing a supplementary time over the given time. This had been suggested by other drummers before but culminated in Jones’s work with The John Coltrane Quartet. Up until Jones’s rise to prominence, the drummer tended towards keeping strict time with his right hand on the open cymbal, while the left hand played a variety of accents on the snare drum. The right foot provided further accents on the bass drum, and the sock-cymbal or hi-hat, which consists of two cymbals, one of them inverted, was operated by the left foot, usually to clash together on the second and fourth beats in the bar. (This is simplifying matters somewhat because every individual has a different approach to playing rhythm.)

The main function of the drummer has always been to act as a metronome behind the soloists, and to fill in wherever necessary or possible according to taste and capability, but Jones, although not the first drummer to keep time and also pick up at a split second on whatever the soloist was doing, took the process a step further than, say, Max Roach who, playing with trumpeter Clifford Brown, had been the supreme master of this until this time.

A regular beat on the cymbal had been mandatory prior to Jones’s inception, but to him it was no longer necessary to state every beat in every bar and he would frequently drop the steady cymbal beat in favour of punctuations on the snare drum. With Jones, the drummer ceased to be an accompanist and became an equal participant in a conversation with the other instruments.

Elvin Jones worked with John Coltrane from 1960 to 1965, and during that time he played an equal part with the saxophonist in the creation of the sound, the music, that came to be known as The John Coltrane Quartet. The British drummer John Stevens has even suggested that Jones’s contribution may have more bearing on the future of the music than Coltrane’s because of the conversational relationship he developed with the soloist and the other instruments in the quartet. Jones did not take the percussionist’s usual subservient role, neither did he play anything superfluous to the soloist’s direction. The conversation and the sharing of responsibilities were precursors of the way drumming would be regarded in the future. And Jones himself has said that he was very conscious of deliberately changing the time around.

His successor, Rashied Ali, has pointed out: “Now John Coltrane was, we know, the innovator of the horn, but he had to have a rhythm. Everybody has to have a different kind of rhythm to make that different kind of sound on the horn get over, so consequently, Elvin Jones had to play a very free type of drumming to play with the kind of music that Trane was playing. In other words, when Bird was playing, there had to be a Max Roach around to cope with that style, to make it move. If the rhythm ain’t correct, then the group’s not happening.”

Jones is a major innovator in the music, but unlike Sunny Murray or Milford Graves, later innovators who play completely free of the need to maintain any kind of time, his conditioning places him in an earlier era. “The role of the drummer is primarily to keep time,” he says. “Whether you think you are or not, always in one way or another, either consciously or subconsciously – or unconsciously – the drummer is keeping time, or implied time. Regardless of how abstract it may seem, if it’s analysed to its fullest extent, it will be ultimately a very definite repetitious rhythm.”

Edward Blackwell and Billy Higgins are the two most important drummers to play with Ornette Coleman in terms of their contribution to the group’s music, although Charles Moffett, a former classmate of Coleman’s, worked with the saxophonist from 1961 to 1967, and Elvin Jones has also recorded with him. On Coleman’s recording of “Free” from the album Change Of The Century, Higgins plays time, but as John Stevens has pointed out, at one point he can be heard “taking the bottom off” the rhythm in such a way that his playing suggests freedom. 14 months later, Higgins and Blackwell both played on the epoch-making Coleman Double Quartet album, Free Jazz.

“Billy is a natural,” said Steve Lacy, the soprano saxophonist who once worked with Cecil Taylor. “He can play on an ashtray, on top of a bar or on the floor, and it’ll sound beautiful. He has besides a natural awareness of form, a real musicality, so that you can say of his work – unlike the playing of most drummers – that it’s melodious.”

Blackwell constantly plays rhythms, as opposed to Higgins who is more concerned with cooking up a happy swing feeling. Blackwell uses every part of his drumkit with precision, even utilising the cymbals as additional drums as opposed to dealing with their conventional role. He is very direct, almost playing on the beat, and can be said to be a direct descendant of Max Roach, the man he cites as his major influence.

“Drums, even though they’re not very melodic, can be very suggestive in that way. They can have some very warm emotions, they can suggest moods. You can tell stories with drums. Some people, though, approach the drums like the average layman would, just as something to beat on, whereas the drums can be something just as melodic as any other instrument except that you don’t have the facilities for having a melody come out like the other instruments. But when you use different volume control, different accents and other things – in other words, if you sing with the drums, then you really get it to happen. It comes out like you hear it, and that’s what I try to do. And in Africa that’s the way the drummers play. They have this same thing, especially in Nigeria where they have the talking drum. They really sing with their drum and it’s phenomenal.”

Higgins and Blackwell, like Elvin Jones, are ‘time’ players, although both of them have worked with musicians who require a free, unrestricting background. Another influential drummer in the 60s was Tony Williams, who joined Miles Davis in 1963 at the age of 17. Williams was very fashionable, though not quite as innovatory as suggested. He took a number of figures and ideas created by his predecessors such as Roy Haynes and assembled them in a way that continues to be influential. For example, his trick of hitting a rimshot between beats came as a surprise and was very appealing. It has been used by countless drummers since. Williams belongs to the tradition of the drummer as showman. He was playing with the hippest band of the day, he was young and looked good and he knew it. Unlike Blackwell, Higgins and Jones, he did not attempt to hold a conversation with the soloist, rather, he played alongside him and complemented his line with an equally hip one of his own. When he left Davis, he formed a rock-oriented group, Lifetime, in company with organist Larry Young and two British musicians, bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist John McLaughlin, and could no longer be thought of as an influential force in the music.

Sunny’s Time

During the time that Tony Williams was travelling the world with Miles and moving in and out of the Blue Note recording studios as a house-drummer, the two men who showed just how far the drummer could move from his traditional time-keeping role were being heard around New York. With Sunny Murray and Milford Graves, the drumkit ceased to be a collection of instruments, each with a specific function. Murray’s aim was to free the soloist completely from the restrictions of time, and to do this he set up a continual hailstorm of percussion. His concept relied heavily on continuous ringing stick-work on the edge of the cymbals, an irregular staccato barrage on the snare, spasmodic bass drum punctuations, and constant, but not metronomic, use of the sock-cymbal (hi-hat). He played with his mouth open, emitting an incessant wailing which blended into the overall percussion backdrop of shifting pulses rather than specific rhythms. The listener had to imagine the beat in Murray’s drumming, and in fact, if listened to in the conventional way, his playing often seems to bear very little relation to what the soloist is doing. What he did do, though, was to lay down a shimmering tapestry behind the soloist, enabling him to move wherever he wanted. With Albert Ayler, he developed a way of playing where he himself could hear everything that was going on. Later, though, he became more dominant in the music. At first his drumkit was small, limited, possibly by economic considerations or the fact that it was usually borrowed, to snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat and a single cymbal. Later, in order to obtain a wide variety of sounds, he added tom-toms, gongs, Chinese rhythm-blocks and as many as three regular and four sock-cymbals. “I like to assimilate more natural, human sounds. By giving yourself more to play at the drop of a hat, you can do this. It’s important to have a lot of equipment around you so you don’t have to look so far. Some people have a lot of stuff around them, but they don’t have the energy to play. It’s like you become like a nuclear warpile or something!”

In Murray’s case, the comparison was fairly accurate. His relatively tempestuous life began in 1937 near the Indian Reservation at Idabel in South-Eastern Oklahoma. His mother sang and danced and a sister sang with Red Prysock, but he was raised by an uncle who was to die after being refused treatment at an Oklahoma hospital because he was Black. His stepbrother John, who died prematurely of a heroin overdose, once played drums with Lionel Hampton and was responsible for his introduction to music. At the age of nine, Murray was playing drums. His teens, which included two years in a Pennsylvania reformatory, were spent in the roughest part of Philadelphia. He switched temporarily to the trumpet and trombone, but by the time he moved to New York City in 1956, he was back behind the drums. His musical education until then had been as sparse as his life had been ugly, but he was serious about music and spent two years studying percussion. He earned his living in such diversified occupations as building superintendent and car washer and eventually lost part of two fingers in an industrial accident. By the end of the 50s, though, he was playing with people like trumpeter Ted Curson and saxophonists Rocky Boyd and Jackie McLean.

He also worked with such older musicians as the trumpeter Henry ‘Red’ Allen and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, the pianist, before a chance encounter with Cecil Taylor altered his entire way of thinking about music. The year was 1959 and, he recalled, “for six years all the other things were wiped from my mind”.

He told Robert Levin: Other drummers had played with him, of course, but they had played something conventional like ‘tankating’. “But I decided not to play that way. I was playing on one. I thought it was very hip to play on one. Bass players would always say, ‘Oh, motherfucker, you keep turning the beat around.’ So a lot of cats didn’t like me – though some cats did.” [1]

Murray went back to play with the beboppers after that night and they all started to laugh at him. “They kept saying, ‘Hey, Sunny played with Cecil,’ and making a big joke out of it. And I was thinking ‘who is Cecil? Who the devil is this cat I played with?” He started to search for the pianist who had made such an impact on him and obviously, though in a different way, on the other musicians. Eventually he ran him to earth and Taylor found him a loft in the building where he himself was living. It took Murray three weeks before he could summon up the courage to play in front of Taylor again. The pianist would lie in bed all day and watch him set up his drums. One day he got up and joined in, playing on his beat-up old upright. “I want you to play something like you never played before,” he told Murray. “What do you mean, like a drum solo?” Murray started to solo but Taylor told him, “No, stop. Just let yourself play.” [2]

It was not until almost three years later that Murray realised Taylor was leading him into a new system of music. He is one of only three drummers to fit comfortably and work for any length of time with the pianist. The others are Dennis Charles, whom he replaced, and Andrew Cyrille, who succeeded him in 1964. Charles was a strict time-keeper up until joining Taylor, while Cyrille had a reputation for his command of the rudiments. (“Everyone in Brooklyn knew that,” said Milford Graves. “Andrew had hands.”) Murray had been a time-keeper, too, although his occasional ‘freer’ excursions had not endeared him to the more conventional members of the musicians’ community. His playing changed radically, he says, when he became aware of what Elvin Jones was doing. “I realised I couldn’t play this way anymore, and for five years, none of the other drummers could stand me.” It was Taylor, though, who encouraged his unconventional style and worked on it with him. Murray created an entirely new concept of drumming, building impulses rather than identifiable rhythms, giving an entirely new meaning to the word ‘swing’. “Do he swing? Do anything?” asked LeRoi Jones about the feeling generated by another drumming innovator. “The tap you hear is your own pulse, fellow human being.”[3] With Murray – “a conductor of energies”, Jones called him – his pulse became a shifting metronome, a metronome that kept a new kind of time.

To most other drummers, though, what he was doing was a complete rejection of everything the drummer stood for. It was not until he returned from a 1962 visit to Europe with Taylor that the first established players to fall under his influence started to be heard around New York City, JC Moses and Paul Motian among them.

Murray’s ‘time’ playing can be heard on the three tracks by The Taylor Quintet that includes Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp and Henry Grimes on one side of Into The Hot, an album issued under Gil Evans’s name in 1961 as a result of his insistence that the pianist’s work become known. Murray actually went to Europe for the first time with Taylor and Lyons in 1962, and the resulting records made in Copenhagen at the Café Montmartre show a much freer approach to the question of rhythm. “With Cecil, I had to originate a complete new direction on drums because he was playing different then; he wasn’t playing so rhythmically.” Less than two years later, though, Murray’s simple boppish drumming could still be heard on tracks such as “Like A Blessed Baby Lamb”, recorded by The New York Contemporary Five (Shepp, Ted Curson and bassist Ronnie Boykins, with guest trumpeter Don Cherry).

Murray himself actually considers that his rhythmical role with Taylor accelerated the increasing comprehensibility of the pianist’s music, as it also did in the case of Albert Ayler. He and Ayler met and recorded together for Danish television in December 1962 as members of The Cecil Taylor Unit. On their return to America, they started to work together. The following year, they made their first recordings together. Two albums for the Danish Debut label were followed by the revolutionary trio date for ESP-Disk with Gary Peacock on bass. In all, Murray made nine recordings with Ayler, though one of the ESPs, New York Eye And Ear Control was a co-operative effort, and Sonny’s Time Now was issued under his own name on LeRoi Jones’s Jihad label. “Holy Ghost”, recorded live at the New York nightclub, the Village Gate, in 1965, appeared as a single track on the Impulse album entitled The New Wave In Jazz.

Murray is obsessed with the idea of strength and intensity in music. In 1966 he felt that the new music had reached a certain level of intensity and that he was the one drummer sufficiently equipped to break through this barrier. Because sound for its own sake is one of the distinguishing features of the new music, he considers that the drums as we know them are virtually obsolete. “They only have a certain pitch, and that’s all that can be played. They can’t sustain, and with this music becoming more of a sustaining, ringing type of thing, it’s even getting beyond rhythms.

“First of all, there is nothing more you can do – all the way down to breaking the bass drum or making the cymbals split. There is no more there, and that is actually reaching the point of unmusical music – it’s below the cultural octave or something.” With this in mind, Murray has been trying to develop a different kind of drumset that uses electricity to sustain oscillating pitches. This, in effect, will be “more in touch with the human voice in terms of humming and screaming and laughing and crying”.

In 1966, Murray recorded with his own group for ESP. Bassist Alan Silva, saxophonists Jack Graham and Byard Lancaster and Jacques Coursil, a trumpeter born in Paris to parents from Martinique, were the nucleus of the session and, with tenor saxophonist Frank Wright, of the groups the drummer assembled for the infrequent jobs he found during that period. Later he started to travel to Europe under his own steam, frequently joining forces there with Lancaster and Silva and occasionally with Wright. In 1968, he recorded for Columbia with an 11-piece orchestra but the album was never released. According to one report, the official word from the company was that “the music was so chaotic we couldn’t release it”. (At the same time they did issue a recording by the white pianist Burton Greene, although, it was pointed out, “that wasn’t selling either”.) Included in the perpetration of the alleged chaos were the stalwarts Wright and Silva, along with Dewey Redman, the saxophonist who had worked frequently with Ornette Coleman, trombonist Clifford Thornton, who was later to play cornet on Murray’s BYG recording, Homage To Africa, pianist Dave Burrell, Junie Booth on electric bass, and percussionist Art Lewis, who played everything from maracas and chimes to carhorn and washboard.

There was nothing new about using two drummers – Coltrane had done it some time before when he added Rashied Ali, to the Quartet, but when Murray made his decision, Art Lewis felt it was an honour to be chosen by such an important pioneer of the new music. “He is very particular about the people he gets, especially in the percussion section,” he said. The two men started to work around New York, Lewis’s essentially African devices highlighting Murray’s floating, unchainable approach. As the new music becomes increasingly more percussion-oriented, Lewis visualises a new path for the drummer. “If you notice, most drummers now play the cymbal basically. A lot of times you hear more cymbals than you do drums. I think that mostly the cymbals are going to be dropped to sort of like gongs and bells – that relationship. And I think the trap drummers are going to be playing on their drums what they played on their cymbals – in any music, in conventional music or the new music like you hear now.”

It sometimes seems when Murray plays that he is responding to the soloist (which is what the good drummer is supposed to do), but basically, he plays in such a way that either is free to go where they like. The overall effect, then, is the combination of their separate desires, but this can only be achieved by a drummer who is aware of the horn player’s needs. His playing, and the freedom implicit in it, is not as simple as it appears. “Even in freedom,” said Murray, “there should be a certain amount of composition – if you’re going out with the emphasis on being a professional musician. If you’re just an amateur, you’re trying to get yourself together, and so everything you do is understandable. But if you’re working with major musicians, you’re supposed to devote your time to existing as a sideman, albeit a constructive sideman.” The new direction for percussionists is one of controlled freedom, he maintained. “Complete freedom you could get from anyone who walks down the street. Give them 20 dollars and they’ll probably do something pretty free!”

At one time, Murray felt that he was the judge where the young unknowns were concerned. To survive the obstacle course he built with his barrage of sound was one of New York’s biggest challenges in the middle-sixties. He likened the position he held to Art Blakey’s some years earlier. “If you could get through with him, you could play with anyone. I have such a magnitude of strength about myself that I often destroy something that has set up on its own basis to be very way-out and creative. I’ve sent to Washington for musicians, given auditions, but I’ve seen them drop out because people usually expect the feeling of drums, and they aren’t ready for what I do. I work for natural sounds rather than trying to sound like drums. Sometimes I try to sound like car motors or the continuous cracking of glass.

“Say a young artist is in town and he’s played with about five young avant garde drummers, and so he feels very substantial. But when it comes down to playing with me, he no longer hears himself because my knowledge of natural sound and music only tends to make me bring about twice as much as he creates within a second. So finally he is confronted with either complete physical exhaustion or exhaustion of creativity. When this is over, he realises that he is in a complete different state of being, confronted with not just the sound of drums but the sound of the crashing of cars and the upheaval of a volcano and the thunder of the skies. He never imagined himself being locked in a room with these kind of sounds being played off against him.”

This excerpt is taken from the chapter “The Spirit Behind The Musicians” from As Serious As Your Life: Black Music And The Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977 by Val Wilmer . It is published by Serpent’s Tail on 1 March, £12.99.

As Serious As Your Life is available via The Wire's online bookshop.



* Connie Kay, an integral part of The Modern Jazz Quartet for 19 years, actually dislikes drum solos. He told Whitney Balliett in Ecstasy At The Onion: “Drums are a flat instrument, and besides Catlett is gone and there’s only one Buddy Rich. I know how I feel when other drummers solo. It seems like you’ve heard it all before. There just aren’t that many original people around.”

1 Robert Levin, “Sunny Murray: The Continuous Cracking Of Glass”, in Rivelli and Levin (editors), The Black Giants, New York and Cleveland, 1970.
2 ibid.
3 LeRoi Jones, “Apple Cores No 6”, Down Beat 1966; reprinted in Black Music, New York, 1968.

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