Rhythm is elemental, as elemental as breathing in, breathing out. When our hearts start to beat, it is here, inside. Before the ticking of clocks and even before the cradle rocks. If our mother holds us so our head rests on her left, the beat of her heart echoes our own. Her rocking comforts us, quiets are tears, and returns us to safety and sleep.
We resonate to rhythm. If every child is an artist, or every human being is a poet, I suspect that even before we use words or draw, we are drummers. We tap our feet. We respond to the pulse of repeated sounds. Cultures find ways to amplify and harmonize. And, groups form drum circles. So, it goes.
I started playing drums in fifth grade. The director soon put me on bass drum and cymbals. I played them in school bands clear into college. My mother bought me a pair of bongos when I was a freshman in high school. I still have them. Then, as a junior, I get my first drum set which I painted black and covered with glitter, leaving little stars on the carpet under my set. I practiced playing to a Dixieland record which and learned the swing beat. My senior year my sister played piano, a friend played stand-up bass and I played brushes and a high hat.
Somewhere, I have a picture of us performing for the end-of-the-school-year Peoria High band members dinner.
Incidentally, when Gene Krupa came to Peoria to play at the Clover Club in the late fifties, my music fraternity brother got him to come up to Bradley to do a set with the Phi Mu Alpha Jazz band. I exchanged the snare drums so that he would play on that black, sparkled one from home. Afterwards, Krupa said that it was the worst snare drum he had ever played on. I was sitting behind him on my bongos and in the middle of one number, he turned and said, “Wail on those things, Kid.” I froze, and instead of a four bar bongo solo there was a sort of embarrassed fumble of sound and silence which was hardly the clever rhythms one would like to remember.
I bought my 22 inch Zildjian ride cymbal in the late fifties for a hundred and twenty dollars. I still play it. A few years ago at a Guitar Center in St. Paul, I mentioned to the salesman in the drum booth, that I had that cymbal. He said, “You shouldn’t be playing that. It should be hanging on the wall. It is worth a thousand dollars. All the professional drummers are trying to find them.” I thought, “Why shouldn’t I be playing it? Why should it be hanging on the wall?
I’m a drummer.”
In the late fifties, there were only Zildjians—no Paiste or Meinl or Sabian or Wuhan/Dream. Also, I didn’t know that the Zildjian family business started in 1642 and is the oldest family business in the world. They started in Turkey and came to the United States in the twenties and only four family members know the secret formulas for the cymbals. I do know that they don’t make them like they used to. My Zildjian appears to be 22 inches of wound brass wires pressed and molded together, making a sound that you can’t get any other way.
“About matters of tasted there can be no disputing.” It’s strictly personal, but there are drummers that won’t play any cymbals except Zildjian. Also, the list of drummers that have used them includes Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and Neil Pert. A good cymbal set sells for $700 or more and can cost more than the whole China-made, but decent set of drums. You get the feeling from talking to drummers that the cymbals are the most important part of the set. In fact, I bought an hour and half long DVD on tuning your drums and then like some wine aficionados have said, “But, it’s all a matter of your personal taste.”
I had a black ball cap with “Zildjian” embroidered on the bill in gold thread.
Whenever I wore my Zildjian hat, someone, even Custom’s or Security persons at the airport would say, “Are you a percussionist?” I would say, “No. I don’t read. I’m a drummer.”
I did take piano lessons or tried. Three times. I think the 220 volt shock that I got when I was six burned off all the electrons for math and music scores. I was teasing my sister and her little friend, pretending to throw their doll off the roof and I hit the 220 wire with the insulation worn off and it knocked me out and backwards. Fortunately, the Dr. Rich’s office was right across the street. The service station attendant saw me fall on the roof and carried me over there. I still have scars from the burns. I can count and read four quarter notes to a measure but bass drum and cymbal scores for school band don’t look anything like the complicated scores that professional percussionists have to be able to read.
At Mt. Rushmore, as we were walking around looking up at the presidents this summer, a boy about thirteen or fourteen saw my Zildjian hat and said, “Are you a percussionist?” I said, “No, I’m a drummer. Are you a percussionist?” He said he was. For the next fifteen or twenty minutes, we talked about drumming. I told him the difference between playing brushes and playing sticks. With brushes you think horizontally and in terms of duration. With sticks, you think vertically and in terms of the number of strokes. We had a great time, walking beneath the presidents, on common ground.
My theory of drumming is the same as Ringo Starr: Listen to what the other musicians are doing. Figure out what will fit. Keep the pulse and stay out of the way of the singer(s).
I play drums in three groups, a cool jazz which does “The Great American Songbook tunes, a 70’s-80’s pop and the Fine Kettle of Fish classic rock band. Since, I don’t read, I have to pay attention.
After more than fifty years, I have finally reached the point, if you give me a count of two, I can keep that pulse for hours. It wasn’t always that way. When I was in the ROTC marching band at Bradley University and we had the top brass in for a review. As the bass drummer I changed the beat from 80 to 120 and back, again. The commanding officer chewed me out royally and I didn’t even realize why at the time. Not sure anyone else noticed, but the troops marched slower, faster and slower as we passed in review.
Now, at seventy-five, I can keep the beat and stay out of the way of the singer and usually find something that fits. I usually, can feel the breaks and the endings coming.
It’s just about the most fun, I have. Time stops for a while. And, my heart is still beating, too. How much better can that get!?
Oh, I put the Zildjian hat on my knee in a little restaurant in Yellowstone Park and it must have fallen off on the floor. Some busboy is having those conversations about drumming.
Brooks McDaniel – 11/28/14