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Historians may quibble over the exact origins of jazz. But few will doubt that, at its inception, jazz emerged from a rhythmic impulse. From that union of traditional African rhythms with European military percussion sprang a drumming discourse that has taken various shapes and guises over the years. From swing to bebop, avant-garde to fusion, here are just a few of jazz’s drumming pioneers and the recorded legacies they left behind.
Arthur "Zutty" Singleton, Louis Armstrong Hot Fives & Sevens Vol. 4 (JSP, 2010), 1926-1927
Among the cadre of innovative drummers shaping the sound of jazz at the dawn of the 20th century, Zutty Singleton was a standout. A contemporary of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, Singleton is credited with introducing the improvised drum solo to the jazz lexicon. His contributions to Armstrong’s HotFive and HotSeven recordings are foundational listening.
Similarly noteworthy: Warren “Baby” Dodds, Alfred “Tubby” Hall
Chick Webb, “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (Columbia, 1934)
By dint of his virtuosic performances and eloquent musicality, Chick Webb became a major force as a drummer and bandleader in the formative years of the Big Band Era. His 1934 recording of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” named for the Harlem Club that he and other jazz legends would routinely headline, is jazz canon. A testament to his golden ear: His band was an early platform for vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.
Similarly noteworthy: Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole
Gene Krupa, “Sing, Sing, Sing” (with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra) (Brunswick, 1937)
An incandescent star of the Dance Band Era, Gene Krupa was one of the first jazz musicians to channel the verve and vigor of the dance floor into his drum set. While some critics dismiss his drumming as excessively frenetic, Krupa was a precision stylist who understood the eruptive power of the drums. His drum solo on Benny Goodman’s 1937 recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing” has been immortalized in pop culture.
Similarly noteworthy: Shelly Manne, Ed Shaughnessy
Papa Jo Jones, Count Basie: The Original American Decca Recordings (Decca/GRP, 1937-1939)
If American mid-century swing was a portrait, Papa Jones was its painter. From behind the traps in the Count Basie Orchestra, Jones embodied the cymbal-heavy “spang-a-lang” sound that would serve as the lifeforce of jazz for decades to come. This is the blueprint from which most modern jazz drumming was designed. An absolute treasure.
Similarly noteworthy: Sonny Greer, Sonny Payne
Kenny Clarke, Bohemia After Dark (Savoy, 1955)
Widely heralded as the father of bebop drumming, Kenny Clarke imbued every flash of his drumstick with the spirit of swing. A drummer equally at home behind horn players and vocalists, Clarke was known for his painterly use of the ride cymbal, and many of today’s top drummers can trace their stylistic lineage back to this source. His 1955 outing Bohemia After Dark, with a young Cannonball Adderley, is the essence of hipness.
Similarly noteworthy: Stan Levy, Denzil Best
Philly Joe Jones, Showcase (Riverside, 1959)
An omniscient presence in jazz, Philly Joe Jones played with a crispness and profound simplicity that made him a favorite of jazz legends. Active from the bebop era to the 1980s, Jones left his imprimatur on jazz history in numerous ways, including as the heartbeat of Miles Davis’ famed First Quartet and Bill Evans' impressionistic early trios. But his leader work, such as on 1959’s Showcase, is equally staggering.
Similarly noteworthy: Art Taylor
Roy Haynes, We Three (New Jazz, 1959)
The veritable Iron Man of jazz drumming, Roy Haynes has contributed to the evolution of nearly every jazz style — from swing to bebop, avant-garde to jazz-rock. As a musician, he was the epitome of sophistication: clean, crisp and unshakably poised, always at the right place at the right time. No wonder he is among the most recorded jazz drummers of all time. His 1959 leader outing We Three is essential Haynes.
Similarly noteworthy: Ed Thigpen
Art Blakey, Moanin’ (Blue Note, 1959)
Drummer Art Blakey was one of the most influential bandleaders of the past 50 years, a musical mentor whose long-running band, The Jazz Messengers, served as an incubator for jazz’s top talent, having provided firm footing for Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Cedar Walton, Bobby Watson, Terence Blanchard, Kevin Eubanks and Wynton and Branford Marsalis, to name just a few. His distinguishing trait was his presence, with drumming that seemed to lift his bandmates to new heights. Moanin’ finds the Messengers in prophetic form.
Similarly noteworthy: Mel Lewis
Max Roach, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1961)
Lauded for his hard-charging rhythmic accompaniment and melodic drum soloing, Roach was a seminal figure in the development of hard bop, as well as an early advocate for opening jazz’s borders to world music and the avant-garde. A relentless pursuer of Civil Rights, Roach invested much of his music with an ardent political bent. We Insist! was a showcase for both his astounding musicality and his incisive political message.
Similarly noteworthy: Idris Muhammad, Joe Morello
Elvin Jones, A Love Supreme (with John Coltrane) (Impulse! 1965)
The backbone of John Coltrane’s superhuman quartet in the 1960s, Elvin Jones was a drummer of almost unparalleled fluidity and strength, and a musician with the rare ability to use rhythms as a sort of mosaic. His performance on the epoch-defining album A Love Supreme lends the record its spiritual uplift.
Similarly noteworthy: Al Foster
Tony Williams, Emergency! (Verve, 1969)
Tony Williams was all of 17 years old when erupted onto the jazz scene via the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963. With a power and elasticity that would redefine modern jazz drumming — in groups led by Herbie Hancock, Hank Jones and Chet Baker no less — Williams became an unmistakable voice in jazz and fusion. His 1969 double album Emergency! Is an exercise in centrifugal force, with energy that pushes right up against the edge.
Similarly noteworthy: Billy Hart, Lenny White
Buddy Rich, The Roar of ’74 (Groove Merchant, 1973)
A drumming Evel Knievel of sorts, Buddy Rich drummed harder, quicker and with more fervor than anyone before or since. As a bandleader, he was relentless about precision and coherence, and during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s his big bands swung with a gusto that few large ensembles could match. His handiwork on The Roar of ’74 is peak Rich: full of energy, bristling with bravado and faster than a speeding bullet.
Similarly noteworthy: Louie Bellson
Billy Cobham, Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973)
A founder of the jazz-rock group Dreams with Michael Brecker, drummer Billy Cobham has been a steady force in jazz fusion almost since the genre’s founding. His polyrhythmic masterwork has served as an engine for Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and as a leader he has continued to earn his living legend bona fides. Spectrum has become a ’70s jazz classic and the perfect example of what happens when heavy metal and jazz combine.
Similarly noteworthy: Vinnie Colaiuta, Bill Bruford
Jack DeJohnette, Special Edition (ECM, 1979)
An icon of the Chicago creative music scene, Jack DeJohnette is as equally at home at the helm of a hard-bop band as he is in an avant-garde ensemble, and he’s earned his legendary status in both. His drumming is a wonder of equilibrium: steely and elastic, organic and refined, pointillistic and powerful. His 1979 self-titled debut with his quartet Special Edition opened countless doors for progressive jazz ensembles that followed.
Similarly noteworthy: Milford Graves, Paul Motian
Peter Erskine, 8:30 (with Weather Report) (ARC/Columbia, 1979)
Amid the sea of jazz-funk churning at the conclusion of the 1970s and beginning of the ’80s, Peter Erskine was a lighthouse. A groovemaker of uncommon brilliance and originality, he lent snap, crackle and pop to a number of quintessential fusion bands during this time — from Weather Report to Steps Ahead. His work on Weather Report’s album 8:30 is, in a sense, the definition of contemporary jazz fusion drumming.
Similarly noteworthy: Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl
Jeff “Tain” Watts, Black Codes (From the Underground) (with Wynton Marsalis) (Columbia, 1985)
Often described as one of the Young Lions of jazz’s neoclassical era in the 1980s, Jeff “Tain” Watts is inarguably one of jazz’s strongest links between its yesterdays and its tomorrows. A multiple Grammy winner, he lends a foundational sense of swing and purpose to every ensemble he attaches to. That’s especially the case for his outstanding work with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s, of which Black Codes is paramount.
Similarly noteworthy: Joe Farnsworth, Louis Hayes
Brian Blade, Brian Blade Fellowship (Blue Note, 1998)
A more telepathic drummer may not exist. Across his career in groups led by Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Wayne Shorter and Mark Turner, Brian Blade has demonstrated an uncanny ability to meld with the shape of his bandmates’ ideas, always seeming to be the guiding light that shows the way. Turn to the self-titled album from his band Brian Blade Fellowship for evidence. Few drummer-led albums are as deeply meditative or communal.
Similarly noteworthy: Johnathan Blake, Justin Brown
Allison Miller, Boom Tic Boom (Foxhaven, 2010)
Throughout her multifaceted career, Allison Miller has built bridges between jazz, pop and the avant-garde. In addition to leading her own groups, she has performed with artists ranging from singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant to soul-jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and bassist Ben Allison. Her 2010 album Boom Tic Boom is the perfect paradigm of her avant-groove style of drumming.
Similarly noteworthy: Matt Wilson, Ginger Baker
Terri Lyne Carrington, The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz, 2011)
Emerging from the Boston scene, where she was a standout at Berklee College of Music, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington made an instant impression on the jazz world when she first graced the bandstands of Stan Getz, James Moody, Clark Terry and Al Jarreau. A rhythmic encyclopedia with a shimmering sound, Carrington released The Mosaic Project in 2011, cementing her position as one of the most talented drummers of her generation and a top-notch vocalist to boot.
Similarly noteworthy:Grady Tate, Cindy Blackman Santana
Jimmy Cobb, The Original Mob (Smoke Sessions, 2014)
The Sage of the Cymbal, Jimmy Cobb may be best known for his exceptional touch as a sideman, having lent his penetrating yet ethereal drumming to classic recordings by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly. As a leader, his unique percussive voice takes on a new dimension, full of equal parts authority and agility. His 2014 Smoke Session outing The Original Mob is indicative of those qualities.
Similarly noteworthy: Marcus Gilmore
Tyshawn Sorey, The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi, 2016)
It’s rare that a musician can play the dual roles of both inheritor and innovator, and yet drummer Tyshawn Sorey has proven himself in both regards. As an heir apparent, he is clearly enshrining the tradition of creative and avant-garde drummers that emerged before him, drummers like Milford Graves, Pheeroan akLaff and Charles Moffett. As a composer, he is clearly breaking new ground, as demonstrated on his revelatory 2016 disc The Inner Spectrum of Variables. An acknowledgment of his genius: He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship the following year.
Similarly noteworthy: Ed Blackwell, Han Bennink
Mark Guiliana, Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! (Motéma, 2019)
Mark Guiliana has a history of merging acoustic jazz with alternative genres like EDM, hip-hop and rock. His many esteemed collaborations include projects with the electronics artist Shigeto, art-rocker David Bowie and neo-soul producer Meshell Ndegeocello. But make no mistake: Mark, though technologically inclined, is a spirited drummer who is an expert at channeling the ghost in the machine. His 2019 release Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! is a testament to that fact.
Similarly noteworthy:Nate Smith, Nate Wood, Karriem Riggins