Tips From Butch Miles

A big band is many things. It can be top-heavy and cumbersome, or to quote a certain well-known world champion, it can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. One minute it can be the delicate sound of Basie’s Lil’ Darlin, then turn around and roll over you like the juggernaut that is Buddy Rich’s West Side Story Medley. Power; force, beauty, colors, smiles – a big band is all of these things. Likewise, a drummer in a big band must be aware of the following concepts; he must be able to shade ever so subtly behind a soloist, explode with fury and power in an ensemble passage, solo (if required) with style, grace, all of the technical acumen needed, and above all, underscore all of the rhythmic and dynamic passages never losing the beat.A big band drummer can be compared to the driver of a super bus, the captain of the greatest ship afloat, or the pilot of a 747. It’s an incredible responsibility and yet there’s no other feeling like it on the face of the earth when it all comes together — and WORKS! But it’s not all that simple. You don’t get up one morning and proclaim to everyone that you’re a big band drummer. There’s an awful lot of work involved.

There are, merely a handful of top big band drummers like Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Peter Erskine, Mel Lewis, Ed Shaughnessey, Sonny Payne, and a few others. The reasons for the extremely small membership in this club is simple. These talented men can direct, catapult, enhance, and INSPIRE 16 or 17 other musicians. All of the drummers mentioned above are without exception, top-flight team players no matter what their solo capacity is. That’s the key word – TEAM.

That big band will be composed of 16, 17, 18 or more musicians playing together. Now you’ve got 18 feet tapping at different times. It’s your job to make it sound like they’re all tapping together. To do this, you must be strong. YOU must lead from the drum chair. It must be cohesive and a TEAM. There’s very little room for super-egos in a team situation. So it is the same in a big band. You must play together — it’s all teamwork. That band is a machine that has to be kept functioning properly. That’s YOUR job also. The band and the music are the important things, not how your hair looks on stage or how high you can move your arms and hands.

Big bands are different. I know that statement need not even be written for most of the drummers who are reading this, but there may be some who are under the misconception that because many big bands have the same instrumentation, they will all sound the same.
Not so. They will ALL differ in sound.

Ellington is a symphonic-concert jazz band; Basie is straight-ahead, special phrasing, swinging-the-blues; Woody Herman is high powered, high tempo jazz and blues with forays into rock; Buddy Rich moves from 1940’s swing to 1977disco; Kenton is concert based with shifting rhythms and time signatures; Maynard will swing hard and rock hard; Harry James will be intense jazz, and soft, subtle dance tunes – and so on. The point is that they’re all different. You may sound great with Maynard and very out of place with James. You must be aware of the special sounds and special needs of each of these bands, or whichever band you might be working with.

Here are some tips:

SUPPORT. If the band has a difficult passage, support them strongly. Let them rely on you for cues and dynamics.

DON’T GET IN THE WAY. There’s no reason for you to play something rhythmically difficult if it detracts. Simplify it. You’re responsible for keeping the band together.

DIRECT. Learn the entrances for ensembles and cue them in with authority. Always let the band know where they are.

DON’T OVERPLAY. Sometimes a well-placed rim shot in an arrangement has more impact than 10,000 notes. Learn the importance of silence.

KEEP THE ENERGY LEVEL UP. There’s nothing that sounds as sad as a band dying in the middle of a passage.

LEARN THE CHART. Get your nose out of the music and be comfortable.

LEARN TO PHRASE. This is an art in itself. You don’t have to play every note the band plays. Let them breathe. Learn when to punch, and when to back off. Talk to the leaders of the other sections and ask them exactly what they might want in the way of support in an ensemble passage. They may have some very valid ideas that you hadn’t thought of. Don’t be afraid to ask.

TIME. Never lose sight of the fact that you’re the keeper of the time. That’s the first and foremost job of a big band drummer – much more so than that of a small group drummer.

LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. Learn the nuances, the dynamics of the arrangements. My boss, Count Basie, put it all together when he simply said, “LISTEN”. As a big band drummer, you must be listening all of the time; listen to the soloist and support him; listen to the ensemble and guide them — cue them correctly; listen to the dynamics and play within that framework, but most importantly, listen to the overall sound and to yourself in the whole picture. Do you detract or do you support? A tape recorder is a great help. Listen to yourself on tape and be your biggest critic. That tape recorder never lies.

Please remember, in a big band, the cues, the pivot points, the dynamics, shading, and strengths OR weaknesses come from you — the big band drummer. YOU’RE in the drivers’ seat. A great band with a bad drummer will muddle through somehow, but a fair band with a great drummer will always be outstanding.

Learning how to be a good big band drummer is a never-ending process. There’s always something to learn and someone who knows more about it than you. Unfortunately, you can’t really learn how to kick that band out of a book. It takes time, effort, and work. It’s one of the few situations in life where you must do it to learn it. Practice, learn and LISTEN. It’s up to you.

Good luck – and straight ahead.

*Originally posted in Modern Drummer Magazine