JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


Generally speaking, the rhythm section of the big bands changed to keep up with the virtuosic solo musicians. What instruments provided the driving rhythm in this era and what did they do that was particularly different than before?

Well, the big change in the rhythm section, the transitional period of the late 1930s and into the bebop period is the way the rhythm section interacts with the rest of the band. Uh, at an early period - partly because the recording equipment was so primitive - uh, drummers couldn't even play on a lot of their drums, they had to use wood blocks. Sometimes they used suitcases. Um, but when they could record basically their job was just to keep the beat and that's all the bass player did. It was four to a bar [Giddins demonstrates] - that's it.

And then suddenly you have musicians like Jimmy Blanton working with Ellington's band, who's still keeping time, still playing four but he's actually playing melodies that are contrapuntal to whatever the themes are that the orchestra's playing and then you have drummers who are not just keeping the time. They're totally involved. The big band drummers like Dave Tuft with Woody Herman's band would create a different sound depending on whether it was a saxophone soloist or a brass soloist. And they would get in, into the mix. They would push. If there was a space, they would keep the soloist honest. Guys like Art Blakey and Max Roach, Roy Haynes - completely interactive musicians. Um, they're constantly paying attention to every note and they are always in the mix. They are always - the same thing with the pianists. The early pianists all they're doing is playing chords so everybody knows what the changes are. Now comping - as accompaniment is known among musicians - becomes much more sophisticated, much more complex. They're pushing the soloist by putting in chords that will get them to think in a different way. Or they're responding. The whole movement is for more interaction to bring everybody in the ensemble into the band as opposed to just having a frontline of soloists and a rear guard that's just keeping the beat.