Jazz Professional               


Swing for Beginners (Part Four)

I feel that every player should sit down and learn to play a little bit of drums in order to gain the ability to swing from a rhythmic point of view. Bobby Shew Tip: Once you have the Examples on your screen you can toggle quickly between text and examples with Backspace or Shift+Backspace


In the jazz ensemble the rhythm section is unique. It is the only unit consisting of four or more very different kinds of instruments: keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. The makeup of a rhythm section does not call for a leader, such as is found in the wind groups. Its members are the sole performers on their individual instruments in the orchestra. They cannot share ideas or problems with their peers, nor can they rest or relegate tasks. For them the show must always go on. And they seldom, if ever, hold section rehearsals.

What makes one rhythm section swing and another not swing? Who is the most important man there and why? Who is the least important and how can he enhance his role?

The difference between swinging and dull plodding lies in the way each member interprets the quarter note. Once that concept has been grasped the eighth notes take care of themselves. In this respect there is little difference between the winds and the rhythm.

Example 1 shows a bar of four quarter notes. Imagine that you are going to swing this bar on guitar, bass or keyboards. For the moment just sing Example 2 at a tempo of about 120, tying each group of two eighth notes together with a slur over the whole bar: da-a, da-a, da-a, da-a.

Does that swing? I donít think so.

Now try Example 3 in the same way: da-a-a, da-a-a, da-a-a, da-a-a. Feel the difference? The triplet feeling bounces those beats along, giving dynamic energy to the four quarter no tes. In Examples 1 & 2 the beat could be anywh ere; in Example 3 there can be no doubt. Each beat of the bar falls comfortably into its proper slot.

Who is the most important man in the rhythm section? Who plays time, and time only, from the beginning to the end of a piece? It is the bass player.

Iíve always had the greatest respect for bass players. They have the unique and awesome task of playing non-stop throughout each number, usually four notes to a bar, often at breakneck speed, yet they still manage to play interesting changes and keep swinging away while the rest of us look on in wonder. The drummer, too, must keep time, but there are many parts to the drum kit, and he has lots more freedom to use them. The bass player has only the bass.

Take a look at Example 4. If you have a music writing programme you can copy it. Make sure that the bass notes have a duration of 100% i.e. no gaps between the notes, and use the swing option on all instruments. Give the guitar quarter notes a 90% duration. Play the example back with and without the bass. Cut the guitar part and play back just with the bass. Try any combination you like: without the bass the passage falls flat.

If your band is an amateur or semi-professional outfit you may find it preferable to write out all bass parts. This ensures at least getting the chordal bass on the beats where you really need it, especially if it is small group. If you like you can add the symbols above and the player can vary his line from time to time. Make sure he realises that he is the foundation stone of everything that is going on, and he should refrain from sailing away into the upper register. When that happens and he gets into the range of the other instruments it often sounds as if he has stopped playing.

Good advice for a rhythm guitar player is: Play three-note chords only, donít include the chordal bass in those triads, stay in the middle register and think light rather than heavy. The chordal bass will come from the acoustic or electronic bass. This will give the kind of floating rhythm guitar sound heard in the Basie band. The arranger need not write out the chords for the guitar: I only did it there as an example for the playback. Certainly they should not be written so. When writing chords for the guitar it is generally best to write the top notes only with the chord symbols. Unless you play guitar yourself you can get into very deep water here. Some intervals that look easy on the piano can be well nigh impossible on the guitar.

The piano or keyboards player usually gets a simple part containing only chord symbols, or chords written out fully. He or she is then expected to compose something useful out of that. The question here is what role the instrument is supposed to play. Quite often the arranger has no idea of what to do with it: itís there, so letís give it something, chords, anything to keep it happy. Here we come to my third question. What can the keyboards player do to enhance his role?

The first thing to be said is: donít play all the time! Sure, thatís an easy one, but it isnít necessary to announce your presence in every gap in the front line. Some of those great ideas may clash with a brass figure or drum fill-in. Some sort of a guide can help.

The arranger can make the parts interesting and useful to the player if he tries. It is no good writing chord symbols, or even the chords themselves, four to a bar all the way through a piece and expecting the keyboards man to work out by trial and error what he is supposed to do. Example 5 shows a bit of a melody line together with a suggested piano part. Once again cue or ghost notes together with the chord symbols are often quite sufficient. Little things like this make the player feel that he is wanted and add spice to the music.

Drum parts can be simplified as in Example 6. The drummer doesnít need to be staring at every bar. Passages like this are easily remembered. The cue notes represent something the brass is playing. They are a guide only. Some drummers like to whack them out energetically, but what they achieve will generally have little to do with the phrasing because a succession of short drum beats can hardly emulate what the brass section is doing. Yet it can be done.

When Kenny Clare and I were young men we spent many hours discussing this. Kenny wanted to know exactly what the brass had to physically do in order to play jazz phrasing. I even gave him some lessons on the trumpet so he could get a feeling for it. After a while he developed a way of playing long and short jazz phrasing on the drums that fit in exactly with the brass. Sorry guys, I have no idea how he did it.

Ron Simmonds