Why is Jazz Drumming So Hard?

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Many drummers I’ve talked to ask, why is Jazz drumming is so hard? There are several reasons.

While learning jazz during the past decade or so I’ve become a much better drummer. I’ve had to learn many different tempos, use different drum sticks and brushes, and increase my range of dynamics. These are the main reasons I found jazz drumming hard and especially when I was first learning the craft.  

I often felt like giving up in the past when it seemed no matter how much I practiced, there was always a weakness that becomes exposed during a session! I’ve discussed this feeling with other drummers who say it is a very normal feeling, which will probably never leave us! So yes, jazz is hard but very much worth learning.

Jazz Tempos Vary Greatly

In jazz, you may have to keep time on a very slow ballad using brushes and your hi-hat. Conversely, there are very up-tempo swing tunes that require years of practice to become efficient on the ride cymbal while playing the typical triplet swing pattern. Of course, most songs fall in between these two extremes, but the range can vary greatly during a gig or practice session.

You should always practice different tempos while in a practice session and remember to use a metronome to solidify time.

During a practice session, I try to play a slow ballad with brushes while also playing a very high tempo swing tune so my practice covers all the bases.

Jazz Drumming Requires Brushes

Most music styles don’t require the drummer to use brushes. I typically have to use brushes for at least one tune during a session. This is a traditional way of playing some jazz tunes. I normally use brushes during ballads or waltzes and it can take some time to develop a good brush technique. Remember, you should be able to play brushes in both 3 and 4 time.

Some great legends were proficient with brushes. They can play any tempo or style with brushes and it sounds great. I prefer sticks myself, but I’m warming to more use of brushes.

Jazz Drumming Requires Precise Limb Coordination

When you’re playing jazz as a drummer, you need to be consistent stepping on the hi-hat while on the two and four count. A typical problem for many drummers is lagging a little behind on that left foot stomp, which makes your overall time drag. You are keeping solid time with a left foot, while swinging on the ride cymbal with your right hand, comping on the snare with your left hand, and then playing the bass drum dynamically with your right foot.

You can easily understand why this can be very difficult in the beginning and often takes years of practice to line up all the different moving parts. Coordination is tough for any new drummer, but I think jazz takes it to another level of complication.

Dynamics is Required in Jazz Drumming

In jazz, you need dynamics as a drummer. In other styles, such as rock, you can survive without great dynamics, but in jazz, you’re just not going to sound good unless you possess good hand technique and very dynamics around the kit. Dynamics is a solid sign that someone is a good drummer. Notice how they make certain parts of a song more dramatic than other parts.

When I hear myself on past recordings, I’m sometimes horrified at my lack of dynamics. It sounds even the whole song! That’s not dynamic drumming. You need to play crescendos of sound and lighten up to being barely audible at times.

I always liked how John Densmore of The Doors used his jazz style to create dynamics in The Doors’ songs:

There are some great dynamic exercises you can try. Garibaldi especially has an exercise to increase your dynamic capabilities.

Many Different Styles of Jazz

There is a myriad of styles that jazz drummers are expected to know…For example, you have Latin jazz beats, bossa nova, swing, two-feel, straight eighths, ballads, and waltzes just to name a few. I used to play more rock music and I was never required to know such a wide array of styles.  

This will take time and sometimes drummers decide to niche down and perfect a specific style instead of learning all types. I have found learning all of these helps me become a better drummer in any particular style I’m playing at the time.

It took me quite a while to get the foot pattern of a bossa nova ingrained so now it’s automatic. I can use that pattern with many different Latin styles now and finesse certain feels that are needed depending on the style of Latin I’m playing.

Latin foot patterns on the hi-hat and bass drum are different than swing jazz tunes.

Jazz Drumming is Difficult But Worth the Pursuit

I would definitely recommend any drummer to learn jazz. It just opens up a whole new world of possibilities no matter what style you choose to pursue most of your time.  

I love the tradition of jazz drumming and learning from the greats such as Bill Stewart, Elvin Jones, Tony Willams, etc. It’s also great to play with accomplished musicians in the jazz idiom.

I think there is also a wider range of aged musicians to play with if you know jazz. Many people in older generations appreciate jazz and there are some incredible musicians in this age group. As you get better at jazz, you play with them and learn idiosyncracies that can translate to any band situation.