Introduction to JAZZ and BIG BAND DRUMMING
By Dr. Sherrie Maricle

READING is a required skill for all serious musicians in most of today's musical environments. One way to become a good reader is to read (sight read) a lot of music during your practice sessions (don't practice, just read) and if you make a mistake keep going. Recovering from mistakes is an important aspect of being a successful reader. The music you choose to read should be played in a predetermined style and tempo (i.e. legit snare drum, jazz feel, funk feel, etc.). A common ability shared by good readers is the immediate recognition of rhythmic motives and phrases (groups of rhythmic figures). When you acquire this ability, your identification of and reaction to "the music" will be instantaneous and precise.

Two excellent books for practicing reading skills are Modern Reading Text in 4/4 by Louis Bellson and Syncopation by Ted Reed. These books are also a primary source for INDEPENDENCE exercises. I suggest practicing these books within the context of a basic jazz groove (see example 1), reading as follows:

1.) Snare Drum
2.) Bass Drum
3.) Eighth notes on the SD, quarter notes on the BD (Example 3)
4.) Eighth notes on the BD, quarter notes on the SD. Tom-toms may be substituted for the SD at your discretion.

If you want to expand further you can read:
1.) Hi-Hat
2.) Quarter notes on the HH, eighth notes on the BD
3.) Quarter notes on the BD, eighth notes on the HH

One of my favorite books for INDEPENDENCE is Stick Control by George Lawrence Stone. Within the context of a basic jazz groove, play everything notated with an "R" (right) and play it on the BD or HH (example 2). Simultaneously take everything marked with an "L" (left) and play it on the SD or tom-toms.

CHART READING requires you to follow the form (road map) of the piece being played. Drum parts are notated in many ways. There is no "standard" notation that you can study/memorize that will apply to every chart you encounter. Some charts are very clear, precise and easy to follow with all necessary musical information included. Other times parts may be nothing more than a sketch (play 8 bars at A, 16 bars at B etc.), a rhythm section lead sheet or a copy of a horn part. Steve Houghton's book Studio and Big Band Drumming provides excellent examples of several possible variations in drum charts. No matter what kind of chart you are given, drummers are expected to read the written music and, more importantly to interpret, improvise, be creative and make the music feel good!!! Ultimately the goal is to memorize the chart(s) so you no longer have to read. Keep the music in your head, not your head in the music.


To kick, set-up, punch, hit, fill or "catch" a written figure means to accent, support and/or frame that figure in a musical and stylistically appropriate manner. Being successful at this requires going well beyond the notated figures. It requires creativity, improvisation, musical taste and INTENTION (what is your set-up suppose to accomplish?).

Figure interpretation can loosely be divided into 2 categories. Hits and punches usually occur during light ensemble, soli or background sections and may be played as part of the on going beat pattern. Kicks, fills and set-ups occur during large tutti or shout sections. You may be required to "catch" figures from both categories simultaneously. It is up to the drummer to determine what type of kick, hit, punch, fill or set-up is required. Keep in mind that your job is to enhance, support and "set-up" ensemble entrances. The way in which the drummer sets up the "shout section" or catches the figures of a chart often determines the phrasing, feel, dynamics and style of the entire chart. Good set-ups will make the ensemble entrances powerful, clear and precise. A bad set-up may cause a "train wreck". All kicks, fills, set-ups, punches and hits should be IN THE STYLE of the music you are playing (no heavy metal fills for a Duke Ellington chart) and executed with solid time and a good feel.

Try practicing the following examples to work on your fill skills:

Students can often read the written figures, but don't know how to set them up. Learning this skill is three fold:

First - Find recordings of music for which you have the drum part, listen to them and copy what you hear, even if it isn't 100% accurate.

Second - Aurally identify common figures, kicks, set-ups, etc. on recordings (without the drum part) and memorize them. Make them part of your musical vocabulary

Third - Isolate a particular rhythmic motive or phrase (perhaps from a reading exercise) and practice catching or setting-up that motive/phrase within a variety of tempi and styles. Your ears are a major contributor to your musical development. Copying or stealing "licks" is not bad, it is a crucial and helpful step in your musical development. Some of my favorite big band drummers are Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich, Jeff Hamilton and Dennis Mackrel. I also recommend anything by Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Toshiko Akiyoshi or Duke Ellington.

All drummers know that their primary function is to keep good time. You may have all the technique (chops) in the world, but if you can't lay down a solid groove that feels good, you are not doing your job! As Baby Dodds (drummer for Louis Armstrong) said, "You must play for the benefit of the band.".\ Time keeping is a skill that should develop into an intuitive ability. Good time creates a stability of feel and flow that should be established on the downbeat and stop on the cutoff. It is not only an essential element of the basic beat in ensemble and solo sections, but also necessary for fills, kicks, catching figures and drum solos. The TIME should never stop, no matter what musical event is taking place.

Practice playing time in a variety of styles at various tempos. Also, practice alternating phrases of varying grooves (example: 16 measures of swing into 16 measures of samba). Finally, within various styles, practice alternating specific phrases at a set tempo and double time. You can also alternate phrases of time with phrases of solo (example: trading 4's or 8's). Make EVERYTHING smooth and connected. The beats (notes and rests) should always be legato, seamless and flow together. I also strongly suggest practicing with a metronome for several minutes, not just several measures.

You are expected to know, or at least be aware of the style in which you are playing. In other words, always know what kind of groove is appropriate for the chart you are playing. Stylistic interpretation can be as general as deciding if the music is jazz, rock or latin. If a drummer is hired to play jazz but plays "syncopated funk licks" every time a fill is required, they are not doing their job. The jazz, rock and latin categories are good starting points, but the understanding of specific styles needs deeper investigation. Within these categories there are literally hundreds of variations. For example JAZZ includes dixieland, 1940's swing, be-bop, shuffle, foxtrot and fusion etc. ROCK includes 1950's, rock-n-roll, motown, funk, hip-hop, etc. LATIN includes samba, bossa nova, baiao, bembe, rhumba, mozambique, etc. This list does not approach being complete. Musical styles are constantly being invented and redefined.

The following books are excellent sources for studying prevalent styles of music: Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drum Set by Frank Malabe and Bob Weiner, The Art of Bop Drumming and Beyond Bop Drumming by John Riley, Advanced Funk Studies by Rick Latham, The New Breed by Gary Chester and Brazilian Rhythms for Drum Set by Duduka Da Fonseca and Bob Weiner. And of course the new Vic Firth/Tommy Igoe Groove Essentials poster is a great reference tool for a wide variety of styles!

The best way to learn, interpret and understand various styles of music is to LISTEN DAILY as part of your daily practice regime. Once you can identify and play a certain style or groove, check out the variations within. For example, play one of the reading exercises from section one as Gene Krupa (swing), then as Philly Joe Jones (be-bop) and then as Elvin Jones (modern jazz).

The two general types of soloing include soloing in time or out of time. An in time solo can be any length of time from a 1 measure (solo fill) to soloing on the form of a tune, to soloing on an unstructured form. The major requirement for an in time solo is that it be in the TIME of the chart/tune you are playing. In the freest situations the time can be manipulated (double-time/half-time) and the groove can change (latin to swing to rock), but the under lying pulse should always be identifiable. If you are playing within a particular style, structure or form, your solo should reflect and embody characteristics specific to that musical situation.

The out of time or "open solo" can be one of the most exciting, or scariest, moments for a drummer. You are given an empty space of indeterminate length (often indicated by a fermata) and asked to play something interesting and effective. An open solo is the perfect opportunity for drummers to express their musicality (connectedness with the music being played), creativity (fresh ideas of sound and color) and technique (show-off your chops) in anyway they choose.

Ideas for soloing can be discovered through a lot of listening/transcribing of both drum and other instrumental solos. When you have the opportunity to "blow", you must listen and react to the musicians and music you're playing. As a practice exercise (using some basic elements of music such as rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, orchestration, form, sound, phrasing, emotion, tension, release, color, technique…..etc.) select ONE rhythmic or other musical element and explore as many aspects of that rhythm or element as possible within a specified solo form. Also practice playing jazz standards on the drum set, melody and all!

Try expanding on these simple rhythmic ideas to create a solo of your own:

Practice the standard 40 drum rudiments (and their variations) as a means to develop a solid foundation for your technique (the Vic Firth Rudiment Poster and website feature are excellent for this). There are many ways to orchestrate and apply rudiments to the drum set. For example, play all measured rolls (5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, and 17) in an orchestrated manner around the drum set while keeping a samba pattern in your feet or just straight quarter notes with the hi-hat on beats 2 and 4. You can play the rolls as eighth notes, sixteenth notes, triplets, etc. I recommend the following books for technical development: Stick Control (Stone), Wrist and Finger Control and Swingin' the 26 by Charlie Wilcoxon and Accent on Accents 1 and 2 by Elliot Fine and Marv Dahlgren.

For developing single strokes and a deeper understanding of basic rhythmic subdivisions practice the following exercise. In 4/4 play the BD in quarter notes and the HH on beats 2 and 4. Set the metronome between 60 -100 and on the SD play 4 measures of whole notes, followed by 4 mm. of half notes, half note triplets, quarter notes, quarter note triplets, eighth notes, eighth note triplets, sixteenth notes, sixteenth note triplets and 32nd notes. Then repeat and orchestrate around the drum set. Notice you are going from 1 to 2 then 3, 4, 6, 8,12,16, 24 then 32 notes per measure. Keep all subdivisions even, smooth, connected, seamless and flowing. Increase the tempo as your chops develop. Eventually you can add quintuplets and septuplets in their sequential order.

Dr. Sherrie Maricle was born in Buffalo, New York and was raised in Endicott, NY where she began playing jazz drums at the age of thirteen. In addition to leading DIVA, she is also a percussionist with the New York Pops Orchestra and leads the jazz quintet, FIVE PLAY. Sherrie is the Director of Percussion Studies at New York University, the Education Coordinator for the NY Pops' Salute to Music education program, and a past President of New York State's International Association of Jazz Educators. She received her B.A. from SUNY-Binghamton, and her M.A. and Ph. D. from New York University. The DIVA Jazz Orchestra's 4th CD Live in Concert will be released in January 2003.

For more information on Sherrie, visit her website, She can be contacted at