David Ryan

Thirteen

Around the age of thir­teen I start­ed to tran­scribe the drum­ming from my favorite jazz records. My father was a record­ing engi­neer, so we had a lot of gear at home—an old Ampex four track, assort­ed mix­ing boards, small­er tape machines, com­pres­sors, pow­er amps, pre­amps, reverb units, a box full of micro­phones. Because jazz was often record­ed in mono the bal­ance of the song’s instru­men­ta­tion was dis­trib­uted between the left and right speakers—you could eas­i­ly iso­late a drummer’s right hand on his ride cym­bal because it had been miked into the right pan of a speak­er, along with, say the piano, and maybe a tenor sax. It was iso­lat­ed like that. The snare and hi-hat might be in the left speak­er with the trum­pet. So I would re-record a Miles Davis record onto a four track reel, then play it back at half speed, stop­ping every few sec­onds to pen­cil out Philly Joe Jones’s ride cym­bal and kick drum onto staff paper. Then I’d hit ‘rewind’ and tran­scribe the cor­re­spond­ing snare and hi-hat. I have no idea how much time I spent doing this. When I look back at how I con­struct­ed these tran­scrip­tions I feel this pro­tec­tive ten­der­ness for my naiveté at thir­teen. They are sur­pris­ing­ly accu­rate, and this accu­ra­cy only makes them feel more inno­cent and odd­ly touch­ing. I see the young despair in them. I see how odd I was as a kid.

There were a lot of musi­cians in my neigh­bor­hood. The tal­ent was dis­pro­por­tion­ate to our demo­graph­ics. Many of them, includ­ing myself, even­tu­al­ly went pro­fes­sion­al, scat­ter­ing to the coasts, or up 45 min­utes to down­town Chicago, same dif­fer­ence. Other’s fell into the more rea­son­able expec­ta­tions of a life: reg­u­lar jobs, play­ing on week­ends for kicks—in a sense they stayed pure to the spir­it of our youth, and to the plea­sures that age had fused to music. To this day you might pass a garage in town and hear them play­ing Yes, Jeff Beck, or the Allman Brothers, no dif­fer­ent­ly than twen­ty years ago. Others friends did the oth­er right thing and over­dosed on nar­cotics before they had to look at where their lives had gone.

I saw jazz as the vec­tor of escape. There weren’t a lot of kids play­ing it—the rock drum­mers in the neigh­bor­hood had a cor­ner on the mar­ket. Knowing how to play jazz gave me some­thing that hadn’t occurred to most of them. It wasn’t straight­for­ward, it lost you if you didn’t hang on, it wasn’t inter­est­ing until you lis­tened to it long enough. But in truth I fell for jazz at first because I believed that it would let me leave the neigh­bor­hood I’d grown up in, along with almost every­thing I asso­ci­at­ed with being thir­teen, which seemed even at the time to bode lim­its I didn’t yet want to believe pos­si­ble to sus­tain. Limits I saw every night when I watched my father come home to what he believed he came home to.

In clas­si­cal music the per­cus­sion sec­tion can spend much of its time not play­ing. Especially in old­er scores, from back when com­posers still thought of drum­ming as bat­terie, use­ful only in the psy­chol­o­gy of war, bom­bast. So in the orches­tra pit per­cus­sion­ists often spend most of their day just stand­ing there, count­ing mea­sures, turn­ing pages of a score, wait­ing for the moment where they are expect­ed to hit their instrument—a giant bass drum, a snare, a tri­an­gle, a few notes on a glockenspiel—perfectly. The idea of the per­fect attack, the per­fect stroke is so ampli­fied at the moment of its intend­ed sound­ing that it arrives, occurs, then pass­es like a brush with death.

Later I real­ized you could find a sim­i­lar space at just the right moment of a hard drug peak. All hero­in was this: anoth­er way to height­en the obser­va­tion of the oblit­er­a­tion of non-time, the cousin of musi­cal anx­i­ety, hard drugs were sis­ters of jazz drum­ming.

If you set a metronome slow enough, you begin see the weight of the space between sound. It’s the most ana­log thing you could do with your time. Its curve is pure and unstepped. Nothing is on or off. It’s a kind of sight that mate­ri­al­izes when you close your eyes. Say you can count to ten between clicks. And say you try to land your stick on a sur­face so per­fect­ly syn­chro­nized with that approach­ing click that you can’t hear it. Your drum­stick hits so per­fect­ly in line with the click of the metronome that the two sounds join and you hear noth­ing. It becomes the per­fect moment. It’s a pulse of self-con­fi­dence no thir­teen year old needs to feel in such a vac­u­um.

My tran­scrip­tions of drum­ming were an exten­sion of this induc­tion of trance. Of what was pro­duced by the space between notes, of the exchange of peace and anx­i­ety. It was an obser­va­tion, in slow motion, of a human being’s refu­ta­tion of the con­cept of a metronome in life. It was the curve of fiction’s ten­sions and releas­es com­pared to the ris­ing and fall of math on a bal­ance sheet. It was a dream in which your teeth soft­en and fall out com­pared to the hard fact of a set of den­tures dis­in­fect­ing in a glass.

I played my tape record­ings at half-speed—stopping, scrib­bling in pen­cil, start­ing from where I’d pressed ‘pause’—with what I see now in its spec­tac­u­lar fol­ly, fore­sight, heart, and fail­ure, as try­ing to hear wis­er, old­er men’s med­i­ta­tions on space, mag­ni­fied so that I could snatch it. These men were already saved. They had found redemp­tion in spite of their own cir­cum­stances: in spite of what they were, what got them past the age of thir­teen. I was enter­ing the space dis­trib­uted between anoth­er man’s unique mus­cu­la­ture and mind, a space he’d groomed to deliv­er him of the ghet­to of wher­ev­er they were at thir­teen. By enter­ing their con­scious­ness, I was study­ing var­i­ous knacks for sur­vival. I look back at these tran­scrip­tions now and no longer see music, just the ink left from cold Illinois nights, sit­ting in my room in the base­ment, hit­ting play, pause; play, pause.

When Elvin Jones was once asked how he might describe his own style, he said, “It’s like a bear in the woods: ‘shit shit-yeah, shit-yeah, shit-yeah.’ ” It’s a lay­man myth that jazz drum­ming keeps time. Real jazz drum­ming doesn’t ‘keep’ time, fool; it chas­es it all the way down the street with its prick wag­ging out its fly. Chases it through your neigh­bor­hoods laugh­ing here, threat­en­ing there, scar­ing up and shep­herd­ing the rue­ful and rage­ful just to keep time hop­step­ping along. These old tran­scrip­tions tend to bring their age back, as much as their music. They remind me of how they were one and the same once: The most beau­ti­ful jazz drum­ming feels like ice-skat­ing on a con­demned pond.

Thirteen” Playlist:
Ed Thigpen
TVPs Documentary
Tony Williams Lifetime, “There Comes a Time,” Paris 1971 (w/Larry Young)
John Coltrane Quintet with Eric Dolphy, “Impressions”
Miles Davis, “Walkin’”
Sam Rivers Trio 1979
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, “Moanin’”
Count Basie, “Basie Boogie”
Thelonious Monk, “Epistrophy”
Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie, “Hot House (1952)”

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