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.
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)”