Do You Like It?: Headroom and Jazz Drumming

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John Riley

Listening to Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’” not long ago, I asked my musician friend how to know if Jackie McClean’s solo (or any saxophone solo) was good or not. He drew a slow breath—deciding how far back toward the basics of theory he’d have to meet me?—and said, “Well, do you like it?” He didn’t elaborate. When I tried to answer his question, I realized I couldn’t. Yes, I’d wanted to like jazz, wanted to be “into it” and to know how to talk about it even. But for some reason I’d passed over that simplest, most obvious and essential approach: I hadn’t been listening, not really. What I mean is, I had put the cart before the horse, wanting to know what I should like without considering what I did like.

My dawning enlightenment not precluding deep embarrassment, I nodded at my friend, nodding because yes of course I liked the solo—I’d have to be pretty dumb not to like Jackie McClean, wouldn’t I?—and because I was now resolved to go back through the albums I’d been collecting (Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, Monk) and really listen to what the musicians were playing.

Still, though this helped wake up my ear, I found that just asking the question “Do I like it?” wasn’t going to get me through it all, whether I was listening to big band, bebop, or free jazz. We don’t “like” a piece of music (or art, or writing) on its merits alone, in a kind of vacuum; in fact how well we respond to a given piece may have as much to do with how well we manage to situate it in the context—theoretical, historical, even biographical knowledge; tastes shaped fairly and unfairly; etc.—that we ourselves bring to it. (For example after reading an essay on Marcel Duchamp last month, I was excited to have the chance this week to visit the MoMA and see his In Advance of a Broken Arm, a piece I might have dismissed when I knew nothing about Dadaism; actually a consideration of Duchamp’s “readymades” would suggest a lot about the question of context.) Easy for my friend, a saxophonist himself, to ask, “Do you like it?” First we need ways of listening, ways of liking.

Here’s one: “headroom.” In his instructional DVD The Master Drummer, John Riley introduces the concept, which he’s borrowed “from the automotive world.” “Headroom refers to excess capacity,” he says. “So if you have a car that’s capable of a maximum speed of 60 miles an hour, when you’re going 60 miles an hour, that car is doing everything its capable of, and there is no excess capacity. A car capable of going 200 miles an hour just breezes along at 60 because it has all that headroom from 61 to 200 miles an hour in reserve.” Really Riley is talking technique—how mastering “200 mph” worth of chops, more than you’d ever realistically need, makes your typical playing “almost physically effortless.” But there’s an aesthetic angle as well: attaining this technical facility leaves you with more “brainpower” so that you can focus on “supporting the other musicians,” i.e., play more “musically.” Because “this isn’t music,” he explains. “This is a process to gain control of your limbs. If you hear music, you’ll have the tools to execute it.”

Sticking with the drums for now, I’ve curated a few examples to help illustrate what “headroom” sounds like in practice and how listening through this lens can help us like (or dislike) what a jazz musician is doing.

1) “The Kicker” (4:08-4:50), from Song for My Father (1965) by The Horace Silver Quintet (personnel: Roger Humphries, drums; Horace Silver, piano; Carmell Jones, trumpet; Joe Henderson, tenor sax; Teddy Smith, bass)

Roger Humphries

One way to think about headroom in drumming is to think about space and how it’s filled—the more space that’s being filled, the busier the playing is, the closer the drummer probably is to reaching their full capacity. In this thundering solo, Roger Humphries doesn’t leave much headroom; I don’t think he could fit much more into the spaces between the horn hits that punctuate the solo. Does this mean that the solo is less musical than it could be, that we should like it less than others? That’s for you to decide, but for me, it’s actually the sheer energy of Humphries’s playing here that makes it work. Sure it’s showy, but he’s giving us all he’s got, and he sounds glad to do it. (It is a drum solo, after all.) Consider the track’s placement on the album as a whole, too—it’s the penultimate number, uptempo and climactic (“The Kicker”). And unlike Roy Haynes or Max Roach in the following examples, the fact that Humphries isn’t the leader of this group means that he doesn’t get a solo feature in every piece, so when he does, he’d better make it count.

2) “Snap Crackle” (2:43-3:31), from Out of the Afternoon (1962) by The Roy Haynes Quartet (personnel: Roy Haynes, drums; Roland Kirk, saxes and flute; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Henry Grimes, bass)

Roy Haynes

Not only is Roy Haynes the leader of his own group in this example, the track itself is titled after Haynes’s nickname, “Snap Crackle.” Haynes here is no quieter, really, than Humphries in “The Kicker”—he certainly loves to whale on his drums—but you’ll hear right away that he embraces space in a different way, playing with quite a bit of headroom. His emphasis on short bursts and single notes textures the solo and makes it melodic—listen for the way he uses the varying pitches of his drums to create a melody within the solo around 3:15. Interesting to note, too, how Grimes keeps steady time on the bass throughout, as he would during a horn or piano solo; this provides Haynes something of a musical scaffold to help structure his silences, his melodies. It’s clear from a few of the busier phrases in the solo that Haynes can play as much as he wants, and he does, in other numbers on the album. (For a similar, better known example, try Joe Morello’s solo in “Take Five,” with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.)

3) “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (4:00-5:30), from Brown and Roach Incorporated (1955) by Clifford Brown and Max Roach (personnel: Max Roach, drums; Clifford Brown, trumpet; Harold Land, tenor sax; Richie Powell, piano; George Morrow, bass)

Max Roach

In “The Kicker,” Roger Humphries thrills us by playing near the limits of his capacity; in “Snap Crackle,” Roy Haynes leaves himself a lot of headroom so he can work with space and melody. In “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Max Roach manages to start his solo at “60 mph” and accelerate over its course to “200”—he rises to fill the headroom his drumming engine has “in reserve.” Part of the way he does this is by dividing the solo into two halves. During the first half (4:00-4:43), he continues keeping time with one hand on the ride cymbal—this produces the same supportive “horn solo” effect that the bass line does in “Snap Crackle”—while playing single notes around the drum kit with his other hand and his foot on the bass drum. Roach’s interest in the drum set’s melodic potential had him penning entire jazz compositions for the instrument, and in “Stompin’ at the Savoy” we can hear examples of these kinds of phrases. At 4:43, he departs from the cymbal pattern and applies both hands to the drums, using up more and more of his “excess capacity,” coming back down at the very end to meet the rest of the band for the final chorus. Roach’s flexibility here, his simultaneous sensitivity to melody and power of percussive fury make this one of the most satisfying drum solos I’ve ever heard.

Even though my dreams of being a jazz musician have snapped and crackled, so to speak, I’ve found I can still use headroom to think about other arts, other pursuits—for example, writing—the same way Riley looked to “the automotive world” to think about drumming. Check out this passage from “Escape from Spiderhead” to see how George Saunders—the Max Roach of writers?—ingeniously plays with headroom as it applies to prose style:

“He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.”

To wit!

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