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Philly Joe's Melodic Drumming

   Philly Joe Jones

   Philly Joe Jones

Melodic Drumming isn't new

Melodic drumming is not a new or avant-garde technique. Especially in the jazz tradition, drummers have been directly or indirectly referencing melodies for almost as long as the instrument has been around. Because the drum set is not considered a pitched instrument, many people (certainly including other drummers) don't hear the connection between what a drummer is playing and the melody.  The truth is, the way that drummers interact with the melody of a song has always been one of the fundamental elements of jazz drumming.


Philly Joe's Melodic Drumming

To help clarify my point about how inside of the tradition melodic drumming really is, I am going to use as my example Philly Joe Jones. Philly Joe is one of the most definitive and widely imitated bop drummers of all time.  For a good example of why this is the case, take a moment to listen to "Skatin'" by Wynton Kelly:

Now try listening to just the melody and then jumping immediately to Philly Joe's drum solo (starting at 3:51), you should be able hear a pretty clear connection to the melody.  If you can't, don't worry, I am going to break this down in great detail.  

Below is a rough transcription of Philly Joe's solo with the melody overlaid on top:

What Makes This Solo Melodic?

If you refer back to my earlier article on the definition of melodic drumming, you can see how Philly Joe uses the large scale element of form, as well as the small scale elements of phrasing to create tension and release in his solo just like a melody instrument would.  In this particular example, he draws these melodic elements directly from the melody of "Skatin'" itself!


First, the big picture.  Philly Joe tailors the melodic architecture or form of his solo perfectly to the form of the piece.  Overall "Skatin'" has a sort of AABB form, with the second chorus being more like AAB'C.  With just a superficial glance at the transcription provided, you can see that in the first chorus of his solo Philly Joe starts with one idea in the A sections and then moves on to a new idea in the B sections.  

Although this structure gets a little more abstract in the second chorus, he still starts with one kind of idea in the A sections and then moves on to new material in the B' and C sections.  


Next the smaller scale.  Philly Joe also uses some of the specific elements of the melody's phrases in his solo.  The three most obvious examples of this are call and response, repetition, and contour.  

Call And Response

The two opening phrases of the solo establishes a clear call and response structure just like the melody of "Skatin'".  First he plays a triplet figure on the snare drum by itself, then he plays a response on the tom toms.  Using call and response like this gives listeners a feeling of tension and release, as well as structure.  


To further emphasize the melodic intent of this solo, Philly Joe repeats the opening phrase almost verbatim in the next eight bars.  Repetition gives listeners a clear idea of the theme of the solo, as well as outlining it's structure.


Philly Joe even goes so far as to emulate the contour or direction of the melody in the opening phrase.  If you look in the transcription at bars three and seven, you can see Philly Joe matching descending and ascending motion of the melody by going from low to high on his tom toms.  

Playing Philly Joe's Solo Over The Melody

I think that the easiest way to understand the connection between Philly Joe's solo and the melody is to just hear it.  In the spirit of demonstration I recorded myself attempting this in the video to the above.  Please keep in mind, this doesn't sound...good.  That being said, I do think that it adequately demonstrates my point (incidentally this also makes for a terrific exercise if you are up for a challenge).

So What Is The Point?

If Philly Joe, the platonic form of a bebop drummer, plays a solo this brilliant with such a clear connection to the melody, then melodic drumming can not be seen as outside of the mainstream of jazz drumming.

To be clear, I don't think that Philly Joe always played with this degree of explicit reference to the melody of the song.  I do however think that melodic drumming is a hugely misunderstood and under-appreciated element of jazz drumming, and I hope that examples like this one help to clarify that point.