5 Of The Best Jazz Drummers Every Drummer Should Know

This article highlights 5 of the best Jazz drummers who profoundly influenced my drumming. These drummers helped me learn the language of Jazz drumming and Jazz. They also helped form the sound I have today and contributed greatly to my success in music. I think they will help you too.

Best Jazz drummers #1

When I started out playing drums at 15, I was really into Rock drumming. I loved to jam with AC/DC and Van Halen records. Around the age of 16, my drum teacher introduced me to Jazz music.

At first, I wasn’t so interested. Around the same time, I attended the Jazz at Port Townsend, Bud Shank Jazz Workshop. The featured drum instructor was the great Jeff Hamilton.

I met my first great Jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton at the Port Townsend, Jazz workshop.
My teeshirt from the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop.

It was the first day of the camp and I was heading over to the opening concert. The faculty were putting on a performance and all of the students were excited to watch. I was still kind of ho hum. I didn’t think anything of it.

Then I saw Jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton walk out on stage and a huge cheer erupted from the audience. I thought “Okay, so who it this guy?” He was dressed in an LA Dodgers baseball jersey and cap with shorts, tube socks and sneakers. Not really the image of a classy Jazz drummer I had in my head.

He then sat down and completely blew my mind! He played with such deep Swing, he was insanely musical and had chops out the wazoo. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.

At that moment, I knew I wanted to play like that. From that day on, I dedicated myself 100% to learning the art of Jazz drumming. I then attended his classes and in particular, his Jazz brushes workshop.

He planted so many seeds for me at that week-long Jazz camp. I will be forever grateful to him for that inspiration and instruction.

Check out some of his music on your favorite streaming platform. My all time favorite album of Jeff Hamilton’s playing is the live from Tokyo album below. The CD name was originally called “Bam, Bam, Bam” and it’s included in this two-album set.

Bam, Bam, Bam is one of my favorite albums featuring one of my favorite Jazz drummers Jeff Hamilton.

You might also enjoy my series of articles about how to become a pro drummer. Part 1 features Jeff Hamilton.

Best Jazz drummers #2

Ed Thigpen is the next of my best Jazz drummers to leave a profound musical impression on my young and open mind. At about the age of 17, I discovered this album.

Ed Thigpen was another of my great Jazz drummers that shaped my sound.

I practiced every song on this album for hours at a time. I tried to emulate Ed Thigpen’s smooth and tight Swing with brushes and sticks. His always tasteful and musical playing complements the playing of the other trio members, Oscar Peterson – Piano and Ray Brown – Bass.

Both Jeff Hamilton and Ed Thigpen’s brush playing were also important in the development of my own brushes style. I’ve always been a fan of smooth brushes sounds and Ed was one of the best to ever play.


Tighten up your Jazz Swing with Jazz drum play along tracks (drumless tracks). Another great way to prepare for playing Jazz on the bandstand.


Best Jazz drummers #3

The next drummer had perhaps the biggest influence on my brush playing. Vernel Fournier recorded a number of albums with great Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Isreal Crosby – bass filled out the trio on the album below.

Vernel Fournier's Jazz brushes were second to none and why he is one of my great Jazz drummers.

Vernel Fournier’s brushwork was artistry at the highest level. His punctuated accents and strong swing feel propelled the Ahmad Jamal trio forward from measure to measure.

His playing on several albums involved only the use of drum brushes. He never used drum sticks in these recordings. Something rare, even at that time in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

This is another album I practiced with for hours on end. I tried very hard to emulate his brushes sound including those infamous brush slap accents.

Best Jazz drummers #4

The next drummer to cross my ear drums was the great Mel Lewis. Known for his work with the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, he also played on numerous recordings with other artists.

One of my all time favorites is this one.

Mel Lewis is my favorite big band drummer as well. His super swinging ride cymbal playing and understated Jazz comping allowed him to fit into any Jazz musical situation.

My favorite aspect of his drumming is how he “sets up” the band. These are the drum hits he plays before rhythms the whole band plays together. Mel Lewis knew how to set up the band with just one snare note placed perfectly in time.

Many drummers, including myself might have played more elaborate fills but Mel Lewis could get the job done with just one note. In this album, you can hear that focused and efficient approach throughout.

You might also enjoy my blog post about my 25% playing rule. Mel Lewis’ playing embodied this rule with every note he played.

Best Jazz drummer #5

The final on my list of the 5 best Jazz drummers is Jack DeJohnette. His work with Keith Jarrett – Piano and Gary Peacock – Bass is legendary. In the 1980’s they used to sell out concert halls throughout Europe with their unparalleled performances of Jazz standards.

This album is another one I listened to and woodshedded with at my Berklee years and beyond.

Jack DeJohnette is another one on my great drummers list.

Jack DeJohnette’s ability to play over the bar line and think in terms of longer musical and rhythmic phrases really helped my Jazz drumming evolve. He can feel 4 and 8-measure phrases but didn’t always play the downbeats so the music had a more open and fluid feel.

He also swings incredibly hard and his fours, eights and soloing are like impressionistic painting. Supremely musical and dynamic, Jack DeJohnette always played perfect counterpoint to Keith Jarrett’s soloing.

Conclusion

I hope you’ll get these albums, listen to the great players I shared, and play along as I did. They’ll take you deeper into Jazz drumming and help you learn the language of Jazz music.

Jazz is a language like English or Japanese. Listen to these great drummers but also be sure to focus on the great musicians they recorded with. This will help you better understand why the drummers played what they played when they played it.

These recordings certainly helped me develop my Jazz vocabulary and understanding of the essence of the Jazz conversation.

Jazz drumming is always a part of a musical context. When you can hear and understand the language and musical context, your drumming will be fluid and effortless.

Keep swinging my friend!

What’s your list of the best Jazz drummers?


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