When I was young and starting out, I didn’t think at all like a Jazz drummer. I was thinking about beats and drum fills. That’s it.

As I matured and learned more about Jazz drumming, I could see that this thinking wouldn’t help me. I needed to really understand what was going on in the music and how my drumming related to the other musicians’ playing.

Learn to think like a Jazz drummer in private Zoom lessons with Von Baron.
One of the camera angles in my private Zoom drum lessons.

I often tell my in-person and Zoom drum students that learning Jazz will help them to play ANYTHING they want to play. That’s not only because of the technical skills you learn in Jazz drumming. It’s also about the thinking involved as you play Jazz.

Jazz drumming is a conversation

Of course, drummers in all styles of music need to think about their drum parts and how they fit into the music. Jazz though, takes it to a completely different level. That’s because when we perform Jazz, we are having a musical conversation with the other players on the bandstand.

It’s just like talking to your friend about a particular topic. For instance, I say to my friend, “Hey did you see that baseball game last night on TV?” My friend says, “I sure did. That was a great game!” We’re having a conversation.

Thinking like a Jazz drummer means staying on topic in the musical conversation.

What I often hear amateur Jazz drummers do, goes something like this. The friend says, “Hey did you see that baseball game on TV last night?” The amateur drummer says, “I like to drive my car REALLY fast! Let me show you how fast I can drive!!!”

Being a good Jazz drummer means not changing the topic of the musical conversation to show off.

The amateur drummer’s response has nothing to do with the topic of the conversation. Baseball wasn’t even mentioned. Instead, the drummer wants the attention and focus to be on him/her and how fast he/she can drive (play).

How to think like a Jazz drummer

I did a series of YouTube videos on “How to think like a Jazz drummer.” I recorded myself performing one of my Jazz gigs and broke down what I play in 4 different musical contexts.

The first was playing during a sax solo. Here as with all of the videos, I give you the play-by-play of why I play what I play, when I play it. My hope is that this series would help drummers understand the thinking involved in Jazz drumming.

The second video was playing during the piano solo.

The third video was playing during the bass solo.

The final video was playing during the drum solo. Yes, even during the drum solo, we have to stay connected to the song form and interact with the other players in musical conversation. It’s not a free-for-all stadium Rock drum solo.

Thinking and listening brings greater creativity

When I really think about what I’m playing and consciously connect my playing to the rhythmic ideas and phrases of my fellow musicians, the music and my creativity are elevated.

Being able to connect my ideas to the other musicians’ ideas also requires that I listen intently to what everyone else is playing. I often tell my students, “Don’t listen to yourself.”

When you are playing, listen to yourself last. Listen to everyone else first, so you’ll know exactly what to play. Also, ask yourself these questions when you play. Are you joining the topic of the musical conversation? Is the music better because you are playing?

When you think and listen as a Jazz drummer, you will always answer these questions with a resounding, YES!

You might also enjoy my blog post about listening. In it, I explain how to listen to the other instruments on the bandstand.

Practice thinking like a Jazz drummer

To really hone your thinking, listening and conversation skills it’s important to play with other musicians. That’s really the only way to improve these skills.

If you can jam with your friends, join a Jazz jam session or book your own gigs, you can create opportunities to practice thinking like a Jazz drummer.

Sometimes these options might not be readily be available but don’t despair, I have some great solutions for your practice.

Two of the top Jazz musicians in Japan, recently recorded some drumless tracks for me. They’re called Almost Jazz Standards Volumes 1-3. All of the MP3 drumless tracks also have drum charts (drum sheet music).

These are masterfully performed drumless tracks by Dr. Phillip Strange – piano and Tetsuro Aratama – acoustic bass. They’ll help you prepare for real gigs and kick your playing up a notch or two every time you practice with them.

Concluding thoughts

Jazz drumming is not a heady game of “Let me show you what I can do.” or “I can do it better than you.” It’s an opportunity to share musical ideas and create some beautiful music together.

So often in Jazz playing, virtuosity is applauded and teamwork is forgotten. It’s the teamwork and communication between the instruments that truly make Jazz music special.

When we think, listen and converse we create something together far greater than we could alone. That my friend, is where the REAL fun begins!

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Get ready for your Jazz drumming gigs. Download high-quality, effective DRUMLESS TRACKS. Improve your time, feel, comping and soloing. Learn to play better with real musicians.

Book some private ZOOM DRUM LESSONS to take your Jazz drumming to new heights.

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