2 Tips To Survive Your First Jazz Drumming Job

Okay I get it. You’re nervous and you want to play flawlessly on your first Jazz drumming job. Nailing the kicks and swinging your butt off are important.

You want to impress the other musicians, the audience and get some more gigs from this one. The way to play your best on your first gig is to prepare your best.

Every drumming job requires preparation.

In this article, I’m going to share with you two solid tips from years of gigging, that will help you not only survive but thrive on your first Jazz drumming gig. First off, let’s talk about drumming jobs and what it means to be a “professional drummer.”

Drumming Jobs

Drumming jobs, also called drum gigs are opportunities for us drummers to get paid for playing drums. Sounds great ya? Well, it really is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pinched myself because I was getting paid great to play a little spang-a-lang on the ride cymbal.

What are common jobs for drummers?

Jobs for drummers vary from live performances at clubs or halls to recording sessions, tours and even teaching drum lessons. Whenever you pick up your drum sticks and someone pays you, it’s a drumming job.

How to be a professional drummer

So what does it mean to be a “professional drummer?” To me, being a pro drummer is not just about getting paid to play drums. It’s more about the number, types and quality of the gigs we play on a regular basis that makes a drummer professional.

I have a 3-article series about becoming a pro drummer that you also might enjoy.

At this point in my career, I have played thousands of live performances and recording studio dates. I’ve also taught 10’s of thousands of drum lessons.

When I started out, I didn’t think of myself as a professional drummer. Even after I got my first check for a gig, I still knew I had a long way to go.

I think it was after I started gigging several times month with various groups that I realized I was turning pro. Overall, I believe it’s breadth of experience that makes someone pro, not just getting paid for the gig.

On the Jazz drumming job in Osaka, Japan.
At the drumming job.

Drumming skills

At the heart of it, it all comes down to drumming skills. If we have the skills to play the drums and make the music and other musicians sound great, then we have the skill to become professional.

When someone calls me for a gig, they know my skill set. They know I can play with drum brushes or sticks, I can play in many different styles of music, I can read drum charts and I can use and understand music terminology.

These are also some of the most important skills you’ll need on your first Jazz gig. These will be important going forward as well, if you want to be a career drummer.

Tip No. 1 for the Jazz drumming job – Song arranging

Unlike most other styles of music, Jazz doesn’t require that you play a song the same way every time. There is a lot of flexibility to rearrange songs on the gig.

It’s very common, for example, to lay out all of the lead sheets for the tunes on a table. Then, the leader will talk about the different grooves (also called “feels”) and tempos for each song. This a kind of on-the-spot arranging.

Note: A “lead sheet” is a music chart for a song that contains the chords, melody notes (sometimes lyrics), kicks and other directions. For example, it will also have DS or DC and Coda symbols to tell you how to end the song.

Here’s an example of a simple lead sheet I used for one of my recording sessions.

Jazz arranging

When we “arrange” a song, it means we change it in some way from its original or usually played version. This allows us to infuse our own ideas into the song and come up with a new version.

Legendary Jazz bassist Ray Brown used to say, “Put a new dress on it.” Listeners will recognize the Jazz Standard but it will have a fresh and interesting sound. Ray Brown was a master of rearranging Jazz Standards.

For drummers, this usually means, we will change the feels and tempos we play. For example, a song that is usually played in 3/4, can be easily changed and interpreted in a 4/4 time signature. If that song was traditionally performed as a Jazz Swing Waltz, it might then change to a 4/4 Bossa Nova.

This kind of on-the-gig arrangement happens all the time on a typical Jazz drumming job. It’s something you definitely need to be prepared for.

Tip No. 2 for the Jazz drumming job – Feels and Tempos

Jazz drumming feels

There are various Jazz drumming feels that you will need to know to get through most gigs. I can play 70 + different drum grooves on demand and mix them too if needed. Even so, the vast majority of my Jazz gigs call for only a handful of feels.

The most common feels on a Jazz drumming job are:

  • 4/4 Swing
  • Playing Swing In 2
  • Playing Swing In 4
  • 3/4 Swing
  • Bossa Nova
  • Ballad with brushes
  • Samba
  • 6/8 Afro-Cuban (Also known as Bembé)
  • 12/8 Slow Blues
  • Straight 8ths (Also known as ECM Feel)
  • Mambo 2:3 and 3:2
  • Swing 16ths Funk
  • 8th note Pop

It’s also important to learn many of these feels with brushes as well as with sticks. Jazz drumming is as much about texture and color as it is about the actual feels themselves.

I’ve got a complete course to teach you how to drum with brushes. Check out the Brushes Mastery Course to get your brush playing together for the gig.

For example, you might have two Bossa Nova tunes on a gig. The first one, you could play with sticks and the next one with brushes. You could also play with one stick and one brush. It all depends on the dynamics, tempo and overall feeling of the song.

In Jazz drumming, you need to be able to adapt quickly to changes in volume, intensity and rhythm. A Jazz gig comes at you fast. You have to be ready to respond to musical twists and turns.

“Playing In 2” means focussing the phrasing of your groove on counts 1 and 3. See my YouTube video about playing Jazz hi-hat in 2. This will help you also understand “Playing In 4.” Playing in 4 simply means that the bass will be walking quarter notes instead of playing half notes on counts 1 and 3.

You may also enjoy my article about groove. It will help you understand the most important element you need to improve your groove.

For real world practice in playing many of the feels we use on Jazz drumming jobs, check out my article about my 23 Superb Jazz Backing Tracks For Drums.

A note about “Latin” feels

On gigs, many times, the word “Latin” is used to describe a feel. The problem with this word is that it typically includes two massive categories of drum grooves, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban.

Latin feels can also include Caribbean grooves like Calypso/Soca, Reggae and others. On Jazz gigs though, “Latin” usually means a Brazilian or Afro-Cuban feel.

The origins of both Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythm families are African. Even so, they evolved VERY differently. It’s always a good idea to confirm specifically, what kind of feel you will play. I often ask the bass player first because bass and drums have to create that rhythmic foundation for the band.

Many times someone will sing a rhythmic pattern to you and you will then know which category it falls under. You can then play the appropriate groove. For example, singers, don’t usually know much about specific Brazilian or Afro-Cuban feels. They will probably vocalize a rhythmic pattern to explain what they want.

Jazz drumming tempos

The other obvious thing to prepare for is tempo. Many times, a singer will want to make a song slower or faster than its usual interpretation. This is to spice things up or make it more comfortable for them to sing the lyrics.

Tempos on gigs average between 60 BPM and 250 BPM. There are times when I play at 50 BPM or as fast as 300 BPM but those gigs don’t happen often. The language used to describe tempos is also important.

Here are the most common tempo descriptions used on lead sheets or charts and said verbally.

  • Ballad
  • Slow Swing
  • Medium Swing
  • Up-Tempo Swing
  • Fast Swing
  • Medium Samba
  • Fast Samba
  • Double Time Feel
  • Double Time
  • Medium Jazz Waltz
  • Slow Waltz

It’s a good idea to be able to play all of the feels listed earlier in this post, at various tempos. After you play a few Jazz gigs, you will start to understand which tempos are generally played for the different feels.

For example, Bossa Nova is typically played in a tempo range of 75 BPM to 115 BPM. Anything faster than that, it becomes a Samba. Sometimes people will mistakenly say or write a “Fast Bossa” but that ends up being more like a Samba.

For help with developing good time and feel, you may also want to check out my blog post on drumming time and feel.


So, being able to improvise arrangements of songs on the spot and knowing your Jazz drumming feels and tempos are two essentials for a smooth first Jazz gig. If you can get those 2 things under your belt, you’ll be well on your way to making great music and getting more playing opportunities.

This is obviously a thumbnail sketch of two important things to expect on a Jazz gig. To fully understand all that I shared you may need to dive deeper. With the help of a solid teacher and experience playing Jazz gigs, your confidence in Jazz drumming will grow.

If you need some Jazz drumming guidance, we can schedule a Zoom private lesson. I’d be happy to help you iron out the details. Keep swinging my friend!

How are you or how did you prepare for your first Jazz drumming job?

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Hey, I’m Von Baron. I’m determined to help you become an AMAZING Jazz drummer.  My only question is, are you ready?

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