For your first Jazz drumming gig, there are a couple of important things that you might want to be prepared for. In this blog post, I’m going to share about Jazz Standards arranging and tempos.

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.

Almost every Jazz drumming gig I play has lead sheets.
Here’s an example of a simple lead sheet I used for a recent recording session.

What is arranging for Jazz Drumming?

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 gigs. It’s something you definitely need to be prepared for.

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 gig are:

  • 4/4 Swing
  • 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
  • In 2
  • In 4

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

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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.

Jazz drumming gigs are always flying by the seat of your pants!

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 blog post about groove. It will help you understand the most important element you need to make all of your grooves…groovy 🙂

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 and Reggae or 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 become 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.

Wrapping up

This is obviously a thumbnail sketch of two important things to expect on a Jazz gig. To fully understand all that I shared you will 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, contact me at to schedule some Zoom private lessons. I always want the best for you and your drumming career. Please take good care and KEEP ON DRUMMIN’!

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