An Audio Portrait of Four Percussive Legends
by Fred Gretsch
On July 7, 1973 the Gretsch Drum Company sponsored a unique musical event: A live concert that brought together a bevy of the company’s top artists. This “summit” of Great Gretsch Drummers featured the cream of the jazz drumming world.
The host for this historic event was promoter/producer George Wein, who has been called “the most famous jazz impresario” and “the most important non-player” in jazz history. Among his many accomplishments, Wein founded the Newport Jazz Festival—probably the best-known jazz festival in America—as well as the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. But in 1973 Wein was at the Wollman Amphitheater in New York’s Central Park, acting as emcee for the Great Gretsch Drummers summit.
The full roster included performances by virtually all of the top jazz drummers of the day. These included established star Max Roach, the then-young-phenomenon Tony Williams, and the unique drum-and-percussion collective led by Roach called M’Boom. Regrettably, those performances were not captured for posterity.
However, four other Great Gretsch Drummers on the bill were recorded. That stellar group included Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Freddie Waits, and “Papa” Jo Jones. Their remarkable presentations have been made available for listening at Wolfgang’s Vault HERE.
ELVIN JONES: FIRE AND PASSION
The first recorded performance is by Elvin Jones, who, by 1973, had already set the jazz world on its ear during his six-year stint in the John Coltrane Quartet. In fact, many music critics regard Elvin as the most influential drummer in the history of jazz. His revolutionary multilayered rhythmic approach transformed the drums as a traditional time-keeping instrument, serving as an inspiration for drummers seeking greater improvisational freedom.
Critic and historian Leonard Feather explained Elvin’s significance this way: “His main achievement was the creation of what might be called a circle of sound, a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a tremendously dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group.” With this freewheeling approach Elvin helped lay the foundation for the avant-garde and fusion jazz movements.
For his Gretsch Summit performance Elvin begins with a polyrhythmic exploration of the kit. Then he’s joined by Moog synthesizer player Joe Galavant and wah-wah-inflected guitarist Paul Mitsky. Their far-out, futuristic fusion jam—fueled by Elvin’s signature rolling thunder on the kit—is the edgiest and most freewheeling of the day’s performances. At the climax of the jam, Elvin lashes into the toms, driving the electronic mix to Hendrixian heights and prompting emcee George Wein to announce: “Elvin Jones, ladies and gentlemen! Strange things are happening!”
Wein then presents Elvin with his award as #1 drummer in the Down Beat International Critics Poll for 1973. In his unmistakable basso croak, Elvin responds with a gracious speech of acceptance.
MEL LEWIS: TASTE AND MUSICALITY
As co-leader of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Mel Lewis was widely recognized for bringing a tasteful, small-group approach to his big-band drumming. In an interview, Mel once described his subtle but highly musical style as “not pushing or pulling, but supporting.”
Mel didn’t lack for technique; he could play at break-neck tempos for lengthy periods and hardly break a sweat. But he was never one for blazing fills around the drums. For him, chops had to do with control of the instrument, a sense of color, and, above all, the ability to swing. “I learned that the power of the drums was in this smooth glide of rhythm,” he once told Stanley Crouch. “It wasn’t the volume.” So Mel wasn’t flashy or loud—just tasteful, and highly musical.
When it came to sound, Mel was a purist. He insisted on playing genuine Turkish-made cymbals, favoring lightweight models that were dark and rich with overtones. His standard setup included a 21″ ride, a 19″ crash-ride, and a 22″ “swish-knocker” with rivets. The sound of these cymbals, combined with the rich, warm sound of his wood-shell Gretsch drums equipped with natural calfskin top heads produced a sonic identity that was uniquely Mel’s.
Mel opens up his Great Gretsch Summit performance slowly, using mallets and sticks to play deliberate strokes on his toms and cymbals. Extending the solo musically as well as rhythmically, he artfully orchestrates a thoughtful and dramatic piece that highlights the melodic potential of the complete drumkit.
FREDDIE WAITS: POWER AND INTENSITY
Next up was Freddie Waits. While never the jazz superstar that Elvin Jones was or that Tony Williams would become, Freddie was the embodiment of the solid, in-demand working drummer during the late 1960s and early ’70s. While in college Freddie played blues with Ivory Joe Hunter and Percy Mayfield. Later he became a “house drummer” for Motown Recording Studios in Detroit, where he worked with such legendary artists as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. (Freddie drummed on Stevie’s first hit Fingertips.)
Freddie entered the jazz scene after moving to New York, where he became a member of the original New York Jazz Sextet. He went on to tour with Ella Fitzgerald, and to work with such other greats as Betty Carter, Donald Byrd, Nancy Wilson, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, and Johnny Hodges.
Freddie also devoted a great deal of his time and energy to the versatile percussion group M’Boom. The ensemble featured Max Roach, Omar Clay, Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Warren Smith, Fred King, and Ray Mantilla, all of whom contributed a tremendously wide range of ideas and influences to the group’s collective percussive identity.
For his part of the Summit, Freddie opens with an audacious eruption on the kit. Employing a take-no-prisoners approach from the outset he dives in headfirst and continues to blaze unabated over the course of eight minutes. Midway through this dynamic percussive deluge Freddie is joined by fellow M’Boom member Joe Chambers on marimba and assorted hand percussion. Together they bring the intensity of the performance to a breathtaking crescendo.
PAPA JO JONES: A SIGNATURE APPROACH
When Papa Jo Jones took the stage, he was the acknowledged elder statesman among the drummers on the bill—and among jazz drummers worldwide. As one-fourth of the legendary All-American Rhythm Section in the Count Basie band (with Basie on piano, Freddie Green on guitar, and Walter Page on bass) from 1936 through 1948, Papa Jo provided the swinging momentum for that legendary musical organization. In so doing, he established a standard for style and taste on the drums that influenced drummers for generations to come.
More than any other drummer in history, Papa Jo Jones developed the hi-hat into an instrument of great rhythmic and tonal variety. His hi-hat style has been characterized as swinging and driving, but never obtrusive. So it isn’t surprising that Papa Jo’s Great Gretsch Drum Summit solo spot features the hi-hat—only the hi-hat.
According to jazz author and historian Michael Steinman, “Legend has it that the young Tony Williams and the middle-aged Max Roach came out and did their best to show all the ways in which they could make sounds by using every part of their drum kits. Sly and subversive, Papa Jo came out with only his hi-hat cymbals and a pair of sticks and ‘washed them all away.’” The sixty-two-year-old drumming great held the crowd spellbound with his myriad of hip approaches to playing his signature instrument.
It’s a shame that these classic performances were not filmed so that we could have a visual as well as an audio record. But if you’re a drummer—or even just a drumming aficionado—it’s really not hard to imagine what it might have been like to witness these Great Gretsch Drummers in action. Just listen…close your eyes . . . and enjoy!