Hal Smith and Kevin Dorn: Let’s Talk More Great Drummers

Hal Smith: Last June, Kevin Dorn and I talked about some of the people who have influenced our own playing. That article received many positive comments from TST readers, so we decided to discuss some more drummers we admire…

One guy I know we both enjoy hearing is Ray Bauduc; especially on the records he made in the 1930s with Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats and with Wingy Manone. He played such an exciting style, with plenty of press rolls, blocks, rims, cowbell and choke cymbal—during the Swing Era! Bauduc was certainly one of the greatest pioneers of the New Orleans style, along with Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, Paul Barbarin, Tony Sbarbaro, and the Halls (Minor and Tubby). When you hear Bauduc’s masterful playing on “The Big Crash From China,” it is easy to understand why he was a favorite of Chick Webb!

Hot Jazz Jubile

Kevin Dorn: Yes! I remember when I first heard Ray Bauduc on record (with Bob Crosby’s band), it was further evidence to me that there was more than just one way to play. He didn’t sound like Gene Krupa or Dave Tough or Jo Jones. He had his own approach. I’ve met some people who think that “traditional jazz” drumming is restrictive, but I believe nothing could be further from the truth. These great players prove that there are unlimited ways to play this music.

Ray Bauduc
Ray Bauduc

I love Bauduc’s sound and feel. His drums didn’t sound like anyone else’s and his Chinese (or Swish) cymbal is one of the greatest sounds in jazz, as far as I’m concerned. He also set the standard for how to approach certain tunes that have become classics, like “South Rampart Street Parade” and “Big Noise From Winnetka.” In addition to his great playing with the Crosby band, I also love the recordings he did in the 1950s with Jimmy Dorsey and with Jack Teagarden.

I hear a certain link between Ben Pollack, Ray Bauduc and Nick Fatool, even though they obviously each had their own individual styles. We’ve already talked about Nick Fatool, but I know Ben Pollack is another favorite of both of ours and another great drummer you actually got to see live! You also wrote the great liner notes for Ben Pollack and his Pick-A-Rib Boys, a recording I truly love. What do you remember about seeing him play?


HS: If I had a crystal ball when I went to “Dixieland at Disneyland” in 1964, I would have listened to Ben Pollack (or Kid Ory or Louis Armstrong) ALL NIGHT. But I didn’t. Shame on me! But—at least I remember some of the things Pollack played that night. He was using a large bass drum—same one seen in the photo—and was able to play accents on it with his sticks. That’s much easier to do with a larger bass drum. You can just lean forward a little and wail away without having to reach down and around a bunch of clamps, like you have to do with a smaller bass drum. Pollack also played whole note rolls on the closed hi-hats, accenting the second and fourth beats. I SAW him play on the ride cymbal, but was too far away from the bandstand to hear exactly what patterns he was playing.

Ben PollackYou and I have talked previously about the way he played variations on the basic ding-ding-da-ding ride cymbal pattern and I’m sure he did that at Disneyland. I was just too dazzled by the whole thing to pay proper attention!

If I had listened to his band for the entire evening, I’m sure I would have noticed him switching to brushes when backing certain solos—as he does on the Pick-A-Rib Boys’ records. I really like that added dynamic; all the more effective when he goes back to the sticks! One other thing I wish I could have seen: the go-for-broke fill where he hits two beats on the snare, then a complicated triplet pattern involving the snare, mounted tom and cowbell!

There is a drummer who you become acquainted with: Buzzy Drootin. I think of him as one of the very best drummers who Eddie Condon employed; a driving player in ensembles as well as solos. He was a master at playing uncomplicated, swinging time on the ride cymbal while keeping a steady 4/4 pulse on the bass drum. He had a fan who was not really part of the Condon Mob: Lester Young! In fact, Jake Hanna told me that Buzzy Drootin was Lester Young’s favorite drummer; he nicknamed him “The Tap Dancer.” What is it about his playing that appeals to you?

KD: Buzzy Drootin has been a huge influence on me. I would have loved to have heard him with Lester Young! As I think I mentioned in one of those videos (thanks for the kind words about them, by the way!), I didn’t get his playing at first. It was too different from what I was expecting. But I soon realized what a deep player he was. He combined elements of Gene Krupa, Dave Tough and Sid Catlett along with some more “modern” influences and had a style that I think could have worked with almost anyone in the history of jazz.


Buzzy Drootin
Buzzy Drootin

I loved his strong bass drum beat, the unique sound of his snare drum, and the odd phrasing he would use in his solos. I’ve never heard anyone else phrase that way on the drums. I actually never got to hear him play live (he was more or less retired by the time I came around), but I did get to know him and spend some time with him and he was very friendly and encouraging.

Of course, I’m always thinking of things I wished I had asked him about! But I remember he told me he liked to use a 22″ bass drum, a hard felt bass drum beater and that he used a piccolo snare drum in the late forties and early fifties because it was the hip thing to do! He also told me to eat my vegetables! I particularly love his playing on the classic Bobby Hackett/Jack Teagarden recording Jazz Ultimate, as well as all of his work with Eddie Condon.

Cliff Leeman
Cliff Leeman

Speaking of Condon, another main Condon drummer I know we both admire is Cliff Leeman. I think he had one of the best beats in jazz and was certainly a drummer who did things his own way; those huge cymbals set-up sideways and the almost avant garde breaks he would play. His playing on Jam Session Coast To Coast and Jammin’ At Condon’s is some of my favorite drumming ever, and the break he plays at the end of “Beale Street Blues” on Jam Session Coast To Coast is my absolute favorite four bar drum tag.


Like Buzzy, he could sound great with the Condon gang or in a Count Basie groove, without altering his playing very much. He was always swinging. Did you ever get to hear him in person and what are some aspects of his playing that stand out to you?

HS: No, I grew up on the wrong coast to be able to hear Cliff Leeman! But I certainly admire his playing on recordings with Condon and Pee Wee Erwin and two great sessions with Don Ewell: one in a trio with Ewell and Herb Hall and a second with Buddy Tate and George Duvivier. And don’t forget his interpretation of Tony Sbarbaro’s syncopated woodblock-and-cowbell rhythm as part of a re-created ODJB on the 1961 Chicago and All That Jazz TV show!

As you say, he was an incredibly versatile and swinging drummer in any situation. Actually, my favorite recording of Cliff Leeman is Eddie Condon in Japan on Chiaroscuro. He gets such a wonderful shimmering sound on the ride cymbal, adds perfectly-timed punctuations on the splash cymbal and just plays beautiful time throughout. I have read that Leeman was Wild Bill Davison’s favorite drummer and I don’t doubt that for an instant!


Jimmy Crawford
Jimmy Crawford

In one of our e-mail exchanges you mentioned a drummer who I believe is underrated: Jimmy Crawford. He was certainly indispensable to the sound of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and later became a 100 percent dependable “old pro” studio drummer. Still, his career has not received the same kind of attention as some of his peers. I can tell you that my favorite recording by Jimmy Crawford is the 1947 version of “Bye Bye, Pretty Baby” in a trio with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. Talk about subtlety and swing—! His brushwork is some of the best I’ve ever heard on record. What do you like about Jimmy Crawford’s drumming?

KD: Jimmy Crawford’s playing is so swinging and supportive and always sounds just perfect to me! Like you, I love his playing with Benny Goodman’s trio and I’ve recently discovered a recording form the fifties that has become a favorite of mine: All About Memphis by Buster Bailey.

Jimmy Crawford plays a minimal setup with only a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat and ride cymbal. Without being flashy, he swings the whole band and has a wonderful hookup with bassist Gene Ramey. Unlike some of the other drummers we’ve mentioned, he seems not to vary the rhythm of his ride cymbal beat very much, yet it never becomes static or boring. He puts so much swing into each note and when he plays an accent, it really stands out because he’s not doing it all the time. I agree with you completely about his brushwork; some of the very best ever!

Another absolute king of the brushes (and in fact, every aspect of drumming!) was the great Jo Jones. Everything he played was magic and I know he is a hero to both of us. He pretty much set the standard for playing the hi-hat and I don’t think anyone has ever done it better. His sound, feel, and the ways in which he interacted with soloists are simply awe-inspiring.

In addition to his amazing playing with Count Basie, I really love the quartet recording he did with Lester Young, Teddy Wilson and Gene Ramey, Pres and Teddy. I have to thank one of my favorite people and musicians, Dan Barrett, for turning me onto that record years ago. I have always felt that you have a lot of Jo Jones’ great qualities in your own playing and I remember at a festival one time, you quoted an incredible break of his from a Paul Quinichette recording. That really knocked me out! What are some of the aspects Jo Jones’ playing that stand out to you?

HS: Well, talking about Jo Jones could take a couple years’ worth of Syncopated Times issues! But—as you said, his hi-hat playing is the absolute best of all time. The sound he brought out of the instrument was light and airy, but at the same time authoritative. He had few equals as far as accompanying soloists and punctuating phrases in an ensemble. His solos and breaks were always full of perfectly-executed rudiments and the most rhythmic phrases imaginable. I know that particular break you’re referring to: I took it from “Texas Shuffle” on the Swingville For Basie album.

Paul Quinichette was trading fours with Jo and his some of his fours sounded to me like he was echoing the rhythms that Jo played. Right in the middle, Jo plays a declamatory phrase with a break on the first beat of the second bar, then returns on the third and fourth. It’s almost like he was sending a rhythmic message to Paul Quinichette: “STOP THIS **** RIGHT NOW!” And as far as his brush-playing goes, Jake Hanna said it best: “You hear JO play brushes, you want to throw yours away!” Jo’s playing on “Louise” with Pres and Teddy is one of my all-time favorite drum solos. On that one you can really tell that he paid attention to, and accompanied, some of the best tap-dancers in the business!

Chick Webb
Chick Webb

One of the drummers Jo admired was Chick Webb. You can definitely hear Webb’s influence in Jo’s solos, as he often played the same kind of well-articulated paradiddles that Webb used on his own solos such as those on “Liza” and especially “Harlem Congo.” Webb was also a tremendous inspiration for Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, George Wettling and Buddy Rich, among others. What are the standout characteristics of Chick Webb’s playing for you?

KD: Chick Webb is, I think, one of those rare players who influenced virtually everyone who came after him. His playing is timeless. I remember first hearing Louis Armstrong’s recording of “I Hate To Leave You Now” in my early twenties; not a recording that features the drums at all. But there’s a cymbal crash on beat four near the end that’s so authoritative and so perfectly timed that it was obvious that whoever was playing drums was a master. It was Chick Webb! You know someone is great if you can tell it from just one cymbal crash.

He was also another great brush player and one of the first drummers I hear playing the ride cymbal beat on the snare drum with brushes, as opposed to the quarter brush feel that was more the norm at the time. His solos are the perfect combination of technical mastery and reckless abandonment. His playing is so multi-faceted that he influenced not only virtuoso drum soloists like Krupa and Rich, but also players like Tough and Leeman who had a completely different approach.

Ray McKinley
Ray McKinley

I read an interview with Bob Haggart in which he said that Chick Webb’s hi-hat playing was a big influence on Ray McKinley. McKinley is another favorite drummer of mine who I feel is often overlooked. He had incredible drive and a great drum sound, and he was another drummer (like Webb, Tough and Leeman) who made excellent use of a Chinese cymbal.

He sounded great with Jimmy Dorsey in the thirties and with Glenn Miller’s Air Force Band in the forties, and he kept on sounding great for his entire career. I was just listening to a recording he made of “Chinatown” in 1967 with Peanuts Hucko and he was on fire! The intensity of his beat was just amazing and he plays some wild breaks that don’t sound like anyone but him. I’d like to thank Sonny McGown for posting that great tune on YouTube! I know you’re a Ray McKinley fan as well. What aspects of his playing speak to you the most?

HS: You’re absolutely right. McKinley was way underrated! When he was featured, he always played interesting breaks and solos and kept rock-solid time even on blazing-fast tempos. One great recording session he made, which has largely been overlooked, was a 1936 date for Decca under his own name. He used ace sidemen from the Jimmy Dorsey band, plus the one and only Joe Sullivan on piano.

They recorded four originals by pianist Harvey Brooks and the drumming—especially on “Love In The First Degree”—is some of the best I’ve ever heard! McKinley played driving press rolls, snare rims, rim shot accents, woodblock, cowbell, Chinese cymbal, heavily-accented afterbeats on the snare and choke cymbal … He also went back and forth between 2/4 and 4/4 on the bass drum. On paper that may look like a description of Ray Bauduc’s style, but the sound is 100 percent Ray McKinley!

There is a clip from the old Glenn Miller Time TV show where McKinley is leading a “Dixieland” sextet on “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” He starts right in on the vocal without a countoff (or a tuning note)! He sings a very nice Jack Teagarden-style vocal, then shouts “Change of key!” just in time for a modulation. He plays swinging ride cymbal, Chinese cymbal and hi-hats, plus plus ear-catching accents on the snare drum and bass drum in just the right spots and even cues another key change by pointing his stick skyward! It’s about as impressive a performance as I can imagine!

Well, Brother—I think we ought to wrap this up and save some more of our heroes for a future discussion. However, before we do, I would like to direct The Syncopated Times readers to your wonderful videos on YouTube. You talked about quite a few of our favorite drummers and described their equipment, setups and how and what they played. Here is the link.

Thanks a million for inspiring me to move ahead with another installment of our “Drummer Forum” and as always, thanks for your invaluable insights regarding these great drummers’ contributions to jazz. I hope we can do this again in the near future!

KD: Thank YOU, Brother! It’s always so much fun to talk drums with you and I always learn something when we do. You are truly where it’s at! Also, thanks for your kind words about my YouTube videos. They’re fun to do and I hope people enjoy them.

I look forward to our next drum hang!

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Hal Smith is an Arkansas-based drummer and writer. He leads the New Orleans Night Owls and the
Mortonia Seven and works with a variety of jazz and swing bands. Visit him online at

Kevin Dorn
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Kevin Dorn is familiar to our readers as a much-in-demand jazz drummer based in the NYC area. Find him on the web atwww.kevindorn.com

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