About two decades ago, as a curious teenaged jazz drummer, like many listeners keen to explore the earlier forms of the music I first alighted on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven records. I started there partly because I already knew some of Louis’s later work, and because I’d read about these early records’ (deservedly) stellar reputation. When I began listening, despite feeling an immediate attachment to much of the music (how could you not?) the drumming itself baffled, bemused and frustrated me. Many of the most seminal and oft-cited sides (‘West End Blues’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Sugar Foot Strut’) feature our second Hero, Zutty Singleton, the nominal drummer, making strange little metallic clip-clopping sounds which I felt distracted from the soloists, whilst adding relatively little to the rhythm section’s groove. What on earth was that irritating sound? Was that really all that early jazz drummers did?
If only somebody had been there (the internet, even!) to put a reassuring arm around me and explain that these records were made in 1928, and that Zutty, like many of his contemporaries, was simply a follower of fashion – for hot on the heels of the great Washboard Craze of 1924-5 came the Hand Cymbal Craze of 1927-9. Throughout the 1920s (and indeed, ever since), drum manufacturers were constantly innovating; the snare drum, for example, underwent a fairly radical evolution in design to end up as more or less the instrument we know today by 1930. Alongside their constant refining of existing instruments, manufacturers were also hard at work devising entirely new sound-making devices, and several drummers developed a sideline as inventors. America was enjoying a boom unlike any in history and the febrile Jazz Age musical-instrument market meant established manufacturers were only too willing to produce these creations knowing there was a fair chance that any novelty would sell. The famous New York-based orchestral percussionist and teacher Billy Gladstone was supposedly the first person to imagine a hand-held device mounting two small cymbals, perhaps inspired by the clashed and ‘finger’ cymbals found in classical music.
Gladstone’s ‘Device for Operating Cymbals’ (see top of page) comprised a pair of spring-loaded scissor tongs bearing two small, heavy cymbals facing each other; when the player squeezed the tongs, the cymbals closed together. A range of interesting sounds were made possible as the player held the device in one hand, opening and closing the cymbals whilst striking them with a stick held in their other hand. Its creator having received a patent, the ‘Ludwig Gladstone Cymbal’ appeared in the drum company’s 1927 catalogue. Drummers (being the gullible, gimmick-susceptible bunch we always have been) bought them in their thousands, sparking a wave of imitators as the other leading manufacturers sought to cash in on Gladstone’s and Ludwig’s success. Some followed the scissor tongs idea, whilst others diversified further, producing a whole range of related novelty instruments with snappy names (see below). The various types included ‘Hand Sock Cymbals’ (essentially Gladstone’s design) ‘Sting cymbals’ (designed to be clamped to the bass drum hoop) ‘Squash cymbals’ (using a more simple, fire-tongs shape) and ‘Bock-A-Da-Bock’ cymbals (two differently-sized pairs of small cymbals, played rather like castanets). This last name seems to have been the one that stuck during the period, and all types of hand sock cymbal were (and still are) frequently referred to as Bock-A-Da-Bocks. This descriptively onomatopoeic moniker was supposedly coined by pop singer and orchestra leader Mark Fisher, whose drummer Jack ‘Peacock’ Kelly was a Ludwig endorsee and hand-cymbal poster boy.
Some sources have stated that the Hand Cymbal craze was a direct consequence of the ban on using drum kit in the studio that was operated by American recording engineers during the period c.1920-1926. Whilst this might at first seem like a plausible reason for the popularity of the Bock-A-Da-Bock, the fact remains that full kit had already reappeared on record by 1926, well before Billy Gladstone even received his patent. On a number of important jazz records in 1927 and ‘28 drummers used their hand cymbals alongside drums, often picking up the instrument to take a featured novelty break or solo chorus, before resuming on the tubs. This seems strong enough evidence for me to reason that their frequent appearances on record were for purely musical, rather than technological, reasons.
Promotional literature from the period supports this theory, highlighting the hand cymbal’s usefulness as a solo instrument. Leedy’s 1927 catalogue claimed, “A world of varied effects can be obtained. Will either ‘sock’ or ring. Wonderful for flash work. Many drummers use them for solo work”, whilst Ludwig in 1929 advertised “their fascinating cupped effect on fast rhythms […] They help flash and feature the drummer as well as providing a snappy cymbal effect and hot rhythms for the orchestra. They have a popping cup sound and will give you cymbal ring too if played for glancing blows”.
How did professional drummers take to them? With alacrity, it turns out; the humble Hand Sock Cymbal was wielded proficiently on record by a number of our current and future Heroes.
KAISER MARSHALL with Fletcher Henderson & His Orchestra: ‘Whiteman Stomp’ (May 1927).
The first of our Heroes to record using hand cymbal, Kaiser Marshall as one of New York’s leading drummers was presumably one of the first in line for new advances in drum technology. This record only a month after Gladstone’s patent was awarded, so presumably Kaiser was using a genuine Gladstone Hand Sock Cymbal. Its sound is quite hollow and dark compared to later examples, and maybe slightly muffled – I wonder if Marshall was using soft mallets, as he often did on his regular choke cymbal during this period? He uses it to take some hot breaks over sustained brass chords, then later in the side an improvised coda.
VIC MOORE with the Original Wolverine Orchestra: ‘Royal Garden Blues’ (October 1927).
Moore can be heard clop-clopping away throughout many of the Original Wolverines records from 1927 and 28. The sound of Vic’s instrument is very similar to Kaiser’s – again, I’d expect this is too early to have been anything other than the original Gladstone design, although interestingly it has already reached Chicago. Rather like Marshall, Vic Moore deploys the hand cymbal strategically for maximum impact – during feature solo breaks (or at least, over ‘broken texture’ in the arrangement), where it will be most audible.
ZUTTY SINGLETON with Carroll Dickerson & His Orchestra: ‘Missouri Squabble’ (May 1928).
We’ll stay in Chicago for our next Heroic hand-cymbal recording, this time by the great Zutty Singleton, who we hear accompanying a sparkling trumpet solo by Louis Armstrong. It’s interesting to hear that Zutty not only clearly has a different model of hand cymbal from Moore and Marshall, but that he’s using it as part of a dance band, backing a soloist, rather than taking breaks.
TOMMY BENFORD with Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers: ‘Kansas City Stomps’ (June 1928).
Chicago stalwart and frequent Morton sideman Tommy Benford played hand cymbals on several performances during one very productive session. He reaches for them to accompany Morton and Barney Bigard in a trio setting on ‘Shreveport’, but more famously provides the immortal coda to ‘Kansas City Stomps’, his cymbals also sounding hollow and ‘cupped’ – compare them to Marshall’s and Moore’s and I’d conclude it’s the same instrument.
ZUTTY SINGLETON with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five: ‘Sugar Foot Strut’ (June 1928)
Zutty again, but this time the snapping, popping sounds of his cymbals are completely unlike ‘Missouri Squabble’ of the previous month. There are two different pitches clearly audible here, and the cymbals themselves sound much, much smaller than all our previous examples; Zutty here is surely playing a pair of Bock-A-Da-Bock cymbals in each hand.
CHICK WEBB with The Jungle Band: ‘Dog Bottom’ (June 1929).
Our last entry into the Hand Cymbal Hall Of Fame – new man in town Chick Webb, making his début recording in 1929. Recording technology has improved in the last two years, and Chick’s are by far the best-recorded of all these examples. His sound is darker and more ‘squashy’ than Zutty’s last entry, closer in fact to the sound of the earlier hand cymbals. To my ears Chick is definitely using a stick rather than a mallet.
Further to these recordings, there’s also ‘Pep And Personality’ – a 1928 soundie film featuring the peripatetic hot dance band led by Tommy Christian – which allows us to see as well as hear a drummer beautifully combining conventional kit with hand sock cymbals. At [1:28] on ‘Tommy Christian Stomp’ (which definitely has nothing at all in common with ‘Tiger Rag’), conductor Christian moves slightly aside, inadvertently revealing the sight of drummer Art Barnett reaching down to his left. A moment later we’re in hot break territory, and there is Art socking away very dextrously on a pair of Gladstone Hand Socks or similar. Sadly the drums are under-recorded compared to the later examples above, but the film does at least provide an excellent visual reference for exactly how these instruments were deployed by dance drummers in a live setting.
The British music magazine ‘Rhythm’ carried the following article by leading dance band drummer Max Bacon. I’m not sure of the exact date but the Red Heads records he mentions featuring ‘Bennie Pollock’ [sic] were made in 1926-7 so I’d place it in September 1928 – and whilst Pollack himself didn’t in fact use a hand cymbal, Bacon says that his licks do work well on them.
A few years ago I was involved in a project transcribing some of Jelly Roll Morton’s trio recordings in which Zutty Singleton plays hand cymbals prominently, and resolved to try to get myself a set. I searched long and hard for an authentic artifact but none was forthcoming, so eventually I decided to make a working replica from scratch. Having found a nice clear photo of the real thing, I bought a narrow strip of aluminium and used a vice to bend it into the classic tongs shape, and two small (6”) cymbals which were then bolted onto the ends of my homemade tongs. The resultant object looks pretty similar to the source photo in my eyes, and sounds more or less like some of the recordings. Having afterwards seen the catalogue page above, I discovered that what I’d made was technically termed a ‘Squash’ cymbal.
The craze seems to have died out completely soon after Chick Webb’s debut record in 1929 – being still only an up-and-coming young drummer in 1929 he was perhaps influenced by the fashions set by his predecessors and was thus slightly late to the hand sock cymbal party. The sudden abatement in the craze was due principally to ongoing advances in instrument design that were being made at the turn of the decade. These early devices, the first to incorporate two smallish cymbals and allow drummers new and exciting possibilities in terms of colour and rhythm, were limited by the fact that they could really only be played by one hand. By 1929, manufacturers were already advertising the next step in the instrument’s evolution – a new type of ‘sock’ cymbal operated by a foot-pedal, which could be played with both sticks. The hi-hat had arrived to stay.
My thanks to Brett Lowe for his valuable assistance with this article.