So far in this portion of the site we’ve looked at drums from the 1920s quite a lot, most recently in our two-part examination of the evolution of the most important part of the kit – the snare drum – during the decade. To redress the balance, this article will be the first of a three-part history of cymbals and cymbal-playing during the early Jazz Age, and once again I’ll be basing each part around a genuine period instrument that’s found its way into my hands. Today we’ll be looking at (and listening to!) some cymbals of the early Twenties, exploring where they came from and finding out how they were used.
The 1910s ragtime drummers who preceded our Twenties drumming Heroes tended to use Chinese-style cymbals, usually suspended upside-down on spring mounts. It’s not clear exactly why this was, but theories include a lack of availability of imported Turkish-made instruments on the market, a preference for the more aggressive and startling musical qualities of the Chinese type, the inability of manufacturers to produce durable Turkish-style cymbals in suitable sizes, and simple convention. However, they were ubiquitous and rag-jazz crossover drummers such as Tony Sbarbaro, Anton Lada and Louis Mitchell all made prominent use of Chinese cymbals in the late 1910s. They were played nearly always by being struck a glancing blow with a drumstick and allowed to vibrate, producing a variety of ear-piercing clangs and hot, exotic bursts of high-pitched sound.
However, in the early 20s the more melodious sound of the Turkish-style cymbal begins to emerge in the audio ‘fossil record’. These instruments (the technical term for what most people would think of as a ‘normal’ shaped cymbal) had been made in Turkey since time immemorial, their manufacture involving arduous amounts of hand-hammering into shape from rough sheets of various bronze and copper-based metals, of which the exact alloys were often closely-guarded family secrets. Turkish-style cymbals began to be used in the Western orchestra from the classical period onwards (even Mozart used them for a dramatic Eastern effect) and really came into their own in military and parade bands of the 19th century as a high-frequency timekeeping device, the perfect counterfoil to the low frequencies of the bass drum. These ensembles usually included a team of percussionists, with one or more playing pairs of Turkish-style cymbals that were clashed together. To combine portability with projection, these marching cymbals were often of medium size but fairly thick and heavy. In the early 20s parade music was still extremely popular along with ragtime and jazz, and manufacturers were still building their cymbals largely with this in mind. Hence, for drummers at the beginning of the Jazz Age, if you wanted a Turkish-style cymbal (and initially not everybody did!) medium-sized, heavyish instruments were what you’d tend to find.
Rather than wobbling on spring-mounts or being bolted straight onto the shells of drums like the Chinese types of the ragtime era, early 20s Turkish-style cymbals seem from the very start to have always been ‘suspended’ – usually on a knotted leather thong, which in turn was looped over the arm of a crane-shaped stand or ‘hanger’ clamped to the bass drum counterhoop (see three examples above). This arrangement, though precarious-looking, was perfectly adequate for the needs of most drummers in the period; whilst it might not support the weight of a modern 22″ ride cymbal, no such thing was dreamed of. Cymbals were medium sized at most (as shown in the 1923 Ludwig catalogue at the top of this page offering only 11” to 18”), and nobody had thought of ‘riding’ on them in that way yet.
My early 20s cymbal is a genuine Turkish instrument originally manufactured by the K. Zildjian company – still the world’s most famous name in cymbals nearly a century later. It’s just over 12″ in diameter and weighs about 800g, although this is by no means evenly distributed; one side of the cymbal is noticeably thicker than the other, meaning it tilts slightly when suspended from a hanger. Neither is it completely circular – such are the vagaries of the hand-manufacturing process! The distinguishing maker’s stamp (“K. Zildjian & Co. / Constantinople / Trade Mark”) has been partially worn away, and appears so near to the edge of the cymbal that the top of the company monogram is missing. This, combined with its unusual diameter and heavy weight/dimension ratio, leads me to suspect that the cymbal was originally slightly larger than it is today, and was cut down for some reason at some point in its life. It’s typically dark-sounding, and needs quite a firm crash with a decent-weight drumstick to get all the overtones really going. But its weight does result in tremendous stick definition, which punches beautifully through a band. What this cymbal also has in common with many of our Heroes’ instruments in the early 1920s is a very strong fundamental tone. To explain this briefly, a vibrating cymbal produces a range of overtones. Complex overtones produce something close to a splash of indistinct white noise, with no overriding tone or note audible. The less complex these overtones are, however, the closer the cymbal is to having a defined pitch (a ‘note’ to it, which you could find on a piano).
How were these cymbals played? In the early years of the decade, jazz drummers used their Turkish cymbals just as their ragtime forebears had played their Chinese cymbals – they simply struck them hard with a drumstick and allowed them to vibrate. Usually this was done at key moments in the performance such as a designated break in the arrangement, often during the introduction or coda. Below are a fairly random selection of recordings from the period 1921-25 featuring drummers in jazz and dance bands playing heavy Turkish-type cymbals in this tradition.
Small-group jazz at dawn of the 1920s was dominated by the so-called Fabulous Fives – quintets nominally patterned after the instrumentation (if not the actual sound) of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Despite their names, nearly all of them were made up of white Easterners and based in and around New York City. First off here’s Tom Morton, drummer of the Indiana Five, clanging out some fine Turkish cymbal on ‘Slow Poke’ in April 1923:
Hero #9 Chauncey Morehouse, later to become one of the Twenties’ greatest cymbal specialists, began with The Georgians – not usually counted as a Fabulous Five (there were always at least seven of them) but stylistically cut from very similar cloth. Here he is on ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’ from December of that year.
Another speciously-named Fabulous Five was the Original Memphis Five, whose drummer Jack Roth crashes out a percussive exclamation mark after young Miff Mole’s trombone solo on ‘More’ (December 1923):
Elsewhere in New York, Kaiser Marshall (Hero #10) was just beginning his nearly decade-long stint in Fletcher Henderson’s great hot dance band (‘Do Doodle Oom’ – August 1923):
Later the same year, New York was visited by Armand J. Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, who brought their elegant Louisiana jazz style up North to be recorded for the first time. Sadly Louis Cotrelle’s work was largely inaudible but his cymbal crashes occasionally punctuate sides like ‘New Orleans Wiggle’ (November 1923):
Moving West, Chicago too was a hotbed of cymbal action! George Brommersburg was one of a roster of drummers to perform in the Benson Orchestra (‘Mean Mean Mamma’ -August 1923):
Jimmy Bertrand, meanwhile, was with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra down on the South Side. ‘Chinaman Blues’ was recorded in June 1923 and includes the de rigueur ‘long chord followed by hearty clang on cymbal’ coda:
And in January 1924, the great New Orleans-born drum man Andrew Hilaire recorded sides with ‘Doc’ Cook’s large orchestra, including ‘The Memphis Maybe Man’:
Speaking of New Orleans, towards the middle of the decade the recording industry finally arrived in earnest there too. Here’s drummer Paul de Droit, playing ‘Panama’ with his brother Johnny’s band in March 1924:
Over in Europe, things were very similar; witness expat American and former ragtimer Louis Mitchell flying the flag with his new Jazz Kings group in Paris. This is from their ‘Montmartre Rag’ (May 1922):
Meanwhile, in London, local lad Ronnie Gubertini was with the (partly American) Savoy Havana Band dance orchestra recording sides like ‘Felix Kept On Walking’ (Feb 1924):
A drastic development in jazz cymbal playing occurred around 1922/3, when drummers everywhere began to adopt the ‘choke’ technique, which involves grasping the edge of a vibrating cymbal with the fingers, stopping the sound dead. This innovation, suddenly allowing cymbal strokes to be choppy and rhythmic as well as portentous and dramatic, opened up a limitless range of interesting combinations of long and short sounds. The choked cymbal style seems to have originated in Chicago and radiated outwards, helped along by records and radio, eventually becoming such a key part of every jazz drummer’s lexicon that it’s often recognised as a hallmark sound of 1920s music. The first Hero to choke his cymbal on record (that I can find) was Frank Snyder of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in August of 1922.
This might be the first choked cymbal ever played on a jazz record, played on Snyder’s and the NORK’s recording début. Most of the early NORK output features Frank clanging away on open Turkish cymbals much like our Heroes above, but at the final break of ‘Eccentric’ he clearly chokes. As if to prove the point, he did it again on ‘Oriental’, the next day.
In June of the following year came the great Baby Dodds’s first recording, with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. The first note of the first tune they laid down (‘Just Gone’) was a solo cymbal choke, and all throughout the band’s recorded oevre Baby punctuates his flow of intricate woodblock or snare rhythms with punchy choked notes on cymbal. For a while this would remain the standard modus operandi for most drummers.
Snyder’s replacement in the NORK was our Hero #7, Ben Pollack. On his début with the band – ‘Sweet Lovin’ Man’, in December 1923 – he not only played single choked notes, but a whole chorus of steady rhythm on choked cymbal – what was soon to be called ‘socking’.
A Chicago band which took a great deal of early inspiration from the NORK was the Wolverine Orchestra, whose drummer Vic Moore was perhaps among the first to take anything approaching a solo solely on choked cymbal, on a number called ‘Susie’ (May 1924):
As the decade moved into its middle years, the music business saw a big boom in hot dance orchestras (and their small-group spinoffs!) Yet still the medium-sized, heavy Turkish-style instrument remained the cymbal of choice for most leading jazz drummers.
Kaiser Marshall was still powering Fletcher Henderson’s elite Orchestra, now using his choked cymbal to back Henderson’s new star trumpet player – Louis Armstrong. Here they both are on ‘Memphis Bound’ (April 1925):
Hero #11, Stan King, meanwhile, was playing with the great (and very well-recorded) California Ramblers, and all their myriad pseudonyms and interrelated side-projects – ‘Ev’rything is Hotsy Totsy’ (April 1925):
King left the Ramblers in 1926 and was replaced by the even more cymbal-happy Herb Weil (‘Give Me Today’ – April 1926):
Meanwhile, over in Chicago, the great black jazz drummers were also still favoring heavy Turkish cymbals.
Paul Barbarin had succeeded Baby Dodds as King Oliver’s drummer of choice and was stomping out sides like ‘Deep Henderson’ by April 1926:
Andrew Hilaire was still with ‘Doc’ Cook’s orchestra but also moonlighting with the great Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers recording ensembles. Morton’s intricate arrangements occasionally featured solo breaks for Hilaire’s dark Turkish cymbal such as the legendary one at the coda of ‘Smoke-House Blues’, in September 1926:
Another of Morton’s roster of Red Hot Peppers percussionists was Dodds, who – apparently using exactly the same instrument he had with Oliver back in 1923 – gave us several memorable cymbal solos including ‘Billy Goat Stomp’ (June 1927):
The ‘socking’ style had crossed the pond by the mid-20s too, and we find Gubertini and his Brit peers (here Eric Saundars on Fred Elizalde’s ‘Stomp Your Feet’) predominantly still using heavy Turkish cymbals as late as June 1927, albeit in a much hipper context than the early days.
In the short video below I’ve attempted to demonstrate some of the sounds of early 20s cymbal playing, using sticks and mallets on my K. Zildjian and recreating a famous Andrew Hilaire cymbal break:
By the time of the later examples above, manufacturers had started to greatly diversify their range of cymbal products and the old-style heavy cymbals were beginning to fall out of use with cutting-edge jazz drummers in favour of a new class of cymbals which, despite being roughly similar to our heavy K. Zildjian in size and shape, were of a very different sonic character and allowed cymbal-playing to go in all sorts of exciting new directions in the second half of the decade. We’ll see and hear all about them in ‘Instruments #7’….