Instruments #7: The ‘Snappy’ Turkish-style Cymbal, late 1920s

Over a year ago, I promised that I’d be taking a three-part look at cymbals and cymbal-playing in 1920s jazz, each article profiling a typical period instrument from my own collection which I use regularly, and examining some instructive audio examples of our ‘Twenties drumming Heroes using theirs in action. I began with an essay on the type of cymbal most commonly used by jazz drummers in the early 20s (a heavy Turkish type) in ‘Instruments #6’.  Today, in Cymbals of the ‘Twenties Part Two, once again we’ll be looking at and listening to some cymbals – this time from the later years of the decade – exploring where they came from, and finding out how they were used.

We’ve already heard the sonorous clanging sounds jazz drummers coaxed from their heavy Turkish crash cymbals in the late 1910s and early 20s. We also noted the important, era-defining development of the ‘choke’ technique pioneered by Frank Snyder and Baby Dodds in 1923 Chicago, and the ‘hot socking’ texture developed soon afterward by Ben Pollack and Vic Moore among others, which spread rapidly and had become a standard part of the jazz drummer’s vocabulary by the middle of the decade. These cymbals were weighty, mostly former marching-band instruments, designed to project the maximum sonic punch for their moderate size. However, as the middle years of the decade arrived, a handful of leading drummers began to appear on record playing cymbals of a slightly more refined design than the heavy early 20s clangers, with an entirely new set of attendant sound characteristics. Whilst still being essentially similar in their Turkish-style profiles (i.e. a conventional Western cymbal shape), these new cymbals were considerably thinner, lighter and more finely-hammered than their forebears, resulting in an inevitable difference in character – soft, airy and delicate, rather than dark, deep, and portentous. It’s interesting to speculate the reasons for this sudden sea-change in cymbal tastes; was the shift the result of any particular musical, economic or technological imperative? It’s impossible to say for sure, but several circumstantial factors are worth considering.

Firstly, the middle ‘twenties saw a general trend for the wild, freewheeling ‘jass’ popular at the birth of the decade to be curbed and modified, as the frenzied Fabulous Fives and their ilk disappeared or evolved into larger groups – which, through necessity, played a more carefully-organised style of music. The hot dance band as a unit had truly arrived by 1922, and as social dancing became ever more popular, such bands became indispensible. As years passed, in many circles both the social settings and the dances themselves had grown increasingly refined, and demanded musical accompaniment of similar subtlety and nuance, to the point where the old bandsman’s adage, ‘If you can’t hear the dancers’ feet, you’re playing too loud’ became a truism. There were some exceptions of course, but an overwhelming majority of mid-20s dance band drummers likely found that their old-style heavy cymbals were suddenly no longer completely necessary in order to project across the room.

Technology almost certainly had a part to play as well. Cymbal manufacture had quietly been improving steadily, in line with the burgeoning popularity of syncopated music requiring percussive propulsion. Whilst the best 1910s and early 20s cymbals were still imported directly from cottage-industry foundries in Turkey, American instrument manufacturers were soon taking much greater interest both in producing their own in-house models and introducing improved standards of consistency in the imported products they licensed for distribution. With developments in casting and lathing technology, it was gradually possible to produce cymbals of larger diameters and greater degrees of fineness with little or no compromise in their cost or durability.

At around the same time, the old acoustic recording technology, which had hitherto required bands to play as loud (or even louder!) in the studio than they might have been accustomed to doing on live dates, was in the process of being phased out and replaced by new electric systems. With its much greater dynamic range and capacity for close-mic’ing to capture even very quiet sounds, electrical recording allowed new possibilities and inspired new manners of playing for drummers, just as it notably did for players of other instruments at the same time; vocalists were suddenly crooning low rather than shouting, banjoists were reaching for the guitar with alacrity, and tuba players increasingly picking up the double bass. Once records like the some of those below had made a hit with the public, a lighter cymbal quickly became the must-have piece of equipment for all up-to-date drummers. Manufacturers, seeing the way the wind was blowing, began building affordable models to satisfy this demand and drummers, infatuated, rushed out to buy what were marketed in promotional literature of the time as ‘hot snap’, ‘squash’ or ‘snappy’ sock cymbals.

The cymbal I’m going to use as the basis for this article is a genuinely old instrument, presumably authentically Turkish-made judging by its stamp – although evidently not a product of the famous K. Zildjian Co., unlike the verifiable old ‘K’ from Part 1.  Today’s cymbal was actually given to me a few years ago as part-payment for a day’s recording session. The musician who’d hired me had somehow acquired it from somewhere, and as a non-drummer himself had no practical use for it – but knew it was old, interesting and precious! It’s a little over twelve inches in diameter and weighs 410g – the same size as the old K. Zildjian from Part 1, but almost half its weight! Unlike the other cymbal it also shows a pretty consistent shape and profile, the result of improvements made in cymbal companies’ manufacturing processes during the intervening years. However, similar to the old K the distinguishing maker’s stamp has been partially worn away and appears so near to the edge of the cymbal that the bottom of the monogram is missing – although a classic crescent moon and star, and the engraved text ‘A&B – Constantinople’ are legible. The underside of the bell bears not only the cymbalsmith’s inked signature but a proliferation of beautiful Turkish script in a stylish, swirling hand. Again, the word Constantinople is clear, which is interesting: whilst the city officially changed its name to Istanbul in 1930 following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1922, this doesn’t necessarily mean my cymbal was manufactured earlier than this date, as the switch evidently took some time to become standardised. Yet whilst you could reasonably expect an out-of-date stamp to still carry the old name beyond 1930, it feels unlikely that the smith would willingly keep using it in his own handwriting, unless it was company policy, or simply convention. I’d thus tentatively place its date of manufacture at around 1927-9. At some point, someone has drilled six small holes midway across the bow of the instrument, presumably to add rivets (when I received the cymbal, these bore six small crudely-cut bolts, which I removed).

Its light weight of metal (similar in thickness to a modern splash cymbal) results in the cymbal ‘speaking’ and decaying pretty quickly. The tone is dark and much more complex than that of the heavy ‘K’, with a much less noticeable fundamental tone – which, in layman’s terms, means a sound less like a note played on a piano and closer to white noise. Using both heavy and light cymbals in a variety of period-authentic performing and recording situations has allowed me a greater understanding of the most important advantages and drawbacks of the late-20s cymbal type compared to its predecessor.

The heavier, earlier cymbal was punchy, clamorous and cutting, with a strong fundamental tone and great stick definition to each stroke, making it ideal for powering a loud, busy band in a large room. The later 20s cymbal is weaker and more delicate, and its complex, airy character is best suited for quietish music in smaller rooms, or when relatively closely-recorded. When struck with a drumstick at moderate power and allowed its own musical space in which to be heard, its bright wash of sound can be a real delight. Played too sharply, or heard amidst a cluttered sonic environment, much of its innate quality is lost to the ear, and it can sound unattractively trashy and toneless. Unsurprisingly, drummers using the lighter Turkish-style cymbals in the mid- to late-‘Twenties initially tended to do so in musical situations that suited them – although, as we shall see, this did not hold true for very long.

It seems hardly surprising that the earliest Hero I could find socking a definitively snappier cymbal on record than his contemporaries should be a player who, throughout the decade, was consistently something of a drumming pioneer – Stan King. Whilst he usually favoured heavier-gauge metal when powering the large California Ramblers dance orchestra, the many smaller Ramblers offshoot bands offered him space to devise a lighter and more interactive approach – such as can be heard on the Goofus Five’s ‘Are You Sorry?’ from July 1925:

As I wrote of this period of Stan’s career in his own article: ‘King was in the vanguard of progressive-thinking jazz in New York at the time. We can recognise [his] mid-20s style as recorded on numerous sides with the Goofus Five and others from his socking on a trashy, thin-sounding cymbal; dextrous though never overbearing’. His cymbal does sound thin and slightly ‘cupped’ here, as he rides out the final chorus with some syncopated socking, and interjects in the coda.

King left the Ramblers organisation soon after this record was cut, and was replaced by Herb Weil. Whilst perhaps a less adventurous player than King, Weil was similarly gifted at providing a tasteful percussive accompaniment perfect for small-group hot jazz, and, and we can hear his light and slightly higher-pitched instrument on the coda of the Goofus Five’s ‘Heebie Jeebies’ from the summer of the following year. Note the dramatic improvement in sound quality, as electric recording comes into its own:

King and Weil were both top New York session men, and our next Hero was no less a figure on that scene – the great Vic Berton, recently arrived from Chicago where he had been a leading figure and managed the Wolverines.  In this slightly longer extract, from Red Nichols’s ‘Cornfed’ of June 1927, we can clearly hear the glassy, shimmering tone of Berton’s cymbal as he backs an ensemble passage, plays four bars of soloistic hot breaks with a mallet, then ‘socks’ tastefully behind Jimmy Dorsey’s effervescent alto sax solo:

On careful listening, it’s evident that that the type of cymbal favoured by King, Weil and Berton in mid-1920s New York was a new phenomenon. Why should it be these three suddenly chose to depart from convention in this way, within a year of each other? It’s my suspicion that as three of the most lauded and high-profile session drummers at the heart of America’s music business, each had close commercial relationships with the major instrument manufacturers, all of whom were always keen to promote their newest innovations. New York’s location as a major seaport on the East coast may also have been a factor, its closer proximity to Europe presumably resulting in better access to the latest imports arriving from Turkey.

These three drummers between them made several hundred small-group sides during this period, and often (particularly in Berton’s case) their cymbal-playing was featured prominently. Many of these records became great hits amongst music fans, and prompted a craze for snappy cymbals amongst drummers nationwide.

One of these was the late-20s cymbal man par excellence: Chauncey Morehouse. Despite his northeastern roots, at this point Chauncey was based out in the Midwest playing with Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra, although regularly travelling to New York to record with the orchestra from 1926. In his earlier recordings Chauncey used a heavier instrument just like all his peers, but perhaps through his frequent exposure to the trendsetting trio of King, Weil and  Berton, by September 1927 had acquired the beautiful light-toned cymbal heard below – first during the coda of ‘Clementine’, by the Goldkette band:

And then backing Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone solo on Bix Beiderbecke’s ‘At The Jazz Band Ball’, the following month:

The second of these examples involves a sextet playing detailed, arranged hot jazz almost in the pattern set by the earlier Goofus Five and Red Nichols groups, and Morehouse’s choice of cymbal is therefore hardly surprising. However, ‘Clementine’ finds our man playing the same thin, snappy cymbal in the context of a large dance orchestra, the first example (in this list, at least) of a drummer making this choice.

A few months later and it would happen again, however; the great Sonny Greer featuring prominently playing a similarly delicate cymbal with Duke Ellington’s large band – on ‘Black Beauty’:

And, spotlighted even more, on ‘Jubilee Stomp’ (both March 1928):

A precedent had been set: when closely-recorded in the studio, at least, it was now perfectly acceptable – even fashionable – for a drummer to use a light, thin cymbal even with a large orchestra.

Later that same month a teenaged Gene Krupa occupied the drum chair in Chicago bassist Thelma Terry’s hot dance band, and having spent much of a summer watching Goldkette’s orchestra back in 1926, had managed to acquire a cymbal patterned after Chauncey Morehouse’s. His sounds slightly deeper and more ‘cupped’ than Sonny’s and sounds to me like it’s being played with a mallet – particularly audibly on the coda of ‘Mama’s Gone, Goodbye’:

Following Sonny Greer’s example with Ellington, several of his drumming rivals in the other leading black orchestras were also getting in on the act in later 1928. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers made their first records in July, and on ‘Milenburg Joys’, drummer Cuba Austin surprises us with not one but two ‘hot snap’ cymbals, the second sounding paper-thin and very trashy:

The spicier, trashier-sounding cymbals also seem to have been a musical colour that particularly attracted Dillon Ober throughout much of his career in the 1920s. Here he is bringing some piquant white noise to saxophonist Jack Pettis’s recording of ‘Freshman Hop’ a few months later – possibly the trashiest cymbal to be heard amongst these examples:

By early the next year, the fashion had spread all the way out to the West coast, and another youngster in the second generation of jazz musicians, Lionel Hampton. Hampton had evidently learned a lot from the records of Berton and Kaiser Marshall, and can be heard with Paul Howard’s L.A. orchestra playing some typically Bertonesque ‘tricky cymbal’ licks on a typically 1929-sounding cymbal on ‘Quality Shout’ from April of that year:

Another Midwestern giant and a household name to radio listeners nationwide, Carleton Coon was a dance-band man through and through, rather than a small-group chamber-jazz modernist like King or Berton. Since the early days of the decade Coon had favoured reasonably weighty cymbals to power his and Joe Sanders’ jointly-run Nighthawks orchestra, yet even he caved to fashion and got himself a thin cymbal, featuring it on records like ‘The Flippety Flop’ (July 1929):

And seeing as we mentioned Stan King in passing, what had happened to his playing since beginning this craze four years earlier?  By 1929 he was still the resident New York session supremo playing in many of the same groups as before, but was now basing his approach more around keeping time on the drums. Stan’s usual late-20s modus operandi was to use his paper-thin cymbals to provide an airy burst of sound concluding his volcanic snare fills, or for occasional washy-sounding ‘socked’ backings – as we can hear in this example from the out-chorus of Miff Mole’s ‘After You’ve Gone’ from September:

Finally, we mentioned Fletcher Henderson’s man Kaiser Marshall. When working with the great bandleader, Kaiser tended to stick to the heavier type of metals just as he had done since 1922. But when he sat in for a session with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in November of 1929, he perhaps wisely chose to replicate something of regular drummer Cuba Austin’s tonal palette: on ‘I’d Love It’ he uses a high-pitched, fizzing Turkish cymbal that nicely complements the pounding low frequencies of his four-to-the-floor bass drum:

It’s interesting to speculate whether these drummers would have used the same thin cymbals in a live situation as they did on the above records, particularly when having to drive a large band in a noisy dancehall. It may be that what we’re hearing here are the drummers’ prized ‘recording’ cymbals, kept aside and used only in favourable circumstances. As British drummer Max Bacon observed in his 1934 instruction book, regarding choosing cymbals: ‘Don’t strive for a tone that you may have heard on a record. Most likely it was obtained from a cymbal that would be useless except in the studio!’

In the short video below I’ve attempted to demonstrate some of the sounds of late 20s cymbal playing using the ‘snappy’ Turkish-style cymbal from earlier, and recreating a couple of famous performances.

As we’ve seen, the use of lighter, thinner cymbals began in 1925 in New York with cutting-edge jazz drummers like King, Weil and Berton, playing mostly in small ensembles. There weren’t many of them doing it yet, but as busy session-men they made several hundred records between them in a very short time, some of which sold very well. Soon the fashion reached dance-band players like Morehouse and Krupa in Chicago, and spread across the (officially-sanctioned) racial divide to great black percussionists like Greer, Austin and Marshall. Yet even late in decade, the trend had not become all-encompassing. Many of the original jazz drummers from the South, such as Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, Paul Barbarin, and Tubby Hall were still using relatively heavy cymbals, just as they always had – and regardless of fashion, would mostly continue to do so for the rest of their careers.

That concludes our look at the evolution of Turkish-style cymbals during the 1920s – over the course of two articles we’ve seen their rise in the nascent Jazz Age and gradual development from weighty and sonorous to light and ‘snappy’. But of course, there were other types of cymbals, with very different sonic characteristics, also being used by drummers in the ‘Twenties alongside these Turkish types. And in ‘Instruments #8’ we’ll have a closer look at those….