Instruments #8: The Chinese Cymbal, c.1920s

Today’s article is the third and last of a three-part series examining cymbals and cymbal-playing in 1920s jazz. In Instruments #6 and Instruments #7, we’ve already had a look at two period examples of Turkish-style cymbals from my small collection, learned a bit about their manufacture and development, and heard how some of our ‘Twenties drumming Heroes put them to use. However, Turkish-style instruments were by no means the only type of cymbals available to percussionists during the period, as we’ll see.

As mentioned in Instruments #6, the lineage of what would become Jazz drumming can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century, and the often-thrilling percussive styles of the mid- and late-period Ragtime players. These drummers mostly learned their craft in the marching-band school, and their playing usually took the form of highly technical rudiment-based rhythms performed on snare drum and various ‘traps – the basis of the drum kit as an instrument.

When it comes to cymbals, the instrument most heard in ragtime recordings from this period is almost never the familiar melodious tone of the Turkish-style instrument, but rather, that of a totally different type with a square bell and upturned edges, that produces a raw wash of sound characteristically sharp, piercing and exotic. These sorts of cymbals (called bo) have been manufactured in China since ancient times, and are traditionally used for a wide variety of martial, ceremonial and religious music. Bo are conventionally played in pairs, being clashed together like cymbals in a European symphony orchestra. Rather than being held suspended on leather thongs in the Western style, however, each cymbal is instead grasped directly around its bell – whose raised, squared-off shape forms a handle of sorts.

Ragtime and proto-Jazz drummers seem to have favoured these sorts of cymbals almost exclusively during the key developmental period from around 1914-20. Records from this period abound with white-hot explosions and startling clangs, and kits of the time almost universally include one or more Chinese-style instruments, usually mounted upside-down on top of the bass drum shell. Once again, we can only speculate about the exact reason why this was so.

Reference to drum manufacturers’ catalogues of the time reveals that Turkish-style cymbals were as yet not widely produced in America (or at least, not to any kind of high standard) and those that were offered for sale were items imported to the East Coast from cottage-industry cymbal foundries in Turkey, distributed under licence. Whilst some of these may have been excellent instruments, most were rather small in diameter (and thus quieter), fairly fragile, and having travelled all the way from Western Asia, likely cost a considerable amount. Furthermore, the hand-hammering process rendered each cymbal utterly unique and individual, meaning quality-control was virtually impossible beyond very broad parameters. The overwhelming prevalence of Chinese-style cymbals on records and in photographs leads me to suspect that they must have compared more than favourably with their Turkish cousins with regard to availability, durability and cost. It’s also worth observing that the more controlled and musical sound of the Turkish type was perhaps naturally less suited to the riotous, anarchic spirit of 1910s ragtime (and to its protagonist-in-chief, the ‘trap Drummer) than was the more ear-catching, explosive character of the Chinese bo. And in addition to these factors, of course, there is the simple following of fashion.

The Chinese-style cymbal that has accompanied me to almost every gig and recording for the last seven or eight years is a typical example of its kind in that almost nothing of its provenance can be definitively ascertained. I bought it pretty cheaply on Gumtree from a part-time vintage instrument collector in West London; he himself could tell me almost nothing about it apart from that it dated from at least the 1930s.

It’s a dull, greenish brassy colour, and its outline has been fairly crudely cut out with a pair of shears. It’s then been hand-hammered into the classic Chinese shape, with a square bell and the characteristic upward flare of the outer rim. It has a diameter of around 14” (depending on where it’s measured – it’s far from perfectly circular) and weighs nearly 700g. Large Chinese characters were once painted on what I’ll diplomatically call the convex side (drumming opinion can be fiercely divided over which are the ‘real’ top and bottom sides of a Chinese cymbal!) and have since faded. They might well have been the manufacturer’s name, but what I can see of them doesn’t seem to match any of those from known cymbal-makers of the time such as Suzhou , Van Jau or Rui Ji.

On the opposite side is a rectangular inked stamp of which the English words ‘… BRASS WARE / MANUFACTURED IN CHINA’ are still legible. The unpolished metal inside the bell has an etched spiral design, which again seems to be typical. The metal in general is uneven, scratched and heavily pitted; this is not, it has to be said, a very pretty cymbal to look at. Nor is it necessarily to hear either – although, as we’ll soon discover, that’s sort of the point. When struck, it has all the expected sound character of a smallish Chinese-style instrument: a sharp, aggressive attack and rapid decay providing a short, searing burst of complex, spicy overtones ideal for cutting through a band.

Bo are still being produced in a form not at all dissimilar to this today. Unlike the other two cymbals in this series (the heavy, and the ‘snappy’ Turkish-style instruments), for the modern-day drummer in search of authentic-sounding cymbals to use playing 1920s music, finding a suitable Chinese cymbal should present no serious problem at all. You can still buy authentic Chinese-made items brand new, from large cymbal manufacturers like Wuhan, and shops selling Chinese crafts and musical instruments sometimes stock interesting cymbals produced by smaller workshops. The large Western cymbal-makers also now make many hundreds of their own varieties of Chinese-type cymbals in a dizzying array of weights, shapes and diameters for all sorts of different sound effects. However, the sound of the average medium-size, medium-weight Chinese cymbal has hardly changed at all in well over a century.

– So much for seeing. Time for some listening. We’ll start by tracing something of the instrument’s popularity amongst cutting-edge drummers in the years leading up to the dawn of the Jazz Age.

Firstly, we’ll hear superstar ragtime drummer Buddie Gilmore (photo above) bringing some clangorous percussive punctuation to the band that was the toast of 1910s New York – James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra – and their recording of ‘The Castle Walk’, from February 1914:

Next we’ll hear the cymbal playing of a personal hero, Charles Johnson, who visited London with African-American string band the Versatile Four during the Great War and recorded the blisteringly exciting ‘Down Home Rag’ for HMV in February 1916. Johnson uses a clanging Chinese cymbal throughout, and as the tumult builds to a climax, even plays off-beats on it almost like a rock drummer:

The success of the Versatile Four in Britain spawned a number of imitator groups, perhaps first among them the Savoy Quartette. ‘Everybody Shimmies Now’ from April 1919 typically features the Chinese cymbal of Alec Williams:

These great ragtime drummers used their Chinese-style cymbals as weapons of mass sonic destruction, thrilling audiences and imbuing the music (as if it needed it) with another extra element of anarchic, almost punk-rock wildness. The Chinese cymbal was simply the pre-jazz percussionist’s primary tool for mayhem, and this trend would continue unabated yet for some years.

We now return to New York, where the Original Dixieland Jazz Band have burst onto the scene, with Hero #3 Tony Sbarbaro smashing away on his Chinese-style cymbal for all he’s worth – in fact, using it to conclude the signature ‘Without-a-shirt’ coda on virtually every ODJB record. Here he is in 1917, using his cymbal on the first record ever marketed as ‘jazz’.

With the arrival of the ODJB, we’ve now entered the Jazz Age proper, and we’re in Fabulous Fives country. Like Sbarbaro, their drummers had begun as ragtime players, and like him they started off by clanging Chinese cymbals at every opportunity.

Here’s John Lucas of Earl Fuller’s Jazz Band on ‘Jazz De Luxe’, from January 1918:

And from 1919, here’s Hero #16 Anton Lada with his Louisiana Five on ‘Yelping Hound Blues’. The cymbal we faintly hear ringing is presumably that large Chinese-style bo with which he’s always pictured (see above).

The following year, Sbarbaro and the ODJB had travelled to Britain, where they recorded another tranche of sides including ‘Soudan’.

However, ‘Soudan’ and its ilk would mark something of a turning point. As the new decade began and Jazz asserted itself as a distinct idiom, the wilder, frenzied element of the music inherited from late ragtime was gradually being curbed. At around the same time, the more cultured-sounding heavy Turkish-style cymbals began to emerge as a popular alternative, and around 1921 seem to have become the primary cymbal model of choice for most players. Chinese cymbals, with their distinctively fiery, foreign character, seem for a good five years or more to have become regarded primarily as ‘effect’ cymbals, used only rarely, for particularly appropriate tunes which called for these strong tonal or ‘ethnic’ flavours.

One example of this (I could have chosen a thousand others!) comes from our tenth Hero, Kaiser Marshall, with Fletcher Henderson’s great jazz orchestra in October 1924. A tune entitled ‘Shanghai Shuffle’ was always going to be an open goal for any percussionist with imagination, and Kaiser doesn’t spurn the opportunity, beginning the side with a solo introduction involving some sonorous clanging bo and booming Chinese tom-toms:

However, by the middle 20s the Chinese cymbal began to re-emerge as a fundamental part of the cutting-edge drummer’s equipment, albeit in a different role. Around 1924, a number of leading players began using one alongside one or more Turkish-style instruments to add a useful extra colour in a multi cymbal setup. Now of course, in some ways this was nothing new; ragtime drummers were often photographed beaming out proudly behind a large panoply of percussive weaponry including cymbals of various types – but sadly, there is little to no recorded evidence of these instruments ever being used in combination. In general, early jazz drum kits (such as those pictured above) tended back towards simplicity, with one or the other type of cymbal suspended from a hanger – very seldom both. Thus, the multi-cymbal setup is something that’s making a comeback, rather than a début, in the mid-1920s.

Hero #13 Vic Moore, drummer with the Wolverine Orchestra, was one of the first to make use of bo in this capacity, as can be clearly heard on ‘Oh, Baby’ (May 1924). The verse of the song features a pair of breaks: on the first rendition of this Moore fills each break with a stroke on a Chinese cymbal, whilst on the reprise he turns to his heavy Turkish type.

As I wrote in his own dedicated article (Heroes #9), Chauncey Morehouse was another drummer to realise the sonic potential of multi-cymbal setups using Chinese cymbals during the middle years of the decade: ‘Morehouse now sports a Chinese-style cymbal amongst his equipment, and clearly knows how to use it, accentuating moments of high drama in the arrangement with exciting, exotic washes of sound.’

We can hear him doing this excellently from around 1927 onwards, particularly in his work with Frank Trumbauer’s band in that year. In ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’, his trashy-sounding Chinese instrument is almost as prominent as his signature ‘snappy’ choke, as he first ‘socks’ behind Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet solo before kicking the band off with a dramatic explosion. Then, of course, there’s that wonderful, epic coda, one of the most iconic bits of drumming of the entire decade. Until now every musical excerpt we’ve heard has involved the cymbal being struck and allowed to vibrate freely, but here Morehouse applies the choke technique (normally used for Turkish types) to a Chinese cymbal – a small but telling example of his always-imaginitive approach:

Some drummers still stuck with just a Chinese cymbal, if the circumstances seemed right. Bob Conzelman was one, playing with a very young Benny Goodman in June 1928. To compliment Benny’s piercing, Klezmer-influenced clarinet, Bob mainly sticks to low sounds on this trio session – rumbling away with brushes on snare and tom-toms – but frequently punctuates the young genius’s flow with menacing swells of what sounds like a large, dark Chinese cymbal. It suits the eerie, exotic sound-world of ‘That’s A Plenty’ perfectly:

Another Chicagoan drummer active in New York at the same time was Hero #7, Ben Pollack, who was by now leading his own dance band at the Park Central Hotel. In a knockabout small-group session recorded the same month as the last excerpt, Pollack’s acknowledgedly superb and too-rarely-heard jazz playing is allowed to really feature on ‘Room 1411’, and surprisingly involves a considerable amount of piquant white-noise from a large-sounding Chinese type – first as part of a multi-cymbal setup and then – almost unbelievably for 1928 – being ‘ridden’ behind Jimmy McPartland’s cornet solo:

The following month, another Chicagoan drummer, Gene Krupa, was visiting New York, where with three other Windy City expats he made a handful of unusual and interesting quartet sides. Whilst it’s Gene’s drum work which most inspired the respect of his peers, he’s another adept of the multi-cymbal configuration – ‘Indiana’ begins with a thrilling intro fired by Krupa’s thudding tomtoms and searing Chinese cymbal, and ends with a soft wash from a light Turkish type.

Another drummer choosing Chinese cymbal to accompany a dark or foreboding mood, here’s Ray Bauduc with the Original Memphis Five on ‘Fireworks’, June 1929. Ray plays the first four bars (which are in a major key) on a medium-size Turkish-style choke cymbal, before moving to a sonorous Chinese cymbal for the next four (minor key).

In September 1929 came a superb, barnstoming session by trombonist Miff Mole’s Little Molers recording group, with drummer Stan King in typically volcanic mood. ‘After You’ve Gone’ is a masterclass in cutting-edge late-20s jazz drumming; Stan has it all, and finishes up the rollicking final chorus with explosive touches on both types of cymbal – particularly on a rough, choked bo in the feature breaks.

The video below contains a quick demonstration of some of the sounds that can be produced by the Chinese cymbal I’ve written about above, and a couple of recreations of famous performances by our ‘Twenties drumming Heroes using Chinese cymbals, both alone and as part of a multi-cymbal setup.

And with that, our three-part series on cymbals in 1920s jazz is complete – not to say that I won’t be returning to the subject again. Over the three articles we’ve seen Ragtime drummers using Chinese cymbals as fearsome noise-making devices in the late 1910s, the Fabulous Fives and early dance bands then pioneering the use of heavy Turkish-style cymbals in the early ’20s, and Chicagoan jazz drummers originating the choke technique and ‘socking’ in 1923. We then saw the rise in multi-cymbal setups, the popularity of finer and lighter Turkish cymbals growing, as instrument and recording technology improved towards the end of the decade – and of course, the Hand Cymbal craze of 1927-8.

I’m going to take a break from Instruments essays for a short while now and focus instead on writing about some more of our Heroes (three articles are in the works) – but there will eventually be much, much more in this line to come – percussion traps, hardware, special effects, all sorts…