Drum corps: a jazz drummer’s perspective

by Lauren Vogel Weiss, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 35, Number 15).

How does a world-renowned jazz musician get “hooked” on drum corps? Here’s how it happened for me.

I have been a jazz drummer, music fan and concert-goer for more than 35 years. In 1998, I married Beth (nee Hardcastle, who marched snare drum in the Spirit of Atlanta back in 1981) and during the past several years I have attended several DCI events.

We have often talked about her experiences with Spirit and from all of our discussions, I concluded that her involvement with the drum corps activity had an incredibly positive effect on her life, both personally and musically. So, I certainly appreciated drum corps from that standpoint.

Several years ago, we attended an event in Giants Stadium (with my mom, who loved it!) and another in Foxboro. I thought it was great, but still did not get that freaked out over the event. From my standpoint, it wasn’t jazz. The drum parts were amazing, but all worked out, and there was so much going on that I didn’t know what to focus on.

While I always enjoyed the experience, I must say that I didn’t totally appreciate many of the intricacies of the performances. However, this past year it all changed. I attended four DCI events, including DCI Quarterfinals and Semifinals in Madison, and I must say that I am now TOTALLY hooked on drum corps! In fact, I still think about the performances quite a bit — constantly drawing inspiration and encouragement from the dedication and work ethic involved — and can’t wait for the 2007 season.

Earlier this year, when I told some of my jazz musician buddies and rock-and-roll friends that I would be attending some drum corps events, their reaction was that it sounded like a nightmare! “You’re going to watch three hours of marching bands? Are you kidding?!”

I realize now that the general public, and even my jazz musician friends, have no idea what is going on with this medium. And I must admit, until this past year, neither did I.

Generally, I am open to all styles and musical experiences, but there was something about drum corps that, while enjoyable, still seemed a bit strange to me. As a jazz musician, I believed that one of the strongest criteria was to be an individual. The idea of all snare drummers playing every single note in perfect unison seemed very stiff and confining (although I suppose a case could be made that most jazz rhythm sections do play time in unison).

While similar to non-improvised orchestral parts, the idea of every single part worked out ahead of time seemed confining, from a jazz drummer’s perspective. And the idea of a judge checking out every single part to give you a competitive mark was the biggest turn-off of all. Music was supposed to be fun, not a competition.

What changed? It was a combination of letting go of some musical prejudices, keeping an open mind, witnessing the dedication of drum corps members’ hard work first-hand, and the inspiration of three magical people in my life: my amazing wife Beth, and two incredible stepsons, Brian and Scotty Radock.

This summer it all changed. Since I arrived into their lives eight years ago, we have always been a percussion family. Now the two boys are really growing as musicians and have been gaining high acclaim with incredible experiences. Both have played in Youth Orchestras, All-County, All-State and, more recently, both placed in top positions in Bands of America competitions.

This past year, Scotty (the younger of the two) became a big fan of The Cavaliers. While he was not a marching member, he was the center snare at their workshop and has been showing me their workout routines. It has blown me away!

Although I can barely play any of the exercises myself, I have a new appreciation of what is involved and it is totally inspirational. When you hear the music on the field, it is impressive, but when you really see the part and check it out in detail, it is mind-boggling!

The other change this year was that Scotty’s older brother Brian (at the time a freshman at Florida State University and now a sophomore at Rollins College) decided to join the Boston Crusaders’ pit for the summer. Even though he told me about the parts he played and the “drum corps lifestyle,” my perspective totally changed once I saw it for myself.

So, off we went to see the shows in Rome, NY; Naperville, IL; and two in Madison. Since Beth and I play in the Lt. Dan Band — featuring actor Gary Sinise and named for his character in “Forest Gump” — we had gigs near all of these events and we could spend some relaxed,   quality time watching both rehearsals and the performances.

First stop was seeing Brian rehearse with the Crusaders. “OK, he was in the pit. No big marching there. And with just a few percussion instruments, no big deal.” WRONG! I watched him hit the gongs and bass drum, run to the triangle, over to the cymbal, back to the gong, then the vibes, then to the other bass drum, then the udu, then a hi-hat part.

I had NO IDEA it involved so much. And, again, I was blown away. Since I had the inside scoop on The Cavaliers’ snare parts from Scotty, I checked out what the Crusaders’ snare drummers were doing. AMAZING! And then, when we tried to find Brian, he was busy practicing something else.

That’s when it really hit me: what a totally AMAZING way to spend a summer — totally focusing on music! It was like a three-month, 24-hour-a-day music summer camp . . . and I couldn’t think of anything better. While I had been pretty judgmental (“He’s not playing snare, how good could it be for him?”, etc.), all of that changed.

It doesn’t matter what part you play, it’s all good and you have plenty of time to work on your own projects. For example, Brian decided to compete in the I&E competition on timpani in Madison. He came up with the idea of taking rock songs and playing them on timpani. He arranged it, worked on it, tried out . . . and WON! All an incredibly positive experience!

The other event that changed my perspective was watching The Cavaliers practice. In Naperville, we were lucky enough to attend a Cavalier practice session and I got to watch several parts of the show repeated quite a number of times. With that detailed perspective, you can really watch the snare line one time, the pit another, the flags another, the tenors another, etc.

Jim Casella [percussion arranger for The Cavaliers] explained a few other details about their drum line and also introduced Beth and me to the group. As a spectator, I had never been able to focus on individual sections like that before and it totally changed my understanding of what is involved. It is truly spectacular . . . and so difficult!

The other thing that really got to me this year was the music! After hearing some of the same corps play more than once, I got to really focus on the music and found that, as a rule, I truly enjoyed it in a very artistic way. The music written by Jim Casella, for example, seemed really moving and perfect for the event. I felt that everything was totally orchestrated in a very deep way and that there were no extraneous parts or fat. Everything had a purpose and a reason for being there. And it was music I could listen to anytime, not just for a drum corps event.

And that was really it. I was FINALLY able to see what was really going on and I was hooked. Forget trying to make this sound like big band jazz. Forget the fact that I, as a drummer, could NEVER play unison parts like that! Just enjoy this for the magical spectacular event that it is. And I fell in love with it.

The other thing that changed was the competition perspective. I now realized that you had to have this type of competition, otherwise people would settle for sloppy drumming, marching, intonation, phrasing, etc. It now made sense. Again, while I had no desire myself to engage in that type of competition, I had a new appreciation for the dedication and drive to perfection to which these incredibly dedicated musicians were striving. And it had become truly inspirational.

Of course, seeing Brian out there was the highlight — especially seeing his face on the big screen in Camp Randall Stadium when he was presented with his I&E award for Best Individual Timpani. During all of my playing experiences, I have never been given an individual award in front of a crowd like that. And he did it by himself with the help, creative environment and productive inspiration of drum corps.

While I am sure everyone who watched the final week in Madison had his or her own favorite highlight moments, here are some of mine: the music of The Cavaliers (especially the middle funky groove) and the Crusaders; Phantom’s “Faust” and Glassmen’s Beethoven (especially the dissonance and fade out!). I also loved the frisbee toss, The Cadets’ drum feature (with stick toss), the Devils’ “Godfather” and “Sleeps with Fishes,” and the fact that so many corps featured music from Pat Metheny. Actually, I loved it all.

So that is pretty much my “new” feeling about drum corps, from a jazz drummer’s perspective. And I can’t wait for the 2007 season to start!

* * * * * * * *

Danny Gottlieb is one of the most well-known drummers in jazz and jazz-fusion music. While best known as the drummer in the original Pat Metheny Group, he has performed on over 300 recordings to date, including five Grammy Award winners. He has played with some of the world’s greatest musicians in all styles of music, including Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Gil Evans, Sting, Gary Burton, Bobby McFerrin, the Manhattan Transfer, Eberhard Weber, Michael Franks, Randy Brecker, Al DiMeola, Stan Getz, Ahmad Jamal, the Blues Brothers Band, Booker T and the MGs, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Flora Purim and Airto Group, the GRP Big Band, The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, the Eddie Gomez Group, the Manhattan Jazz Quartet and Orchestra and many more.

He has been a student of legendary jazz great Joe Morello (of Dave Brubeck fame) for over three decades. He has a Bachelor’s of Music degree from the University of Miami and has also studied with Big Band master Mel Lewis and studio legend Gary Chester.

Danny Gottlieb has been featured on the cover of Modern Drummer, Down Beat, Rhythm and Drums and Percussion magazines. He has presented clinics at numerous colleges and universities, as well as at several Percussive Arts Society International Conventions.

Currently based in New York and Florida, he co-leads the group “Elements” with Mark Egan, a contemporary ensemble with nine CDs to date.

Danny and his wife Beth also perform with the Lt. Dan Band, featuring actor Gary Sinise.
DCW staff member Lauren Vogel Weiss arranged for this article and accompanied Danny and Beth during their visit to the DCI Championships in Madison, WI, this summer.