Over the course of the last century, certain jazz drum solos have emerged as essential listening for fans, and essential learning for musicians.
We’ve picked out 10 of the more iconic or, dare we say, best jazz drum solos in history for this roundup.
The drum solo in jazz has had a long journey.
In the earliest styles, jazz drummers were expected to play a purely supportive role and, when brought to the foreground of the music, were limited to drum ‘breaks’.
These are short solos designed to set up the next section – usually the ‘shout chorus’, which is a lively climax of the arrangement.
Throughout the ’30s, innovators such as Chick Webb and Gene Krupa planted the flag at the front of the band, often courtesy of musical arrangements which would feature them.
Later, avant-gardists like Max Roach treated the drums as an orchestra, and elements of early free jazz in the ’60s were incorporated by Tony Williams and Roy Haynes in form-less, time-less rhapsodies.
More often the idea of record company executives than musicians, drum battles were organised between so-called ‘rivals’, and other gimmicks put music-making even further down the list of priorities in commercial representations of jazz drum solos.
Somewhere along the way the drum solo has acquired a status of spectacle as much as a vehicle for expression.
They tend to happen towards the end of a tune or performance, and there is often the expectation that there will be virtuosic techniques and sweat involved.
Cinematic depictions often reinforce these assumptions, characterising the instrument as brutal and athletic, and employing tropes such as cruel bandleaders and emasculation.
[We are, of course, referring to the audition scene in Otto Preminger’s The Man with The Golden Arm (1955), starring Frank Sinatra!]
For a drum solo to be truly iconic, however, it needs to have burrowed into jazz culture in some way.
Whether this is by showcasing an early jazz style, such as Baby Dodds’ Rudiments, or by being so famous that even hardcore fans will accept it, such as Joe Morello’s Take Five, these ten jazz drum solos are, in our opinion, essential listening!
Baby Dodds – Rudiments
Baby Dodds – Talking and Drum Solos (1946)
Dodds was an anachronism by the time this was recorded.
From being hailed as one of the inventors of jazz drumming, he resisted ‘modern’ trends such as the hi-hat (he never used one), brushes, and certainly eschewed the ride cymbal concepts developed by Kenny Clarke.
However, due to recording techniques at the time, drummers of the Dixieland and Chicago styles were often restricted to woodblocks.
Rudiments is an invaluable example of what Baby Dodds would have played in the ’20s and helps us hear those seminal recordings with Louis Armstrong as they would have actually sounded.
Chick Webb – Liza
Chick Webb and His Band – 78rpm single (1938)
Chick Webb was a drummer whose band had a long residence at The Savoy Ballroom in the ’30s.
His acclaimed group was a regular winner in ‘Battle of the Bands’ contests at the venue, which almost became a rite of passage for groups passing through New York.
Many of these performances were broadcast, and Webb was additionally in the public eye by appearing in magazine adverts for Gretsch drums as an endorser.
He’s credited with paving the way for subsequent drummer-bandleaders like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and his powerful and virtuosic playing is evident in this recording.
The drums are fully at the centre of the proceedings!
Gene Krupa – Sing Sing Sing
Benny Goodman – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert (1938)
This is a more agile and playful version of a tune which we all know from the classic 78rpm big band recording.
Often musicians would play it safe in the studio (in order not to ruin the expensive session with a mistake) but let loose in live performances.
Krupa, with his good looks and drumming theatrics, was a matinee idol and appeared in numerous films.
He persuaded his endorser – the Slingerland Drum Company – to make tuneable tom-toms and helped Avedis Zildjian invent the modern hi-hat (prior to which the two cymbals had been close to the floor and impossible to play with sticks).
When soloing, he not only played with what had gone before him but, in taking extended drum solos, truly brought the drums out front.
He also wrote the first ever drum method book.
Max Roach – For Big Sid
‘For Big Sid’ is a tribute to the great Sid Catlett, an artist who played with everyone from Fletcher Henderson to Charlie Parker.
Max Roach’s phrasing here is more like a trumpeter or saxophonist and you can really hear the melodies, not just rudiments.
By this point in his career, Roach had crystallised the progressive approaches of the ’40s and ’50s and was moving into more experimental realms.
His music often took on political stance, as he aligned himself with the Civil Rights movement.
This is possibly not one you’ll hear on the radio, but this track nevertheless serves as a model for jazz drum soloing, bebop drumming, and a forward-looking mentality.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a modern jazz drummer today who doesn’t rate this as essential listening!
Art Blakey – Drum Thunder Suite
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers’ mission was to bring the spirit of jazz to the people.
Blakey also used it as a means of connecting with up-and-coming musicians who would later be famous bandleaders in their own right, many of whom regarded it as a sort of finishing school.
As the title suggests, the selection here is a short succession of movements showcasing the drums, with Blakey using mallets exclusively.
The looseness and power of the drumming here is hard to match – he wasn’t called ‘the volcano’ of bebop drummers for nothing.
Philly Joe Jones – Salt Peanuts
Miles Davis – Steamin’ with The Miles Davis Quintet (1956)
Salt Peanuts is a bebop tune penned by Dizzy Gillespie, the harmony of which is taken from George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.
By the mid-fifties, this will have been a well-known piece among musicians and jazz fans, and even President Jimmy Carter was involved in a performance of it at the White House in 1978.
Philly Joe Jones epitomises bebop drumming, and the Miles Davis’ ‘First Great Quintet’ of which he was a member has become a gold standard of ’50s jazz.
Aesthetically, many of the seeds for the best-selling album Kind of Blue were sown by this group.
Joe Morello – Take Five
Dave Brubeck – Time Out (1959)
This recording was released in a year which gave us other landmark albums, such as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come.
There was clearly something in the water that year, and the public subsequently awarded the group by making Take Five a bestselling jazz song.
Used as a model for adverts and television themes, it has become so much a part of the zeitgeist that an unearthing of lost recordings has made the national press.
Although he was brought up in the rudimental style (having been given tuition by snare-drumming titans and teachers George Stone and Billy Gladstone), Joe Morello’s crisp sound and effortless technique is matched by his musicianship and inventive phrasing.
Tony Williams – Agitation
Miles Davis – E.S.P. (1965)
Miles Davis is of course one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century music.
By the mid-fifties he had rock-star status (and the lifestyle to match), and by the time he hired Tony Williams he had become a household name.
The ‘Second Great Quintet’ of the ’60s had a forward-thinking and challenging concept, and because of Davis’ fame, his career (and therefore that of Tony Williams) was followed closely not only by musicians and fans, but also the press and public.
E.S.P. is the first release of this group, and the twenty-year-old at the drums has a free-flowing approach which represents musically what the title suggests.
Buddy Rich – West Side Story Medley
Buddy Rich – Swingin’ New Big Band (1966)
Buddy Rich was a child prodigy who knew how to work the media.
He was a regular on late-night talk shows from the ’50s and was well known to audiences in Las Vegas.
Often dubbed ‘the greatest drummer of all time’, many rock musicians cite him as an influence.
This collection of pieces from West Side Story, famous in its own right, showcases his unparalleled technique and muscled approach.
Buddy Rich and his band played this regularly on tour, and it is well worth watching on film for the full impact.
Roy Haynes – Steps/What Was
Chick Corea – Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
Our last example is free of histrionics calculated to please a crowd.
While not a celebrity like Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa, Roy Haynes is one of the most recorded sidemen in jazz and is still going strong at the time of writing this, in late 2020.
Chick Corea’s seminal album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is inspired by passages from ‘The I Ching’ and is part of a wave of albums in the ’60s which sought to make music about more than just the notes (another notable example being John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme).
Roy Haynes binds the first two pieces together with a freely improvised solo.
He contrasts restless phrases with space and punctuation, dextrously using all parts of the drum kit and his entire dynamic range.
A masterclass in expressivity and musicality, this is unmissable.
Thanks for reading! We hope that these 10 amazing jazz drum solos have given you some extra listening ideas – or even some extra practice ideas if you’re learning jazz drums.