At first blush, one might think The Century Project: 100 Years of American Music From Behind the Drums might be an educational tool for drummers only. Without question, drummer, author, and educator Daniel Glass is primarily reaching for an audience of drum players, both novices and experienced hands. But this two-DVD set covering the history of drums from 1865 to 1965 should also interest anyone who’d like to know more about the evolution of popular music. Yes, Glass focuses on the roles of drums from marching bands to the Beatles, but to do so he has to explain the contexts for why percussion instruments had to change to suit the musical forms that developed over the decades.
The format for Glass’s lectures is fairly straight-forward. Demonstrating his points with solo drum work and later with a full band, Glass shows how playing styles altered to suit new musical genres from martial ensembles to rockabilly to be-bop. We also see examples of vintage drum sets and historical artifacts that illustrate what he’s discussing. For example, while talking about the longevity of Gene Krupa as the most popular drum star in the world, Glass presents a series of Slingerland drum catalogues which featured Krupa on the cover for some 30 years.
But the meat of the presentation is Glass’s descriptions of the various eras and why the drum set is essentially an American contribution to music. He begins by showing the drums used in marching bands when John Philip Sousa’s melodies were all the rage. Then we see the first “drum sets,” called double drums, meaning a single bass drum and a snare drum sitting on a chair. Then came ragtime—did you know the upright bass became important as it could do things the tuba couldn’t? Glass shows how percussionists drew from a variety of international influences to widen sonic possibilities. From China came temple blocks and small cymbals that were useful in creating live punctuation for silent movies and vaudeville acts. From Turkey came the legendary Zildgian family who then and now produced cymbals that could do more than provide simple splashes. From Europe came the Slingerland, Ludwig, and Rogers families who made the first quality wooden drum sets.
Along the way, Glass shows how key players influenced the music of their respective eras. As noted above, Gene Krupa was the first star of the drum world, popularizing both the drum solo and showmanship on the drum set. For bebop and small combo jazz, Glass highlights Joe Jones and Max Roach who played on sets of smaller drums, making their sound brighter and their equipment more portable in New York cabs. For rock, Glass points to Earl Palmer, Little Richard’s drummer, as the man who set the pace for those who’d follow. What was Ringo Starr’s most notable contribution to the drum world? He popularized the matched grip that drummers argue about to the present day. There are those who still champion the traditional grip devised for marching bands, and others who, whether they know it or not, are beating in the style of one of the most influential drummers of them all.
Disc two includes a series of various interpretations of the same melody played by a full band to demonstrate how different genres have different approaches. To do this, Glass drew from his colleagues from the Royal Crown Review, Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Conan O’Brien house band, and Bette Midler’s “Kiss My Brass” Revue to perform these selections, an obvious highlight of the set. It’s on disc two where the high-hat and ride cymbal come into their own and the modern drum set is more or less fully in place. Glass stops short of discussing drum kits after the British Invasion when drummers like Ginger Baker and Keith Moon expanded the arsenal of drums with multiple bass drums and a stage full of tom toms and cymbals of every conceivable size. He doesn’t explore roto-toms or electronic drums. But that’s not really required as “vintage” drums were what the lectures are all about.
While I’ve been playing drums since I saw Ringo all those years ago, I must admit I learned a number of historical nuggets that surprised me. I never heard of “low boy” cymbals before, the predecessors to the high-hat that were too low to be played on with drum sticks. I didn’t know it was King Krupa who first asked the Slingerland company for drums that had tunable heads both on the top and bottom. I must join all the modern drummers Glass addresses about adding brushes to our toolbag of what can be done to expand rhythmic possibilities. But wait, there’s more!
Traps: The Incredible Story of Vintage Drums (1865-1965) is a two-DVD companion package to The Century Project. Glass is joined by fellow drum expert John Aldridge who takes a much more detailed look at all the vintage drum sets presented in the main documentary. Showcasing each kit on a revolving riser, Glass and Aldridge discuss all the parts and anatomy of the drums from the heads (calfskin vs. plastic), lugs, badges, finishes, snare beds, manufacturers, plys, stands, to trap tables and racks. These discs really are for drummers only, and one suspects only those drummers seriously curious about drum history or are drum collectors will get into all the minutia. The Century Project is like a good museum tour; Traps is like an after-hours opportunity to really get into the nuts and bolts, as it were, of the exhibits.
Now, it’s true this review is rather behind the curve as The Century Project was released last fall. That’s because, according to Alfred Music, copies of the discs kept flying off the shelves in music and drum stores so they kept running out of stock. Gratefully, my review copy finally arrived and I fully understand why Glass’s production has been so popular. It’s difficult to think of any educational institution with a music department that wouldn’t want this history lesson in their libraries. It’s difficult to think of any drummer, whether professional or hobbyist, who wouldn’t enjoy and benefit from The Century Project. It’s well worth remembering and knowing how the drum set came to be in its present form. Further, anyone interested in a century of musical changes from Sousa to Starr may gain new appreciation for an instrument that is often seen as but part of the rhythm section backing up the front line.