Asked to choose Duke Ellington’s most valuable sidemen, most folks would likely start with Johnny Hodges, followed by any number of the additional cavalcade of stars. Popular picks would include Harry Carney, Billy Strayhorn, Bubber Miley, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, and others. But you know whose names probably wouldn’t appear on most lists?
The two longest-tenured drummers with Ellington, Sonny Greer (1924-51) and Sam Woodyard (1955-66), were defining voices of the maestro’s sound world. Innumerable masterpieces, from “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Caravan,” and “Harlem Air Shaft” to Ellington at Newport, Such Sweet Thunderand Afro-Bossa, simply would not sound the same without their profound contributions. Yet neither enjoys a reputation today commensurate with their role in shaping the sound of the band. Nor do they appear as widely celebrated as others within the brethren of big-band drummers, including Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole, Sid Catlett, Dave Tough, Buddy Rich, Sonny Payne, and Mel Lewis.
Perhaps the demands of playing drums with Ellington—the sheer variety of rhythm, groove, color, texture, mood, and dynamics embedded within his scores—require a subtle fealty to the ensemble that makes it difficult for a drummer to stand out. Greer and Woodyard are more than trap-set drummers. They are first-rate percussionists. At the same time, their skills at underscoring the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of America’s greatest vernacular orchestra sometimes overshadow just how hard they each can flat-out swing.
Bottom line: If no jazz band can be better than its drummer, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra remains the finest large ensemble in the history of the idiom, then Greer and Woodyard rank among the most underrated drummers in jazz.
Greer started playing drums in vaudeville along the Jersey Shore as a teenager before moving to Washington, DC in 1919, where he met his destiny: Ellington. By the mid-’20s Ellington was leading his own vanguard jazz orchestra in New York, with Greer as his anchorman. “Greer was not the best reader of music, but he was the world’s best percussionist reactor,” Ellington wrote in Music Is My Mistress. “When he heard a ping, he responded with the most apropos pong.”
The RCA recording of “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927) offers an early illustration. Greer lays down a smoldering march beat, and the way he frames the arrangement and orchestrates key moments tells a story. At the end of the 12-bar first chorus, he crashes his cymbal on beat 4 but grabs it with his free hand to stop the sound just before the introduction of new thematic material. He does it again eight bars later, and at the end of the next eight bars defies expectations with three syncopated babs on the offbeats to cap the section.
If no jazz band can be better than its drummer, and the Ellington Orchestra remains the finest large ensemble in jazz history, then Greer and Woodyard rank among the most underrated drummers in jazz.
Photos from the 1930s and ’40s show Greer surrounded by a symphony orchestra’s worth of percussion: snare drum, multiple tom-toms, bass drum, hi-hat, myriad cymbals, timpani, temple blocks, cowbell, gongs, and tubular bells. Greer punctuates arrangements with inspired rickey-ticks, rustles, rimshots, and rings. He has the timing of a magician, the touch of a pickpocket, the taste of a connoisseur.
His mallets sweep across the tom-toms on “Caravan” (1937), conjuring a misterioso journey across the desert sands of the Middle East. Greer is also a wizard with wire brushes. On his 1941 feature “Jumpin’ Punkins” he sometimes turns them around to play cymbal crashes and accents with the rubber handles. (I cribbed this observation from Mel Lewis’ penetrating 1989 radio series on the history of jazz drumming hosted by Loren Schoenberg.)
Finally, Greer swings his ass off on tracks like the prescient “Dallas Doings” (1933), whose relaxed momentum and riffing foreshadow Old Testament Basie, or any of the 1940-42 classics like “Harlem Air Shaft” and “Cotton Tail.” As the ’40s wore on, Greer’s heavy drinking led to erratic live performances, until Ellington gently let him go in 1951. Louis Bellson gave the band fresh energy and stability for four years before Woodyard came aboard in 1955 at the age of 30 .
While he was influenced by swing-era heroes Webb, Jones, Catlett, Tough, and Jimmy Crawford, Woodyard also brought a modern ride cymbal beat and contemporary snap to the bandstand. There were idiosyncrasies too: Woodyard often lets ensemble figures pass by without setting them up in the manner of most postwar big-band drummers, who tend to shadow the lead trumpet rhythms. Woodyard’s approach at times robs the ensemble of some definition, but the compensatory rewards are that it allows the music to breathe and groove with the borderless expanse of human feeling. That’s EXACTLY Ellington’s aesthetic.
Every composition on Such Sweet Thunder (1957), Ellington and Strayhorn’s peerless suite inspired by Shakespeare, finds the drummer in a different mode of discourse. He stalks the swing rhythm on the title track like a panther with a backbeat. He glides casually through the 3/4 waltz time of “Lady Mac” with sly, insouciant patterns on the hi-hat; in the coda, he does set up the band with tension-building accents on beat 1 for five bars in a row. On “Half the Fun,” Woodyard invents a beguiling quasi-Habanera across his drum set as singular as any beat in the canon.
The majestic achievement of Ellington’s Afro Bossa (1962-63), a carnival of neo-Caribbean rhythm and gutbucket exotica, again captures the casual virtuosity of Woodyard’s imagination. He creates novel beats on track after track. And if you want to hear the drummer down home in the core of the jazz tradition, look no further than Paul Gonsalves’ 27 rocking blues choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at Newport in 1956. Woodyard is as much responsible for the nuclear fission as the saxophonist.
“Sam Woodyard?” Ellington once summed up. “He’s a swinger.”
Duke Ellington: The Duke at Fargo 1940 (Storyville) — Hat tip to bandleader/composer Darcy James Argue for reminding me that broadcast and concert recordings present Greer at his unfettered best in greater clarity than many studio recordings.
Duke Ellington: The Great Ellington Units (BMG/Bluebird) — Greer’s swing and sensitivity shine through these sublime small group sessions led by Hodges, Stewart, and Bigard in the 1940s.
Duke Ellington: The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic) — Tremendous document from 1963, whose diversity (concert works, classic arrangements, popular hits, deep cuts) illuminates Woodyard’s versatility. Dig the alluring bounce he brings to the shuffle on “The Asphalt Jungle.”