Drumsville: Evolution of the New Orleans Beat

Shannon Powell (1989) by Sydney ByrdNew Orleans Jazz Museum

Made in America

The drum set—likely the youngest instrument in popular music—is an American invention. New Orleans played a central role in its development, and the city’s drummers have been influential in both its evolution and the drumming styles that permeate a wide spectrum of American music.

Bamboula Dance (1886) by E. W. KembleNew Orleans Jazz Museum

Congo Square

Africans and people of African descent drummed throughout the Louisiana territory from its earliest days. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, their dance and drum circle gatherings were held in Congo Square on Sunday afternoons. The most acknowledged aspect of the New Orleans drumming legacy is the second-line rhythm, which emerged from brass band parades and can be traced back to the Bamboula dance in Congo Square.

George and Abbie Brunis (1910)New Orleans Jazz Museum

European Influences

Drumming was gradually influenced by the rhythms of European colonizers, and African American musicians were integrated in militia parades and brass bands. The mixture of African and European drumming traditions influenced and informed the music of the twentieth century.

Olympia Brass Band in Ascona (1989) by Sydney ByrdNew Orleans Jazz Museum

Traditional Jazz

Traditional New Orleans jazz, which is rooted in the brass band tradition, incorporated ragtime, blues, hymns, marches, and popular dance tunes, then channeled them through the innovative improvisational approach forged by cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden.

Olympia Brass Band (1981) by Sydney ByrdNew Orleans Jazz Museum

Brass Bands

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, brass bands developed deep roots, particularly in New Orleans's African American community. Though they're called “brass bands,” the lineup features three percussionists performing on bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals. Those drummers are the main source from which the New Orleans beat that we know now evolved—the syncopated parade rhythm that enlivens dancers called the second line.

Warren "Baby" Dodds by Duncan SchiedtNew Orleans Jazz Museum

A Drum Revolution

The New Orleans beat is built from the bottom up, emphasizing the booming bass drum in dialog with the snare drum. Eventually, drummers attached the cymbal to the bass drum, which they sat on a chair, allowing them to play both the bass and snare drums, which was called “double-drumming.”

The John Robichaux Orchestra of New Orleans in 1896 (1896)New Orleans Jazz Museum

Birth of the Drum Set

The invention of the bass drum pedal was a revolutionary step in the development of the drum set because it enabled a single drummer to perform simultaneously on multiple drums and cymbals with greater facility and complexity. The 1896 photo exhibited here reveals one of the earliest bass pedals used by New Orleans drummer Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler with the John Robichaux band. In 1909, the Ludwig company patented a bass pedal, which revolutionized drumming.

Dee Dee Chandler

bass pedal

Pete Fountain with Half Fast Walking Club by John E. KuhlmanNew Orleans Jazz Museum

The Beat, the Beat, the Beat

The drum set was born perfectly in sync with the blossoming of jazz, and New Orleans drummers were at the forefront in defining what it means to play this new, distinctively American instrument. “Everybody would come down here to record and say, ‘The beat, the beat, the beat,'” said rhythm-and-blues legend Earl King.

Shannon Powell, July 1976 (July 1976) by M. BendichNew Orleans Jazz Museum

Modern Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, and Funk

When rhythm and blues came to the forefront of African American popular music in the late 1940s and early 1950s, New Orleans drummers at the in-demand J&M Recording Studio produced a parade of hit records. Drummers like Earl Palmer, who introduced the backbeat in Fats Domino and Little Richard's sessions led the way in establishing grooves for this new sound, which completely transformed popular music. By the late 1960s, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste of the Meters evolved the New Orleans beat and played a central role in the emergence of funk music, shaping grooves that were frequently sampled by hip-hop artists.

Robert Lewis (June 1959) by Henri L. ChevrierNew Orleans Jazz Museum

Passing It On

Today, Drumsville is flourishing with drummers rooted in the history of New Orleans drumming and are fluent in the styles that evolved over the past century. Drummers like Johnny Vidacovich, Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell, Joe Lastie Jr., and Stanton Moore continue to experiment and invent, bringing new rhythmic patterns and techniques to the music.

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