From Flock to Shepherd: Introduction
On November 15th, 2017 at 8:30pm, the Jazz Standard in New York City had a line around the block. Starting from the dual entrance of the Jazz Standard jazz club and Blue Smoke restaurant in the direct middle of East 27th Street, the line of people stretched almost to Lexington Avenue, nearly 300 feet. Just after 9:00pm, the audience from the 7:00 PM set was released. Among them were some of the most prominent members of the New York City jazz scene as well as members of house bands for every talk show in town.
After another twenty minutes, the line of people slowly moved through the two glass doors, past the entrance of Blue Smoke, and down into the bowels of the Jazz Standard. At a wooden desk featuring a glass case containing memorabilia, each party was greeted by a host and asked if they had a reservation. Only after confirmation was the audience led into the club, first past a long bar, already busy and without an open seat. This section was part of a cordoned off area with small two-top tables that sat raised above the walkway. In front of those tables lay the main seating area for the Jazz Standard, a wide-open floor with long twenty-foot tables lined on both sides with chairs, which created a sea of listeners in front of the slightly raised stage. The basement club was scattered with pillars holding up the building above, which made clear sightlines a rarity, highly coveted by the patrons.
All 150 seats were sold for this occasion. Anticipation mounted while the audience placed their drink and dinner orders and servers scurried to the bar and kitchen. The stage, which sat six inches high, was covered with instruments that were occasionally inspected by the musicians who came from the green room. A hushed tone
permeated among the younger audience members whenever someone touched the stage. This feeling only intensified when the audience checked their phones to see that the show, in standard New York form, was running ten minutes behind schedule. The house lights dimmed, which made the stage the lone beacon of light inside the otherwise deep red-walled basement club. After asking audience members to silence their phones and keep talking to a minimum, the manager of the venue released the sentence they had been waiting to hear all night:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Jazz Standard is proud to present The Brian Blade Fellowship.”
Following his bandmates, Blade walked from backstage to his instrument. His Fellowship was groundbreaking when they debuted in 1998. Jazz Times called their debut recording “a sumptuous impressionistic recording. . . Far from your usual debut disc.” The Fellowship had not been active since 2014 and was celebrating the release of their highly anticipated new album. In the past, such praise and anticipation were reserved for the normal bandleader (pianists, saxophonists, and trumpeters). But that night, Brian Blade sat behind the drums.
Drummers have become gravitational centers of creative movements. In New York, Mark Guiliana's Beat Music was a stylistic innovation many tried to copy. Tyshawn Sorey, a one-time regular at John Zorn’s club The Stone, received the MacArthur Fellowship Grant, commonly known as the “genius grant”. Allison Miller’s Tic Tic Boom is regularly featured on critics’ lists across the country and Jamison Ross’ debut album garnered a Grammy nomination. From 2014 to 2019, twenty-three drummer-led albums were featured on NPR’s Top 50 Jazz Albums list, eight of those voted into the top ten (16% of all albums chosen) despite only representing 7.27% of all featured albums. When Sorey’s Verisimilitude was voted as third best album of 2017, Frances Davis wrote, “To paraphrase one voter, who would have expected the year's best piano-trio album to be led by a drummer?”. In their 2020 critics poll, Downbeat Magazine awarded Jazz Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, Group of the Year, and Rising Star – Producer to drummers.
Traditionally, the drummer was the odd man out in a jazz ensemble, as they spoke a different language than the harmonic instruments. Due to this, drummer-led ensembles mainly served as star vehicles that searched for arrangers or producers who could bring them music. Drummers such as Brian Blade, Mark Guiliana, Jamison Ross, and Tyshawn Sorey are now towering influences amongst performers and composers alike, dominating the jazz scene and academia. While part of a natural evolution in jazz music, the differences between the old and new generations of drummer/bandleaders in creative control, organization, and in formal education have contributed to the rise of the drummer from the back of the band to the top of the marquee.