Chick Webb was as near the first of the drumming bandleaders of the Swing era. Born in 1905 with tuberculosis of the spine he grew up with a spinal deformation that gave him the appearance of a hunchback; the same disease finally killed him after a major operation at the age of 34. He had taken up drumming as a form of therapy.
He was known as the King of Swing having won a “battle of the big bands” contest with the likes of of Goodman and Basie as contestants. His style influenced Buddy Rich and others. He would make a wonderful counterpoint to all those youngsters today who want free stuff: he purchased his first set of drums from money earned doing a paper round - that itself with his condition must have been difficult, to say the least - and played professionally at 11. Ella Fitzgerald sang as a young woman with the band from ‘35 and after Chick's death she lead the band for some time before going solo.
Stompin’ at the Savoy (1934):
As so many from that period, Gene Krupa was more than an influential drummer: he was a composer actor band leader and, like Buddy Rich, a showman, something that was a must in the days of the Swing era when those big bands were the huge attraction for the general public.
Anyone who has a biopic made about him, as he did. has reached a level beyond just being a drummer. I can remember seeing "The Gene Krupa Story" as a teenager.
He is cited as a big influence in drummers becoming more than just apart of the rhythm section, being one of the first to use drum solos in his work. He was also instrumental in the development of drums and cymbals, as this piece from Wiki explains:
"In the 1930s, Krupa became the first endorser of Slingerland drums. At Krupa's urging, Slingerland developed tom-toms with tuneable top and bottom heads, which immediately became important elements of virtually every drummer's setup. Krupa developed and popularized many of the cymbal techniques that became standards. His collaboration with Armand Zildjian of the Avedis Zildjian Company developed the modern hi-hat cymbals and standardized the names and uses of the ride cymbal, crash cymbal, splash cymbal, pang cymbal, and swish cymbal. He is also credited with helping to formulate the modern drum set, being one of the first jazz drummers (for that recording studio) to use a bass drum, in a recording session in December 1927. One of his bass drums, a Slingerland 14 X 26, inscribed with Benny Goodman's and Krupa's initials, is preserved at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C."
This is with Benny Goodman's orchestra before he set up his own big band but contains in this hit from ‘37 an illustration of his drumming style and a featured Harry James on trumpet.
Sing Sing Sing:
Buddy Rich was very much a contemporary of Krupa. The ultimate showman, he was as much wanted in later life as a TV personality as he was a bandleader drummer. He always had an opinion on everything and was not one to sidestep being controversial. He was also a very hard taskmaster, demanding and getting the best from his musicians.
This TV interview from ‘71 will not please someone I know ! but is hilarious in his put-down of country music - he genuinely hated it:
And he maintained his opinion to the day he died….
During the medical therapy prior to his death, a nurse asked him whether he was allergic to anything, to which Rich replied "Yes, country and western music".
His Wiki page is a good read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_Rich
There are numerous Youtube videos of Rich giving amazing drum solos, dancing, singing, showing off etc. Many regard him as the greatest drummer of all. He certainly gave value for money, but here with a drum solo he leads his band in ‘65 with "Cherokee":
One thing can be said with absolute certainty, Rich was never boring.
Another who started young was Louie Bellson. He was playing drums at three and went on to win a national Gene Krupa drum contest against 40,000 contestants. He also was bandleader, composer and later a jazz teacher, and was married to the singer and actress Pearl Bailey. He is also credited with the pioneering use of two bass drums. Although not known for primarily leading his own big band, he did work during the forties with Tommy Dorsey , Goodman, Harry James and Ellington. His writing and composition work was prolific and spanned all genres of music: he appeared on 200 albums and wrote 1000 pieces. His big band work was mainly on records or when touring in Europe and elsewhere.
As I have said before, most drum solos have me reaching for the off switch but these people are different, they are the masters of their craft. There are many examples of stupendous solos from many of these top guys with Rich having more than his share, rightly, but this is a short controlled piece of work from Bellson.
Skin Deep (1957):
Mel Lewis started in the big time by joining Kenton in ‘54. 1966 and a move to NY saw him team up with Thad Jones for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra although it was not any more than informal get-together for many years until regular slots became available in ‘76. It became the Mel Lewis Orchestra when Thad Jones left for Denmark that year. Drummers are like goalkeepers, they are separate in many ways from the rest of the outfit, have a lot of quirks with their kit set up etc and Lewis was no exception with a very personal cymbal setup and later drums with differing drum skin covers from normal; all this, of course, to get the sound he wanted.
Here he is in ‘87 looking like a bank manager with the Mel Lewis Orchestra in Holland, playing Groove Merchant:
Of course those mainstays of be bop Roach and Blakey fronted groups of varying sizes as drummers. Both have had exposure on my earlier pieces so there is no need to do any biographies on them, just straight to the music.
This is Max Roach with his then wife Abbey Lincoln - I need no prompting to put up anything she did - with Driva Man from ‘64 and Roach’s album Freedom Suite:
Plus a classic Art Blakey driving number: A Night in Tunisia from his "Messengers of ‘58" with Lee Morgan trumpet, Benny Golson sax and Bobby Timmons piano:
Frequently overlooked as a “serious” jazz drummer, Shelly Manne most certainly was serious, but his debunking to the West Coast and being part of that cool jazz movement, and his albums (very successful) based on My Fair Lady and his association with Andre Previn made him in some eyes a lightweight. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was also at the forefront of music for the film industry and not only did he provide the music for "The Man With The Golden Arm", starring Frank Sinatra, but he was also an advisor in the film and afterwards was in much demand for percussive effects in films; and he also worked a lot with Henry Mancini.
After a career that started with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, he virtually retired when jazz became less popular in the sixties-seventies. He owned a club in LA where he kept the jazz flag flying, it was inevitably called Shelly’s Manne Hole, and ran for years with many stars joining his club band. Whilst always returning to straight jazz he ventured into and experimented with ragtime, orchestral work and other areas of music. A drummer though he had to be as his father and uncles were all drummers; he was still experimenting and playing and recording right up to his last days.
Just Squeeze Me is from the fourth album of five that came from a very successful stint at the Blackhawk; always a tasteful, not forcing, drummer.
There have been other drummers who have been group leaders but not over time as these above. Great drummers though they are, the likes of Jo Jones, Roy Haynes etc were in the main always sidemen, even if very starred sidemen.