Q: What’s the last thing a drummer says in a band?

A: “Hey, guys, why don’t we try one of my songs?”

Ba-Dump.

Yeah, we’ve all heard them, the drummer jokes that have haunted four-limb halls since forever. But somehow, I’m betting they don’t really apply to Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Louis Bellson, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine, Terry Bozzio, Bill Bruford, Dafnis Prieto, Antonio Sanchez… Et. Cet.Er.Ahhhhhhhhhhh….

When I was in high school, I diddled around on my brother’s piano, and I sort of played guitar a little. I could make some basic chords, and I could hear the music in my head… but that was about it. We had to take music theory in jazz band, and I was utterly lost from note one. I could not read piano music well enough to really explore it at home, and it just didn’t appeal to anything that mattered to me at the time.

And then a few things changed.

Jazz composer Hank Levy came to our high school on a government arts grant and introduced us to odd time signature big band jazz. Oh HELLLLLLL Yeah!!! Man, that stuff just lit my brain up like the last day of Burning Man! Around the same time, Billy Cobham released Spectrum, and people took his compositional skills seriously. He could obliterate the drums AND do it playing to his own music, his own way, exactly as he envisioned it.

Okay… now learning about music was becoming a little more interesting…

My ADD from as-then undiagnosed Tourette’s was pretty much an impediment to learning anything, even when I wanted to master it. But my body wanted to cut loose, and I could hear music in my head all day… so I decided to see if I could write some songs to let me get the music and the movement out, like Billy Cobham.

I sat at the piano in our home and plunked out one note at a time. Some nights, I would just sit there and wait for the music to begin in my head, and I’d slowly explore and try to capture the sounds. Pretty soon, a few simple odd meter songs began to form. I did my best to write them down, and at one point, I even wrote out some basic horn parts to have the jazz band play. I remember the day I passed those parts out, having no real understanding of harmony and voicings, but wanting to hear it nonetheless. I didn’t even have a composer score with all the music in one place. I just waved my hands and conducted from memory.

I wrote a few more basic songs and sketched out the parts for some other musicians, and I remember how cool it felt to hear my thoughts being played by excellent players. It was pretty surreal. And… the best part… during those moments, I was definitely respected and viewed as a composer, not just a drummer. I can’t stand the last part of the phrase, by the way.

Which brings us to my original statement: why drummers should learn to compose music. In the documentary,” Beware Mr. Baker,” which all drummers should watch, Eric Clapton is asked how Ginger compared to John Bonham and Keith Moon. Clapton could not say enough about how fully developed and evolved Ginger was a musician. You can see the respect in Clapton’s face immediately when the subject comes up. It was a pivotal point in the documentary for me, a reminder of how fearless one needs to be to reach out and explore new lands and take big creative leaps.

Today, the amount of technology available for drummers to learn about music and composition is staggering. Pro-Tools lets you record, cut and paste; Finale lets you compose one note at a time and hear the music played back using many different instruments. These are what I use, but there are plenty of other options available, including ones you can use on your smart pads and smart phones.

You can use free time virtually anywhere to study at your own pace, use voice mail to capture the raw idea and refine it later, and even use an app like Tempo Slow to record and then, get this: play it back at slower tempos. You can also download and study your favorite songs literally at your pace!

But why should you learn to compose, really? So that you can experience the ultimate artistic freedom. You can explore, refine, find good players, and then let them help you bring your music dreams to life. In short, you can evolve, and in doing so, contribute to taking drumming to higher and higher levels.

Now that my books are done, I can get back to focusing on this aspect of my musical world. I have drafts of songs at www.myspace.com/davidaldridgedrums you can listen to and get an idea of what romps through my head most of the day. The tracks are admittedly rough, just sketches, about seven years old… but they are assembled enough to let other musicians get an idea of where I’d like to see them go, and that’s good enough for now…

In closing this post, let me share something I read in DownBeat many, many years ago when Bill Bruford working with U.K. and then his first solo album (Feels Good To Me). He said that when he composed, he heard the drum parts first, and then he filled in the bass parts, and built things from there. I still do this with many songs, and it’s a great way to start at getting your compositional feet wet.

How ever you do it, don’t tell yourself you can’t. Every time a band teaches you a new song, you compose a new drum part. So son’t stop there. Go all the way.

And then, bust out the guitar jokes…

Q: What does a guitarist say when he gets to his gig?

A: “Would you like fries with that?”

Bada-BUMP!