I have been reading a book by Ingrid Monson from 1996, called Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction, which approaches the nature of improvisation from the perspective of musicians from the rhythm section. The book performs the helpful function for me of bridging the gap between the role of rhythm in carefully composed art-objects and the role of rhythm in casual conversation. Rhythm in jazz improvisation exhibits characteristics of both activities and helps me to demonstrate the commonalities from one end of this spectrum of choreographed-casual to the other.
However, there was another, unrelated moment in the book that I found to be significant. Monson relates a quote by Michael Carvin, who likens the drummer or the drum to a mother:
It is a family. That’s why you say a drum is a woman. That’s what Klook [drummer Kenny Clarke] was talkin’ about…He say, ‘Well, you take a woman that has four kids and all four of them come home from school together. One of them made an A; he’s very happy. One made an F; he’s very sad. One caught a cold today; he’s upset. And one lost his jacket and he’s very upset. Now when they hit the house, all four of them is hittin’ the mother at the same time. The one that got an A’ll say, ‘Mommy, look I got an A,’ and he’s excited; and the one that got an F, say [crying tone of voice], ‘Oh mommy, I got an F’; the one that got a cold, ‘Mommy, I’m catching a cold,’ but she have to, at the same time, deal with all of them at the same time and cool each one of them out for the energy level that they are dealing with. And that’s why they say the drum is a woman…cause that’s the same thing a drummer has to do. You come to the gig, [pace of speaking increases] the trumpet player’s up, boy he feel like playing it. The saxophone, you know, he don’t feel too good. The piano player say, ‘Aw man, I shouldn’t have ate so much, man, I’m feeling a little sluggish.’ It’s the same thing. And…they all coming to you at the same time, so you’re getting the news from all four of them at the same time. Right? Cause you’re the bandleader, right? And you have to say, ‘Aw man, damn you ate too much? [high tone of voice] Why, man, you big as a house.’ And you got to try to get him happy and the other guy that’s already stretching, then you want to kind of cool him down, cause he’s stretching too much. He got too much energy. And then the guy that is not feelin’ so good, then you got to [give him] a pep talk…before you go play. And they never ask you, ‘How do you feel?’ But when the four kids came in the house, they didn’t ask mommy. Right?…But mommy had to go right into her motherhood and cool them out. That’s why Klook said a drum is a woman. (Carvin 1990. [Italics original])
I love this quote. It’s fascinating in the way that it challenges the gendered associations that we tend to have with respect to musicians and instruments in general. The felt strangeness of the comparison especially comes from its contrast with the perception that among instruments, drums are a particularly masculine instrument. I don’t know for sure if this is true or where it comes from if it is – the large amount of force sometimes exerted in drumming perhaps – but it’s certainly been my perception. Though they exist, women drummers seem to be culturally thought of as an exception. I suspect that this in part forms our ways of thinking about the role of the drum: stalwart, unyielding, assertive, perhaps even aggressive. But not nurturing. Thinking of drum and drummer as mother is a fundamental challenge to these assumptions. The mother-image does not necessarily preclude the above-named characteristics – assertive, stalwart, aggressive – but reinterprets them as features of a broader nurturing function.
On the one hand, seen from this perspective, drumming is not an inherently masculine activity in which the exceptional woman may participate, but an activity that is a natural extension of a nurturing function with which she is already intimately familiar. Moreover, this may represent a way for men to embrace a vocation of nurture as something already inherently part of an activity considered socially acceptable for men. On the other hand though, the drummer as mother image also reinforces other ways in which women have been culturally bound up with rhythm, usually in a biological sense (see for example the post on Kristeva). The difference in this case, however, is that the woman is not here portrayed as controlled by and at the mercy of rhythms but as a master of them or cooperative with them, with a responsibility to use these rhythms for purposes of nurture and for the good of a larger vision.
To think of the drum and the drummer as the nurturers of the rhythm section opens up some interesting possibilities in thinking about the function and nature of rhythm more generally. Through rhythm, the drummer is able to influence others’ levels of energy. Nurture in this case is therefore a matter of encouraging a certain energy through various strategies. If we think about rhythm more generally, we understand it as having this influencing function. We are inclined to tap our foot to a rhythm, to adopt the rhythms of those with whom we are in conversation, to go with the flow. However, the idea that this influence may be of a nurturing sort is novel to me. The idea of nurture implies growth towards a kind of natural flourishing, so how does one use rhythm to encourage particular energies that contribute to flourishing? And the flourishing of whom or what?
I wonder if a partial answer to these questions is embedded in another implicit point in the quote, namely that the drummer is capable of dealing with and influencing several different energies simultaneously. The purpose of influencing these energies is to bring them together into a whole so as to enable the necessary responsiveness for improvisation. I would therefore add that the drummer exhibits not only a nurturing function but a weaving function as well, interestingly another typically feminine activity. Carvin describes a kind of herding of the energy that other band members bring him, both enhancing and dampening different energies simultaneously and thereby weaving them into a balanced whole. In the context of improvised music, flourishing is a connectedness between persons in a whole that is larger than any one individual and which makes possible feats of musical creation.
If we extend this idea of rhythmic nurture beyond the band, this image suggests that the flourishing that rhythm is capable of nurturing is one that takes place in the connections between persons. In giving others the rhythmic guidance they require to connect with the energies of others, the rhythmic “mother” weaves a whole in which each individual flourishes because he or she participates in something larger than him or herself. Rhythm can be used to nurture connections and our capacity to connect.
The “mother” is an appropriate figure for this function since the rhythm in which we are always first embedded is that of the mother – the rhythms of the mother’s heart beat, as Lacoue-Labarthe points out. The rhythms through which we first learn language, that form which supremely makes connection with others possible, are those of the mother-tongue. This is perhaps why Carvin uses metaphor rather than simile: not “the drum is like a woman” but “the drum is a woman.” The drum in a real way extends the nurture of those same, most fundamental rhythms that are first nurtured by the woman.
 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven CN: Yale University Press, 2009), 103; Patel, Music, Language and the Brain, 137. Thierry Nazzi, Josiane Bertoncini, and Jacques Mehler “Language Discrimination by Newborns: Toward an Understanding of the Role of Rhythm,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 24 3 (1998): 756-766; Thierry Nazzi, Peter W. Jusczyk, Elizabeth K. Johnson, “Language Discrimination by English-Learning 5-Month Olds: Effects of Rhythm and Familiarity,” Journal of Memory and Language 43 1 (2000): 1-19; Jacques Mehler et al., “A Precursor of Language Acquisition in Young Infants,” Cognition 29 (1988): 143-178.
Image: By Dbeck03 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19780559