Chart Interpretation for the Young Jazz Band Drummer, by Michael Sekelsky

Chart Interpretation for the Young Jazz Band Drummer
Michael J. Sekelsky

The word interpretation takes on many meanings when used in the same sentence with jazz band drummer or big band chart.  For musicians, interpretation refers to the musical decisions the artist makes in order to express the written music.  Jazz band drumset charts require several layers of interpretation and therefore a variety of ways to express what is written.  Drumset players or teachers usually encounter the following:

1.  Beginning drumset charts:  The style or groove, as well as fills, are usually written out for the entire
chart.  The composer/arranger assumes that the young player is still developing the tools necessary to
improvise and that the player still requires frequent guidance.  While the drummer has the option
to play the written part, it IS acceptable for the drummer to improvise.   Improvising should only be an
option when the drummer has command of time keeping in the appropriate style and understands how
to fill musically in each style.

Example 1.


2.  Intermediate drumset charts:  Here the drummer will see some sections notated by the
composer/arranger, but will also begin to encounter rhythmic cues showing what other members of
the ensemble are playing.  These are called figures or hits.  The assumption here is that the drummer has
developed sufficient skills to warrant some guidance, but with some ability to improvise and interpret
the written figures.

Example 2 (partial notation):

3.  Advanced drumset charts:  This level of drumset chart carries with it the expectation that the drummer
has mastered many styles, and has developed a library of ways to catch, set-up, or kick the
ensemble.   In addition, he/she can play musical fills and solo when called on.  Advanced
drumset charts often include little more than a style indication, fill markings, and ensemble figures.

Example 3 (slash notation):

The jazz band drummer has many responsibilities and functions.  One of the more challenging aspects of jazz band drumming is how to teach, interpret, or perform figures.  When the drumset player begins to encounter figures (cues that show the drummer what rhythms and articulations other members of the ensemble are playing), he/she has several options for interpretation.  The following are the most common:

1.  Ignore the written figures.  In some situations, this can be the most musical choice.  Listening closely
to the music will determine if ignoring the written figures will best aid the ensemble and maintain the
flow of the music.

2.   Catch the figure, which means to imitate the written rhythms. Light snare drum or bass drum
are commonly used to catch the rhythms of a saxophone section solo, a soloist, or
similar musical passages.  The drummer is fulfilling an accompaniment role in this situation.

3.   Punching the written rhythms means to play the figures as accents using snare drum rim shots,
cymbal crashes, or some other accented interpretation.  This can be effective at times, but if used too
often it, gives the impression that the drumset player is simply mirroring the other instruments.

4.   Set-up or cue the written rhythms.  This type of interpretation is historically the most effective and
the desired role of the jazz band drummer.  Cueing involves finding ways to help the other ensemble
members with accurate entrances, articulation of rhythmic passages, and releases.  The combination
of cueing the ensemble, then punching the figure or hit, is often called “kicking the band.”

The set-up process may be effectively taught to young drummers using a conducting model. Most young players are in a structured band program and understand when a conductor gives a cue for an entrance.  If a conductor gives a cue at the exact time that a musician is supposed to play, the cue is ineffective and usually results in a late or inaccurate attack.  The same is true if the conductor gives a cue on a weak part of the beat (“&” of the count, or some other subdivision of the pulse).

Effective conductors do the following:

  1. Cue before, not during, the figure or hit.
  2. Cue only on main counts; not on subdivisions (very slow tempos being the exception).
  3. Cue on the main count immediately before the figure or hit.

The following examples show written figures or hits and the simplest methods of cueing. The length of the figure or hit often determines the part of the drumset used for the drummer’s cue.

Short hits:  The simplest way to punch a short duration hit is by playing the hit as a snare drum rim shot.  The most effective way to cue the hit is with the bass drum.  Some instructors teach this as a low (bass drum cue) to high (snare drum hit) concept, or wet (bass drum cue) to dry (snare drum hit).

Example 1 (“On the beat” short figure or hit):

Example 2 (“Off the beat” short figure or hit):

Long hits:  The simplest way to punch a long duration hit is by playing the hit as a cymbal crash reinforced by the bass drum.  The most effective way to cue the hit is with a snare drum rim shot.  Some instructors teach this as a high (snare drum cue) to low (cymbal/bass drum hit) concept, or dry (snare drum cue) to wet (cymbal/bass drum hit).

Example 1 (“On the beat” long figure or hit):

Example 2 (“Off the beat” long figure or hit):

Final thoughts and “Lead-ins”:

The cue, whether from a conductor or a drummer, is a single action (in its simplest form, a snare drum rim shot or bass drum accent).

  1. Material leading up to the cue is usually called a lead in.
  2. The length of the lead in should be proportional to the length of the figure or hit.
  3. The cue is most often the loudest part of the lead in/cue combination.


  1. This is fantastic!! I have a lesson later today and my student was asking about playing along with charts… perfect timing! Thanks!

  2. This is a great article that brings many things to mind, but I will only raise two points here that I have to consistantly address when teaching:

    1) In beginning and intermediate level charts, (and sometimes advanced) you will often see a kick figure written for snare, bass and cymbal all at the same time. This is very frustrating to me because it is almost always beyond the students ability level to play all three instruments at once when coming out of the set-up or fill. I always tell students to choose ONE, either the snare or bass to go with the cymbal.

    2) I want to re-emphasize the importance of thinking long-tone vs. short tone when playing phrases. A simple rule of thumb for the beginner to follow is long tone = cymbal & bass, short tone = snare. I also teach students to practice set up with the foot (bass) and kick with the hands (snare & cymbal), or set up with the hands (snare) and kick with the foot (bass & cymbal) Obviously this uses your hand as well, but I tell them to focus on the foot. I teach to stay away from hitting all three at once.

    These are fairly simple concepts that go a long way in making the drummer sound better in Jazz Band, especially when you consider how limited most directors are in understanding the mechanics of drumming, and their ability to communicate with drummers.

    Thanks for the article,
    Scott Kinnison

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