Albert Ball’s Flying Aces were a group of Airmen fighting during the Great War from 1916. They used music as a relief from the unrelenting boredom, and the sporadic moments of blind fear, brought by warfare. Now the name of a collective of musicians, who today, wish to carry forward the history of that period. Through their interpretations of its music, they champion the obsolete, and turn it into something worthy of notice.
Albert Ball’s Flying Aces were a group of Airmen fighting during the Great War from 1916. They used music as a relief from the unrelenting boredom, and the sporadic moments of blind fear, brought by warfare.
This is the now the name of a collective of musicians, who today, wish to carry forward the history of that period. Through their interpretations of its music, they champion the obsolete, and turn it into something worthy of notice.
What is interesting to note, is the percussion used by this band; the drums are old, and the cymbals are bent. However, this is what shaped the drum kits we use today. Developing your own sound is a prominent feature of modern drumming, and we experiment endlessly with dampening, twisting, and turning. Perhaps, though, taking a step back can yield some interesting ideas in terms of finding different, and discovering old sounds for new beats.
Nick Ball a is somewhat of a connoisseur of 20′s-era style bands, and his credits include bands such as; Alex Mendham’s Orchestra, and Richard White’s Fivers. Nick played at Glastonbury this year, headlining the Jazz Stage with Top Shelf Jazz. Nick is not only a drummer, but also an arranger, and producer on other projects.
At the moment he is working on a record featuring Patricia Hammond, a guest vocalist with the Flying aces. This song is taken from the period between 1901 and 1940, and will have, what he describes as, ‘a more elegant, 1930s tea-dance type vibe.’ The project will also feature several of the other Flying Aces musicians. The record is called Our Lovely Day, and is due out in the later part of this year.
What inspired the concept for the Albert Ball’s Flying Aces?
The original idea all grew out of a conversation I had with my pianist friend Jon Butterfield when we were both students – for some reason we got into talking about aviators in the First World War, via Biggles stories, ‘that’ episode of Blackadder IV (Private Plane), and also Aces High and films of that ilk.
One or other of us mentioned that the first jazz record (The Original Dixieland Jass Band’s 78rpm disc Livery Stable Blues/Dixie Jass One-Step) was released in 1917, so in theory those pilots could have come back from their dogfights and relaxed by listening to jazz.
I found this image really interesting, somehow it all just seemed to fit together. What at that time was ultra-modern technology and ultra-modern music. I did some research into the flying aces of WWI and found out about Albert Ball, who became a national hero in 1916 at the age of 20, only to die in an air battle the following year.
I discovered that during his time in the R.F.C. (precursor to the R.A.F.) he played violin in one of the many Squadron Orchestras that were formed for fun in the evenings to play popular songs of the day – which would have included jazz and ragtime – further reinforcing what I’d been talking about with Jon.
I’m not related to Albert Ball as far as I know, but I was struck by the fact that he shared my surname, so I named the band in honour of him as he seemed to represent his whole generation, all those millions of young men on both sides who were brought up on those crazy ideas about nationalism and empire, were sold a complete lie and paid for it with their lives.
What types of percussion instruments do you use when playing for Flying Aces?
The setup I’ve put together for Albert Ball’s Flying Aces is really 1910s; it’s all built around a drum kit from about that period, which I found for £15 in a London junk shop. There’s a big (24.5”) but very shallow single-headed bass drum, with a 12” wooden snare drum and a 10” single-headed Chinese (i.e. un-tunable) tom-tom. All of these drums have slightly warped shells and have to be fitted with calfskin heads – modern plastic heads are perfectly round and don’t fit!
Then there is a pair of cowbells, a pair of ‘skulls’ (temple blocks), a woodblock, and usually one or two small cymbals mounted on a hanger. Sometimes I’ll also use a china-type cymbal mounted vertically on a post screwed into the side of the bass drum shell.
For sturdiness’s sake I do tend to use modern hardware, but the bass drum pedal is fitted with a big fluffy 1930s lambswool beater, because modern bass drum beaters are much too hard for this style of music.
Aside from the kit, I also use a couple of other percussion items. I have a metal washboard, which I usually lay down flat on top of the snare drum and play with sticks, which is actually a very similar technique to playing the ‘sweep’ with brushes. Then I’ve got the spoons, which I’ve been playing for a couple of years. Playing the spoons has become kind of a joke, and it’s true it can be very amusing when you see someone doing it well.
But like the washboard, a lot of the drummers in the 1910s and 20s would have seen it as a normal part of playing the drums. Spoons are useful when quieter instruments like piano or guitar are playing. And of course, the fact that the spoons can be played whilst standing, walking or dancing gives me the ability to walk out from behind the drums to sing and dance and be the Frontman without the rhythm disappearing.
What would have constituted a 1920s drum kit?
Well, there was no such thing as a ‘standard’ drum kit, if you look at photos of drummers’ setups in the early days it seems like they all just threw together whatever worked for them or whatever they had on hand, in all sorts of crazy combinations. There’s a great photo of Louis Mitchell from about 1919 and he’s got car horns, sheets of metal, a garden spade and all sorts of stuff.
By the mid-1920s it seems like most professional drummers used parts of the kit that look familiar to us today: a bass drum played with a pedal, and at least one snare drum. Many of them had multiple cymbals, either hung from a frame or mounted on detachable cymbal arms similar to modern ones although much more lightweight, because those cymbals were all small and light.
Modern cymbals need to be large and heavy to compete with guitars etc., but in the 1920s the music was quieter, practically acoustic really – there were only very rudimentary amplifiers. The only ones you see bigger than about 14” are china-type cymbals.
Finally, they’d have a number of various cowbells, skulls and wood blocks, which were used for keeping time, exactly like you would on a modern hi-hat or ride cymbal. Speaking of hi-hats, a forerunner of the hi-hat, the ‘sock’ cymbal or lowboy, was invented during, I think, the early 20s; but photos and recordings seem to suggest that they didn’t really catch on until the early 1930s. Just like today, it’s not as if everyone wanted or could afford the most state-of-the-art gear the moment it appeared.
What defines a vintage drum? How does this come into play with the types of instruments you use?
I’m probably not the best person to define a vintage drum! In my work at the moment I’m mostly trying to get to a type of drum-sound only heard on very, very old records – youcan get modern drums to sound like that but it’s difficult, and anyway, they’ll look out of place on stage.
Part of the attraction of older drums for me is not only that they look correct but that they often sound ‘period’ the minute you pick them up and play them – and by that I mean that often (to modern ears) they sound at best very ropey. If you’re used to the way drums sound on current records, whether it’s U2 or Beyonce or whatever, then the chances are that to your ears, really vintage (pre-1950) drums will sound terrible. But if you listen to very, very old records, the drums did often sound much more loose, with flabby booming bass drums and snares buzzing all over the place. At first it took some getting used to, but now, the dirtier the sound, the more real, and the better I like it!
Have you had any gig mishaps with equipment, i.e. bass drum riding across the room, due to old spurs?
I have had a few problems, sometimes with cymbal ‘hangers’ slowly sinking, Lusitania-style, until the cymbals scrape the top of the bass drum. But my main problems really have been with calfskin heads and the way they’re affected by atmospheric conditions. If it’s damp or the pressure is low, they slacken off to the point where no amount of desperate tightening of tuning bolts will have any effect on them and your playing sounds like someone hitting a load of soggy cardboard boxes. Then in hot weather or under proper stage lighting it’s the opposite problem and they stretch so tight that you worry they’re going to split (although the hot weather issue is not so much of a problem if, like me, you live in Great Britain…). Honestly though, I don’t know how cows cope with it all.
Are there any drummers/percussionists of that period who inspire you?
YES – without question. First of all, it’s all about Baby Dodds, who pretty much invented jazz drumming along with a couple of others whose names haven’t been remembered. Baby played with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong amongst many, many other legendary musicians. He made a solo record in the 1940s called Talking And Drum Solos, which is absolutely essential listening for anyone interested in the history of the drums or music of the 1920s.
Baby also developed his own expressive lingo for a lot of the techniques he popularised, when describing his playing he talks about ‘nerve beats’, ‘shimmy rolls’ and ‘biff shots’. Baby Dodds was famous for the way he would vary the texture of his accompaniment to suit each instrument in turn; the way he uses the cowbells and the rims of the drums to keep time is incredibly inventive, and his press rolls sound like tearing paper.
Next I suppose it’d be Tony Sbarbaro, the drummer in the Original Dixieland Jass Bandwho I mentioned earlier. When you listen to his playing on the ODJB records he keeps time mostly on the woodblocks, and, certainly on the early recordings, there’s no bass drum pedal. The only option back then was to play the bass drum with the butt of the sticks, so when Sbarbaro does that, you can be sure that it’s a really carefully chosen event.
And then most recently I’ve been really getting into the playing of Charlie Johnson, who played in an African-American group called The Versatile Four who recorded in Britain in 1916, one year before the more famous ODJB recording. Johnson’s playing has a lot more ragtime in it – it doesn’t swing as much as Baby or Sbarbaro but it’s got a great energy to it.
What are the main characteristics of drumming used in the 1920s?
I’d say the main characteristic is the way the time is kept. Since the 1940s the ride cymbal and hi-hat have been used almost exclusively to play the time on, but it wasn’t always so. In the 10s, 20s and 30s, one of the most widely-used types of popular beat was what Baby Dodds calls the ‘shimmy’, in which the time is all kept on the snare drum.
There is a short video clip in existence of Baby demonstrating this groove: with one stick he plays the four beats of the bar whilst the other plays buzz rolls on beats 2 and 4, rather like a backbeat, all the time keeping a very soft but steady four to the floor on the bass drum (this is why modern, hard bass drum beaters are wrong for this music).
The other great characteristic of 20s drumming is the use of the whole kit to change the texture of the music to support or contrast whatever singer or instrument is playing. For example, behind the saxophone (medium volume and pitch) I’ll tend to play the standard ‘shimmy’ on snare; behind a trumpet (higher and louder) I might play a ride pattern on a splash cymbal (choked on beats 1 and 3 and allowed to ring on beats 2 and 4, or vice versa), or sometimes a tom-tom in order to keep out of the trumpet’s frequency range. Behind a piano (softer) I’ll often play the on the rims of the drums, or a woodblock, or occasionally just play a groove by clicking the sticks together.
And speaking of sticks, the old drummers mostly started off in parade bands and so played using the traditional grip. Myself, I learned with matched grip like most modern players, so that’s what I use even when I’m playing much older music.
Could you describe Albert Ball’s Flying Aces in five words:
Great War-era aviators’ orchestra
Thank you to Nick Ball for giving up some time for this interview!
EXTRA INFORMATION – courtesy of Nick Ball
Mark Miller: ‘Some Hustling This! Taking Jazz To The World, 1914-29’.
Herlin Riley & Johnny Vidacovich: ‘New Orleans Jazz & Second-Line Drumming’.
Gunther Schuller : ‘Early Jazz’.
Baby Dodds: ‘Talking & Drum Solos’
The Versatile Four: ‘Down Home Rag’ etc.
Original Dixieland Jass Band: ‘Livery Stable Blues/Dixie Jass One-Step’ etc.