Drum Set exhibition tells an American story 

click to enlarge Glenn Kotche onstage - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Glenn Kotche onstage
  • Submitted Photo

Peter Erskine is a 10-time winner of Modern Drummer magazine's "Best Jazz Drummer" poll, and he has performed and recorded with names like Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall, appearing on more than 600 albums and film soundtracks.

So he knows a thing or two, and he says the new exhibit at the Percussive Arts Society's Rhythm! Discovery Center is pretty much one of a kind. Granted, he's a board member for the society, but still ...

"The only other place I know that's like this is a drum set museum outside of Budapest, Hungary," Erskine says. "So I would imagine, for most of us, Indianapolis is more convenient."

DRUMset: Driving the Beat of American Music will be a new high-water mark for Rhythm, which opened in 2009 and sees about 15,000 visitors a year in its space on the lower level of Claypool Court, in the shadow of the Artsgarden at Washington and Illinois streets.

The show will open Nov. 14 during the PAS International Convention, but a bigger grand opening is planned for Dec. 6, during the monthly IDADA First Friday festivities. DRUMset will occupy most of the 15,000-square-foot museum space and will run for two years, with occasional updates and special features.

"We'll have a major rollout at the beginning, and then we'll be adding other things as time goes on," says Matthew Altizer, marketing and communications director for PAS and its interactive museum. "We want to keep introducing something fresh and new."

What won't change is the essential structure and purpose of the exhibit, tracing the origins and showcasing the evolution of the odd apparatus that drives Western popular music, whether jazz, rock, soul, funk, blues or country.

click to enlarge Mainieri - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Mainieri
  • Submitted Photo

"The timeframe that we chose was post-Civil War, because that's when the drum set began," says Jacob Sheff, museum and library registrar at the Center.

The first attempted drum kits, he says, were cobbled together from leftover military marching drums, with a bass drum on the ground and a snare on a chair to be played by a single person. Gradually, stands and other hardware were developed, and players added tom-tom drums, cymbals and other elements from around the world.

In the era of vaudeville, silent film and radio drama, drummers were expected to wield an arsenal of noisemakers, sound effects and other contraptions designed to mimic various natural and mechanical sounds, resulting in elaborate "trap kits." But as jazz evolved from swing to bebop, and big bands gave way to smaller jazz and R&B combos, the drum set was distilled into a four- or five-piece configuration that remains the standard for rock and other styles.

The DRUMset exhibit flows chronologically, with stations representing early jazz and swing, then bop and early rock and roll, the British Invasion, heavy arena rock, and more recent variations and technological advances. The items on display come from the PAS archives and from players and collectors around the world.

Among them are a green sparkle Slingerland kit played by Led Zeppelin's John Bonham in the early '70s, a Yamaha kit played by Ndugu Chancler on Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," a 10-piece chrome Slingerland kit used by the revered Neil Peart on his first three Rush tours and albums, a facsimile of the Ludwig kit played by Ringo Starr when the Beatles rocked The Ed Sullivan Show and an elaborate assemblage used by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche on various group and solo projects.

The Kotche set, accompanied by Wilco concert video footage for context, includes standard drums, congas, glockenspiel, crotales and other ethnic elements, along with electronic triggers and effects. All by itself, museum staffers say, it represents the evolution of the drum kit.

"It's a modern version of what the original conception of the drum set was, which was a multicultural, multi-percussion instrument," Kotche says.

The exhibit's interactive elements include several electronic drum kits available for hands-on test drives and a wall of foot pedals to show the evolution of that particular drum technology.

A special display near the museum entrance will feature Slingerland kits played by jazz heroes Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, commemorating their hyped and televised drum battles.

Serving as a lead-in to DRUMset is a separate exhibition that opened in May and will continue through May 2014. Drums from the Circle City traces the history of the Indianapolis-based Leedy Manufacturing Co., which ruled the drum industry in the early 20th century and earned the title "World's Largest Drum Company" at a location near Fountain Square that now houses SENSE Charter School. Leedy made the first vibraphone and developed such breakthroughs as the collapsible snare drum stand.

"It's really interesting to me to see, even back in the day when it was just acoustic drumming, how much science went into the development of drums," Sheff says. "A lot of the innovations for drum sets and percussion in general happened here in Indianapolis, which I don't think a lot of people understand."

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