Gretsch Progressive Jazz Kits: The Origin

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Some of the most sought after vintage drum kits today are the small “round badge" Gretsch jazz sets from the ’50s and ’60s. Known as the Progressive Jazz Outfit, this kit, introduced in the 1955 Gretsch catalog, included a 20" x 14" bass drum, 12" x 8" and 14" x 14" toms and a 14" x 4" snare. The sound produced by these drums suited the bebop jazz styling of the day. Gretsch had literally cornered the endorsement market in the jazz scene. Artists like Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Shelly Manne, Elvin Jones, Art Taylor, Mel Lewis, Charlie Persip and Philly Joe Jones were featured in Gretsch print ads, many towering over these diminutive kits.

Gretsch had pioneered small drum sizes after World War II. Duke Kramer was vice president of the Chicago Gretsch office. Kramer polled drummers at the New York jazz spots during one of his visits to the Gretsch home office in Brooklyn, New York. “We asked the guys what they were looking for. From those meetings we concluded smaller drums were in order. They could easily be transported from club to club in New York City." Vice President of Marketing Phil Grant credits Davey Tough with the small bass drum. “Davey came to us in the late ’40s asking us to make a 20" bass drum. The other artists saw it and wanted one, too. The 14" x 4" snare was Max Roach’s idea. It wasn’t new. Most drum companies had 4" drums during the early part of the century, but they [4" drums] fell out of favor. Max wanted to bring it back."

Initially known as the Max Roach model, the drum required special tooling. Bill Hagner, plant manager in Brooklyn recalls, “The lugs on our current models wouldn’t accommodate the 4" shells, so I had special tube lugs made utilizing the base of our snare butt paired with short tubes we machined at the plant. This was just a stopgap until we redesigned our Streamline lugs." In the 1961 Gretsch catalog, the Max Roach name was dropped and the drum was referred to as the Progressive Jazz model. An optional 18" bass drum was added to the kit. “These innovations proceed the catalogs by at least two years," notes Phil Grant. “Guys are always referring to the six-ply shells as ’60s drums because we introduced them in the ’61 catalog. Fact is, we began using six-ply shells in the mid ’50s."

Gretsch marketed their drums with the slogan “That Great Gretsch Sound," which drummers associate with Gretsch shells. Initially, Gretsch fabricated their shells like all other drum companies, with reinforcement rings on the inside top and bottom. But during World War II, Gretsch began experimenting with plied shells with the seams or joints of the plies located at spaced intervals. This gave the unit strength without the uneven interior surface that reinforcement rings created, and possibly contributed to the Gretsch sound.

Some drummers also feel it was the die-cast hoops that contributed to the Gretsch sound. “It’s true," says Charlie Persip. “The toms and bass drums sounded great, but the snare drums required work." Don Lamond felt it was the lack of reinforcement that impaired the sound of the snare drums. “I just couldn’t get a good sound from the snare drums. In fact, I got in trouble when Gretsch management would show up at my gigs. They’d be upset because I’d be playing a Rogers snare drum."

The finishes on these drums were distinctive as well. “Champagne Sparkle was far and away the most popular color," recalls Phil Grant. “We even had a promotion where we sent a bottle of champagne to the dealers who ordered these kits." The most desirable finish by collectors is Cadillac Green nitron. “I associate that finish with Birdland (famed New York jazz nightclub of the ’50s and ’60s)," Grant continues. “Morris Levy, the owner, and I were good friends. He was a bigwig with Roulette Records and bought the club in 1956. Many people think Birdland was named after Charlie ’Bird’ Parker. It’s true that Parker played there a lot, but the club got its name long before. Levy thought of the name the moment he walked into the place. The prior owner had a cage filled with birds. Seeing this, Levy said, ’Let’s call it Birdland.’ Anyway, I proposed having Gretsch nights at Birdland. Morris thought it was a good idea and went so far as having the performances recorded and released on the Roulette Birdland label (#SR 52049). I supplied the artists and had special Progressive Jazz sets made up in Cadillac Green with gold plating. Art Blakey, Charlie Persip, Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones agreed to perform, and the rest is history." [Editor’s note: Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland has been rereleased on CD (#CDP 7243 8 28641 2 7)].

These kits embody other innovations as well. “Our endorsees came to us with a lot of good ideas," notes Grant. “Louie Bellson thought of the telescoping bass drum spurs (and double bass drum kits). Jimmie Pratt proposed an internal bass drum control." Bellson remembers when the Pratt tone control was introduced. “It was a great idea," he says. “Most of us were muffling our bass drums with felt strips. Trouble is, you can’t regulate the amount of muffle. Jimmie’s idea overcame that problem." Gretsch also supplied these kits with shell mount cymbal stands, and Gretsch Floating Action bass drum pedals. “We had Camco making those pedals for us and they were exactly the same," remembers Grant. “Yet drummers would argue which was the better pedal."

The most distinctive accessories available with these kits were K. Zildjian cymbals. Gretsch had secured the American distribution rights from the Zildjian factory in Istanbul, Turkey. Many of the Gretsch drum endorsers also played K. Zildjians, contributing to their unique sound. Art Taylor summed it up best in a Modern Drummer article just before his death (“Arthur Taylor" May ’94): “I’ve been using the same [K. Zildjian] cymbals since 1959."

As for the drums themselves, Taylor said, “Even the [Gretsch Progressive Jazz] drums I use are old ... when musicians hear them they say, ’Man, those drums sound great.’ It’s not that I tune them any better than anybody else, it’s just that it’s old wood and it has another sound." Makes you want to run out and find one, doesn’t it? Good luck! This kit in excellent condition commands a price tag of $1,400 and up for one with a 20" bass drum; $2,000 and up with an 18" bass. That is, if you can find one.