Sunday, August 5, 2018

My Man George, Wettling ... that is: A Tribute [From the Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"George Wettling had great enthusiasm for life and for music. And, undoubtedly, he was the most important drummer in the Chicago style of jazz."

"A good band is based on good drums and good piano. Give me a good piano and George Wettling and I'll give you a good band any

“George Wettling had his own way of doing things. But his roots were quite apparent. Like a number of his contemporaries, he was genuinely inspired by the music of the New Orleans jazz pioneers. His love for jazz in general — the New Orleans style and its Chicago offshoot in particular — was so intense that he built a life around them. Even in his last days, the fire burned brightly. ‘Some guys get old and tired and get out of Jazz,’ he noted. ‘I'll never do that. Hell, man, Jazz's been my whole life.’

His favorite drummers were Baby Dodds, the classically inventive New Orleanian who also influenced Gene Krupa and Dave Tough; Zutty Singleton, another marvelous New Orleans drummer; and others, including Harlem's George Stafford, Benny Washington (who played with Earl Hines), Tubby Hall, Ben Pollack, Chick Webb, and Krupa. But Dodds was his man; you could hear it in his playing.
Wettling began in the manner of most drummers — he heard the drums and was captivated. ...

Wettling had a fine touch, ample technique, and a distinctive sound on the snare drum. He was a good listener and responded inventively to ensembles and solos. He would change the background behind each soloist, adapting, giving and taking, building, serving as the time center and as another interesting voice in the ensemble. …

Because he was a fine reader of music, a very flexible drummer, and an excellent tympanist, Wettling held a variety of jobs, including several in radio and TV. For approximately ten years, 1943-1952, he was a staff man at ABC Radio. But he devoted the major portion of his time to bringing fire and intensity to small bands, most of which were traditional.”
-BURT KORALL, Drummin’Men

“De même que Dave Tough était un amoureux de la littérature, George, lui, se passionnera pour la peinture - d'où sa grande ouverture d'esprit. Il est, en effet, très important pour un artiste de pratiquer d'autres modes d'expression que le sien afin d'élargir le champ de ses connaissances et d'affiner sa sensibilité. Cette culture à maintes facettes est nécessaire pour alimenter et approfondir l'art dans lequel on est spécialisé.

“As Dave Tough was a lover of literature, George Wettling was enthralled with painting - hence his open mind. It is indeed very important for an artist to practice other forms of expression than his own in order to expand the scope of his knowledge and sharpen his sensitivity. This culture of many facets [i.e.: a broad background in arts and letters] is required to power and deepen the art in which one specializes.”
- Georges Paczynski, Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz

I owe drummer George Wettling [1907-1968] a huge debt of gratitude, which may sound like an odd compliment from someone who was essentially steeped in modern Jazz drumming.

But if it hadn’t been for George’s tutelage, which I came by indirectly through countless hours of listening to his classic Jazz recordings, I would have missed out on one of the happiest gigs of my life.

George was one of the young white Chicagoans [many of whom attended Austin High School on Chicago’s West Side] who fell in love with Jazz as a result of hearing King Oliver's band (with Louis Armstrong on second cornet) at the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago in the early 1920s. Oliver's drummer, Baby Dodds, made a particular and lasting impression upon Wettling.

Wettling went on to work with the big bands of Artie Shaw, Bunny Berigan, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, and even Harpo Marx: but he was at his best on (and will be best remembered for) his work in small 'hot' bands led by Eddie Condon, Muggsy Spanier, and himself. In these small bands, Wettling was able to demonstrate the arts of dynamics and responding to a particular soloist that he had learned from Baby Dodds.

Wettling was a member of some of Condon's classic line-ups, which included, among others, Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Edmond Hall, Peanuts Hucko, Pee Wee Russell, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder, Ralph Sutton, and Walter Page.

Listening to George's playing, and to other “Chicago-style” drummers like Gene Krupa and Dave Tough, I realized that what they were doing was essentially phrasing 2-beat New Orleans or Dixieland Jazz with the 4/4 time feeling that came of age in the Swing Era. The music was so alive and I just really enjoyed everything about it.

So when the opportunity arose to join a Traditional Jazz Band at a club in Glendale, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles, I jumped at it.

As Grover Sales explains in his seminal Jazz: America’s Classical Music, provides the historical context for the evolution of Traditional Jazz:

“Five years before the arrival of bebop, a New Orleans revival was afoot, fueled by the mounting resentment of purist white critics and fans against the heretical sophistication of Ellington, Tatum, Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, and similar modernists who they believed had tainted the purity of jazz by injecting European antibodies into what had been an incorruptible native folk art. Since history assures us that jazz from its earliest beginnings was a mixture of every cultural transplant to the New World, European as well as African, such notions seem quaint today. But these notions were cherished as articles of faith by keepers of the flame like French critic Hugues Panassie, who insisted that bebop was "degenerate noise" and a short lived fad that lay wholly outside the "true" jazz tradition. This position found its fullest expression in The Heart of Jazz, by William L. Grossman and Jack W. Farrell:

Much of Dizzy Gillespie's bop ... is characterized by a nonsensicality of content, an end result Armstrong never intended but which came from an almost inevitable consequence of the departure . . . from traditional values and meanings. Ellington . . . might help find a way to perpetuate the eternal values in New Orleans jazz while expanding the idiom, but his musical imagination turns to the theatrical. He is, indeed a sort of jazz Wagner. He has the same sort of dramatic feelings about Negroes that Wagner had about Germans.

The New Orleans revival got off to a modest start in 1940 when collector Heywood Hale Broun issued recordings of veteran New Orleans blacks in quavering versions of blues and parade music of their youth around the turn of the century. The following year saw the beginning of white revival bands in San Francisco, when Lu Watters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band copied the instrumentation, the tunes, and as far as they were able, the style of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band recordings made twenty years earlier. By the time bebop was in full bloom dozens of white revival bands were thriving throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and in England where a fever for "trad" (traditional) was rampant among the youth, including some of the founders-to-be of British rock.

The revival brought elderly blacks out of retirement—Bunk Johnson, George Lewis—and provided work for young whites — Turk Murphy, Lu Watters, and England's Chris Barber. It also forced modernists like Earl Hines, Jack Teagarden, and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell reluctantly into the dixieland camp during a doctrinaire era that split the jazz world into two warring factions. It is significant that, without a single exception, no young blacks could be found participating in the revival movement either as players or as listeners. They would as soon be seen chomping a watermelon on the front steps of city hall as partaking in what they scorned as "old-time slave, Uncle Tom, minstrel-man jive." Tempers ran high as lifelong friends and colleagues Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay stopped speaking because of bebop. Fistfights broke out in Parisian cabarets where Dizzy Gillespie performed, punctuated with cries of, "You dare to call this music!" The jazz press abounded with hate-ridden jeremiads about the "modernist degenerates of bebop" and the "moldy-fig reactionary revivalists," reminiscent of the doctrinal fury of sixteenth century Catholics and Protestants.

In retrospect, the revival produced foolish rhetoric but much also of lasting value, as did the ragtime revival three decades later; it rescued from obscurity a long-neglected style of collective improvisation and an imposing repertoire of excellent tunes. The best of these revival bands, Wilbur de Paris's New New Orleans Jazz (Atlantic 1219), exudes a vitality that bears repeated hearings today, but the same cannot be said for most revival players venerated to sainthood by their white idolaters, some of whom launched a serious campaign to run Bunk Johnson for the presidency. What seems most remarkable about the revival movement is the emotional heat and religious fervor it unloosed—and why.”

I didn’t know anything about any of these Camps or Schools or Schisms, all I knew was that for three nights every week from 9:00 PM until 2:00 AM, I got to play classic New Orleans tunes like That’s A Plenty, Muscrat Ramble, St. James Infirmary and some later adaptations of this style in tunes like China Boy, Hindustan, and Wolverine Blues in a hot Chicago-style or Traditional or whatever Jazz band made up of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, bass and drums [aka Me!] and it was a blast.

At first I was greeted with some hesitation by the older guys mainly along the lines of “He’s too young to know much about this music;” He’s probably a Bebopper;” “He doesn’t know any of the tunes.”

But thanks to George Wettling, I more than held my own.

With few extended solos, most of the tunes lasted only 3-4 minutes so that meant that we played a bunch of songs each set, sometimes as many as 15 a set totaling around 60 a night. I had a ball. Loved every minute of it.

My chops loved it, too; as my hands got stronger, my wrists were able to relax thus increasing my speed and power.

I added some heat and sizzle to the the usual four-bar drum breaks or “kickers” that help serve as tags to take most tunes out, but I made sure that I kept my bass drum doing four-beats to the bar so that the “old timers” could count when to come back in.[Grins].

And I owe it all to George Wettling.

Mention his name today and all you get are blank stares; very few drummers have ever heard this style of Jazz drumming. But in fairness, when they are introduced to it they light up like the proverbial Christmas tree and make comments like: “Listen to what that Dude is doing with accents off a press roll;” “His time is so bouncy - he makes the music come alive!;” “What a snap and pop he brings to his back beats.”

Here’s more about George from Richard M. Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.

“George Wettling had been (with Tough and Krupa) part of the original Chicago circle and, like them, spent most of the '30s playing in big bands. His were the brushes backing Bunny Berigan's vocal on the best-selling "I Can't Get Started," his the steady but non-intrusive beat that lifted the bands of Artie Shaw, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, and others. A well-schooled musician, he'd worked regularly in radio and commercial recording studios.

But Wettling seemed happiest by far in the small, unfettered jam groups which were Eddie Condon's specialty. Overshadowed to some degree by Krupa's flamboyance and Tough's sheer brilliance, Wettling more than matched them in his ability to unify and steer a rhythm section. Like Krupa, he'd learned by listening to Baby Dodds, Ben Pollack, and other pioneers and had retained the flavor, the ability to blend into an ensemble. Wettling's small-group work, with Condon and countless others, is remarkably subtle in its sense of mood and pace, its control of a finely calibrated sense of abandon. In Burt Korall's authoritative words:

"His time was firm; it bubbled and danced. His breaks had an inner life and logic. His solos were well-crafted bursts of energy. Wettling had a fine touch, ample technique, and a distinctive sound on the snare drum. He was a good listener and responded inventively to ensembles and solos. He would change the background behind each soloist, adapting, giving and taking, building, serving as a time center and as another interesting voice in the ensemble.”

His propulsive drumming enlivens hundreds, even thousands, of records, and those with Condon are among the best. It's Wettling's accented press roll, a Baby Dodds legacy, that carries Bud Freeman to the very edge of anarchy on the Commodore "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," Wettling's drive that sends the normally demure Bobby Hackett careering through the final ensemble of the uptempo blues "Carnegie Jump," Wettling's and Jess Stacy's quiet prodding that gets Pee Wee Russell rocking happily on "Rose of Washington Square."

Wettling was a master — some would contend the master — of that overused and frequently misunderstood hallmark of so many "dixieland" performances: the four-bar end-of-performance drum break. Following a final tutti, especially at faster tempos, it's a kind of eight-bar melody reprise, the drummer taking the first four bars and the band returning, all pistons firing, to finish out the cadence. In some bands it becomes a sixteen-bar reprise, drummer and ensemble taking eight apiece.

Done right, it functions as both tension release and "kicker" in the journalistic sense: the punchy last line that leaves the reader's senses sharpened, tingling. Some drummers — Cliff Leeman, Nick Fatool, Ray McKinley — have understood this and done it with masterly finesse. Depending on the player, that means either a display of technique, a witty or imaginative "four" in the bebop sense, or even (Fatool is outstanding at this) a melodic paraphrase.

But in George Wettling's hands this modest device became a small-scale work of art. Again and again he'd seem to hurtle out of an ensemble and into the break with a force, an irresistible momentum, that swept the band right along with it. There was no sense of an ensemble stopping for the drummer to do some little trick before the horns returned: a Wettling break was part of the action—in a way it was the action.

Examples, a few among dozens: "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" (from Brother Matthew, ABC-Paramount), "I've Found a New Baby" (Eddie Condon's Treasury of Jazz, Columbia), "Runnin' Wild" (Dixieland in Hi-Fi, Columbia /Harmony)—which also offers a nimble full-chorus Wettling solo; "China Boy" (The Roaring Twenties, Columbia).

Perhaps the definitive example of Wettling's ability to energize a band is on a ten-inch LP issued by Columbia in 1951 under his own name. It's a Condon unit, of course, with "Wild Bill" Davison, Edmond Hall, and other regulars. Each of the eight titles works steadily, inexorably, to a climax of drive and almost demonic energy. Wettling's four-bar break at the end of a swaggering "Memphis Blues" employs a kettledrum to great and humorous effect. "Collier's Clambake" (basically the chord sequence of "St. James Infirmary" at a medium-bright tempo) starts at a high intensity level, Davison punching out the kind of virile, aggressive lead that earned him his nickname. Even by the standards of Condon groups, "After You've Gone" is extraordinary. Like "Clambake," it opens hot: "They sound as if they've been playing the number for five minutes, heating up to this pitch, before turning on the microphones," pianist Dick Hyman has remarked. That's largely Wettling's doing. He hits it hard and keeps cranking things up, through solos by Sullivan, Hall, and trombonist Jimmy Archey (Condon's guitar strong and audible behind them), to a stomping final ensemble.

This is no random collection of seven men playing together: it's a bond, a team, component parts fused into a splendid performance engine fueled by Wettling and cornetist Davison; bars 13-16, for example, are a furious ensemble explosion, Davison tearing up to his high E-sharp and cascading down over four bars, to be deftly caught by Wettling's bass drum "thwack" on the last beat of bar 16.

(Among Wettling's fans was the great American abstract painter Stuart Davis, whose brand of modernism was as stubbornly individualistic as the styles of the jazzmen he liked to hear. The two men struck up a friendship, and before long the drummer, a gifted amateur painter, had become a Davis student. By 1950 he'd mastered a style which, though strongly influenced by his teacher, was skilled and vigorous on its own, winning him several well-received exhibitions _ in the '50s. Adorning the Columbia album cover was a photograph of the band, superimposed on a Wettling painting representing the same scene. It's good work, strongly in the spirit of such jazz-influenced Davis canvases as "The Mellow Pad," 'Rapt at Rappaport's," and "Something on the Eight Ball," from the same period. Though Pee Wee Russell's paintings later attracted more publicity, it is Wettling who is the superior craftsman.)


  1. Are there any good George Wettling discographies available online? I haven't been able to find any. :-(

  2. Tom Lord's Jazz Discography probably has a listing of all the recording sessions that George appeared on both as a leader and as a sideman.


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