Sunday, June 10, 2018

Big Sid Catlett - A Musical Drummer

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


Sidney Catlett was a mystery to me when I was a kid. Musicians spoke reverently of the man. And I just couldn't understand what motivated such intense devotion. I had been fascinated by Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Jo Jones—all wonderful players—for many of the wrong reasons.

Fed on flash, immersed in technique, I felt "chops" were everything, looking good the key, and speed the ultimate.

Though Catlett was a technician and a showman, a great drummer in every way, he didn't have the kind of image that made my pulse race. I didn't fully realize the value of musicality; at least I failed to give it primary emphasis. My obsession was execution. For the most part, the charm, power, the artistry of "Big Sid" eluded me.

I sensed how well he played on recordings and was particularly impressed with his work with Coleman Hawkins on Keynote — the All-American four sides — and with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on Musicraft. But the few Catlett performances I attended — with the Louis Armstrong big band in New York theaters, and with a variety of small groups on 52nd Street—failed to light a fire in me. It's hard to believe. Catlett played well and with individuality; his time was rock firm; he swung and had stage presence. Yet I failed to get the message. I didn't really understand what made him so special until later.

Only after his death did Big Sid emerge as a hero to me. Finally it became clear what all the comment was about—how deftly he communicated with and supported other musicians, how well he soloed, how he instinctively understood audiences. Listening to his recordings, I am repeatedly impressed with the range of his work and the depth of his capacities. There is art and a foundation of feeling in his work. It is bright and distinct and reaches out, even without the visual dimension that was so crucial to his performances.

Unfortunately, because the dawn was so late in coming in my case, I am without significant personal memories of Big Sid. But luckily, there are Catlett's friends and musical colleagues, his fans and observant writers all with keen recall of this visionary drummer. They tell his story from a number of vantage points, thus affording us a wide-ranging and revealing view of Catlett.
- Burt Koral, Drummin Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz

Especially in the case of drummers, if you want to know how good they are, ask other musicians. If they say, “he’s a good drummer,” they’ve told you something, but if they say, “he’s a good musician,” then, they’ve told you a lot more.

Drummers can be a very disruptive force in Jazz. They can push the music in a direction that the other musicians in a group do not necessarily want it to go.

Sensitivity is not always a byword when it comes to Jazz drummers.

Connie Kay’s light touch swung the Modern Jazz Quartet with a quiet assurance and a riveting beat and he was always a favorite with lyrical players who emphasized the beauty in melodies such as alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

But Philly Joe Jones was such a powerful and pervasive force on drums that he even made lyrical players like pianist Bill Evans play more aggressively.

I can very much relate to Burt Korall’s initial impressions of Big Sid Catlett because I, too, wondered what the big deal was about this legendary Jazz drummer when I first heard him on records.

I had a similar reaction to Davy Tough, Papa Jo Jones, Kenny Clarke, Denzil Best, Shadow Wilson, J.C. Heard and myriad other drummers who played the music with a pulse that was felt and not heard and who emphasized musicality over dazzling percussion technique.

Where was the flash? Where was the finger-bustin’ display of chops? When do the fireworks start?

These guys were not technical wizards on the drums, instead, they played music.

It’s amazing that when I learned more restraint as a drummer I worked a lot more in a variety of settings.

As Burt Korall comments in his essay on Jazz Drumming in The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner, ed.: "Sid Catlett, a completely engaging artist, had an ageless quality to his drumming that erased the line separating then and now. He could play with anyone, ranging from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Drummers who changed the course of drumming in the 1940s to accommodate bebop looked to Catlett and, of course, Jo Jones. Both had outlined a more flexible manner of playing, with cymbals and rhythmic counterpoint on the snare and bass drum more of a factor, particularly as the tempos rose."

I guess the old adage - “If you can’t beat ‘em, join em’” - applies [pun intended].

More memories of Sid Catlett are drawn from an earlier four-part feature about Jack Tracy - Editor of Down Beat, Jazz record Producer, Jazz author, writer and critic
“I'd like to tell you a little about Big Sid Catlett, who in early 1951 was the feature attraction at Chicago's prime Dixieland establishment, Jazz Ltd.

An Easter concert at the Civic Opera House that was held under the aegis of local disc jockey Al Benson featured various acts, some of which were jazz: I remember only Bud Powell, whose drummer was Max Roach. I was attending with my wife, and at intermission we went backstage to visit. When we got there it was almost eerily silent, with few people in sight.
Directly to our left we saw perhaps a dozen people gathered silently around a stretcher on the floor. There was a body on it covered with a gray blanket. All that could be seen of the person was a pair of shiny, yellowish shoes sticking out from under the blanket. I asked what had happened and a man replied, "It's Big Sid."
There was nothing to say. I saw Max there, smoking a cigarette and looking stricken. Behind us were two young men, not much beyond boyhood, who were whispering. Then one of them said, "I wish I could steal those shoes." My wife and I just looked at each other.
Not much later an ambulance arrived and Sid was gone.
An almost unbelievable result of my presence backstage that night came just a few years ago, more than 50 years after the concert. As a contributor to an online jazz group I happened to relate the details of that night in a thread I wrote about Big Sid. I got a return response from one of the members, who said, "Jack, you may not believe this, but I was the kid who wanted those shoes."
I am still amazed at that coincidence. I have since met the young guy in person; he's Gordon Rairdin, now an elderly and longtime contributor to the Jazz West Coast online group, and we still shake our heads when we talk about that occasion.
As for Sid at Jazz Ltd., I can recall only his majestic appearance on that tiny bandstand. He sat at the drums barely seeming to move as he played absolutely impeccably, and he looked like a monarch sitting there. Occasionally he might flip a stick in the air, catch it and continue to play, never missing a beat or the stick. It was a low ceiling, maybe a foot or two above his head, but that flipped stick never touched it. Sid never looked like he was showboating, but it just seemed to be part of his supreme skill and his enjoyment in what he was doing. I found it almost impossible to take my eyes off him.
He was at Jazz Ltd for several weeks, and I got to hear him maybe a half-dozen times. I wish it had been more.”

On the following video, you can listen to Big Sid on Sunnyside of the Street from tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins Complete Keystone Recordings on which both are featured along with alto saxophonist Tab Smith, tenor saxophonist Don Byas, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, Johnny Guarnieri on piano and Al Lucas on bass.

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