Sidney Catlett, “Big Sid” Catlett, 1910-1951, the quintessential jazz drummer, requires some prologue.
One way is the anecdote Ruby Braff told Loren Schoenberg: Ruby and Louis Armstrong were sitting together, listening, as Louis liked to do, to his own records, the big-band Deccas of 1939-41. Catlett propelled that band, sparked the soloists, and kept everyone in the right direction. Louis turned to Ruby and said, happily, “There’s that Catlett again! Looks like he was on every swinging record I ever made.”
I first came to jazz through two Louis Armstrong records — sessions pairing him with Gordon Jenkins, an unlikely collaboration which worked: Jenkins’s whooshing strings and capital-S sincere vocal backgrounds made Louis stand out with passionate sharpness. The second was Town Hall Concert Plus, which presented him in 1947 with Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Dick Cary, Peanuts Hucko, Bob Haggart, and George Wettling trading places with Sidney Catlett. My copy of that long-playing record (how very archaic do those words now seem!) has two tracks worn dull gray through repeated playings: Teagarden’s feature on “St. James Infirmary” and Louis’s exultant “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin'” was notable not only for Louis’s pleasure in the song, complete with the quotation from Rhapsody in Blue he had first added when the Gershwin and Waller compositions were new. Bobby Hackett’s solo was a twining, ascending marvel. But this performance featured the most inspiring drumming I had ever heard, perhaps will ever hear.
The best jazz drummers often play alongside the band, their timbres, patterns, and accents offering simultaneous commentary.
Catlett’s playing suggested a giant hand supporting the band, his sound coming from within it, presenting the players to the light. When a soloist played something memorable, he would seem to comment approvingly with a titanic rimshot or bass drum accent, a percussive “Hear that?” “Yes!” “Wow!” His playing was a joyous, encouraging after-voice. He was impossible to ignore but never intrusive. His great champion, the late Whitney Balliett, wrote that Catlett’s playing was both surprising and inevitable: a definition of great art.
Catlett’s work glows, no matter what the musical context. Although he died young, he was much in demand, and he left behind recordings with everyone — the Ellington band, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Lips Page, Eddie Condon, Sidney Bechet, Don Byas, Charlie Shavers, Hank Jones, Wild Bill Davison, Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton. A generous, witty accompanist, he applauds his fellow player; when his solo comes, he says everything worth saying in eight bars.
These words are the result of listening, once again, to a performance re-issued on the new five-disc Mosaic set, The Complete Lionel Hampton Victor Sessions 1937-1941 (Mosaic MD5-238). Catlett appears on one session only, but is surrounded by wonderfully idiosyncratic giants: Red Allen, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone, Earl Bostic, alto sax; Clyde Hart, piano; Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Artie Bernstein, bass; Hampton, vibraphone and vocal.
Our text for today (Disc III, Track 17) is “Haven’t Named It Yet,” obviously the amused answer to the obligatory question coming at the end of the take from the glass recording booth. A simple composition, its melody line is only a few repeated notes — a nearly skeletal line, allowing soloists space to improvise on the chords. It has its own irrepressible momentum: in seconds, this band is moving in a silky, intense way. They begin at a level of enthusiasm and power most bands never reach. Some of this is ascribable to Hampton, whose drive never seemed to falter, even when the material he chose later in life was simple to the point of coarseness. Charlie Christian’s electrified comping pushes the ensemble; Artie Bernstein, never celebrated, has a strong, flexible beat.
Small heroic creations unfold in less than three minutes: the time constraints of a 78 rpm could wonderfully concentrate a soloist’s thoughts. And this record relies neatly on players splitting thirty-two bar AABA choruses, not in the usual sixteen-bar chunks, but players taking one another’s “bridge,” so that Charlie Christian has the first sixteen bars, Red Allen (approaching almost weirdly from an unexpected angle) takes his eight-bar interlude, than Christian returns to finish the chorus. Since the “bridge” usually has more rapidly-changing harmony, the listener is always pleasantly unsettled: who’s next?
In the first ensemble chorus, Catlett pushes everyone forward with rimshots and cymbal splashes: hearing them for the first time, one admires their rightness, their force. Listening a second time, it is almost impossible to say “There!” a milisecond before one of his accents and get it right: he is surprising, elusive, and fitting. Backing a busy soloist, he doesn’t compete for our attention but plays simply; introducing a soloist for his chorus (Higginbotham), he delivers an annunciatory accent. Behind Hampton, he shifts to hi-hat playing of the sort introduced and made a common language by Henderson master Walter Johnson and later made a trademark by Jo Jones. Catlett’s accents and cymbals are powerfully audible — I have no doubt that Hampton encouraged him to play forcefully. He was a tall, broad man, and his sound is three-dimensionally spacious — at points one imagines him seated at a larger than life drum kit, its hi-hat five feet tall and two feet wide — but a listener never wants him to be quiet so that we can enjoy the real thing that is going on. Catlett ISthe real thing.
All but a very few drummers, playing at this volume, would be insufferable — he illuminates and propels.
Catlett can be seen on several intermittently-satisfying clips on YouTube (segments from Gjon Mili’s jazz abstraction, Jammin’ the Blues, appearances with Louis Armstrong on several 1941-2 “Soundies,” and excerpts from two dubious late-Forties films whose titles suggest their nature: Boy! What A Girl and Sepia Cinderella (ouch). None of these filmed appearances convey as much as they should, because Catlett and his fellow players are miming, on-screen, to pre-recorded tracks, which adds artificiality to playing by drummers and singers. But at least he was captured, however imperfectly, on film.
And the Mosaic set is, as always, as close to bliss as recordings get. (For details, visit www.mosaicrecords.com.) Yes, there is occasionally too much Ziggy Elman or Cozy Cole; Hampton’s piano gyrations grow tiresome, but the Victors, taken one at a time, are nearly as irreplaceable as the Billie Holiday – Teddy Wilson Brunswicks and Vocalions, which should be praise enough for anyone. Beautifully remastered and documented, as always.
I will have more to say about Sidney Catlett: for the moment, I’m going to play “Haven’t Named It Yet” again.