The history of jazz is full of musicians, both reliable and inventive, who don’t become stars. Drummer George Wettling is one of the most neglected, although he had a recording career that lasted more than thirty years, finding him alongside Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Milt Hinton, Wild Bill Davison, Coleman Hawkins, Wingy Manone, Frank Teschmacher, Joe Thomas, Herman Chittison, Bobby Hackett and a hundred other first-rank players.
Here’s a film clip of Wettling, playing ROYAL GARDEN BLUES in an all-star Condon group (minus Eddie, who was recovering at the time), featuring Davison, Ed Hall, Cutty Cutshall, Willie the Lion Smith, and Al Hall.
The cameraman was fascinated by the front line, so we get to see Wettling only intermittently, but we certainly hear his pushing accompaniment, although his playing is anything but overbearing. Wettling’s style focused on his snare drum, and his rolls and accents, his rimshots and commentary, are drawn from the drummers he heard in Chicago and the Midwest in the Twenties: Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton. But the style is fluid, not a relentless two-beat, and Wettling continually changes his accents and volume while pushing the band along exuberantly, playing differently behind the full ensemble, behind the Lion, with Hall, propelling the end of Hall’s chorus and playing tag with the emphatic Wild Bill. Wettling doesn’t demand the listener’s attention by volume or pyrotechnics. Rather, his drums seem to say, “Listen to us.” And when we finally get a chance to focus purely on Wettling, in his brief exchanges with Al Hall, it is over too soon — but we can admire his conciseness (not an extra stroke or beat, nothing wasted or superfluous) and his swinging embrace of pure time — he never speeds up or slows down, or loses the thread of the music. And although his four-bar break is simple, it is a Wettling trademark: how much percussive variety and energy he could put into sixteen beats!
It’s odd that in jazz, where drummers become stars, Wettling didn’t get his share of attention and adulation. Musicians knew him and hired him — Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, Muggsy Spanier, Jimmy McPartland, Miff Mole, Billy Butterfield, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and he was a first-call studio and recording drummer. But Wettling didn’t want to lead bands; I sense that he was happy to let someone else handle the audiences, the payroll, the clubowner: he wanted to play, and play he did. I also suspect that being associated for so long with Eddie Condon, someone with a strong personality, made have put Wettling in the shadows . . . although Condon said once that all he needed for a romping band was Wettling. And the magnificent drumming that lifts Berigan’s Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is Wettling’s; hear him, as well, on perhaps seventy-five percent of the Commodore Records classics.
But he’s not well-known these days, which is a pity. Hear him on the Commodores, on the Doctor Jazz broadcasts, on the Condon Town Hall concerts, on the magnificent Fifties dates Condon did for Columbia. Put all your preconceptions about formulaic “Dixieland drumming” aside and listen to Wettling — fluid, energetic, responsive, fully engaged and lively.
Here’s that rare thing — three minutes of Wettling solo in the middle Fifties, titled IT AIN’T THE HUMIDITY (IT’S THE BEAT). No fireworks, no crashing “technique.” Timeless and hot, the drums singing their own melodies.
Should you ever encounter Hal Smith, Kevin Dorn, Jeff Hamilton, Chris Tyle, or Nick Ward — ask them, “What do you think of George Wettling?” And stand back!
I’ve been listening to Wettling for forty years now — he’s on many of my favorite records! But what made me write this post was a little anecdote I just heard. A musician I know, now in his seventies, told me that his older brother had been in the audience for Louis Armstrong’s 1947 Town Hall concert, where the drummers were Sidney Catlett and Wettling. When it was time for Wettling to play, the musician’s brother (seated in the balcony) saw Catlett come upstairs and take a seat — the better to delight in what Wettling was doing and how beautiful it sounded in the hall.
If it was good enough for Sidney Catlett and Eddie Condon, it should be good enough for all of us!