Two of these photographs are new to me — they are objects of desire in eBay bidding skirmishes.  But here we can admire them without having to skimp on groceries. 

Presumably they date from the early Forties and come from the estate of John C. Brown of Baltimore, Maryland.  Brown (so the eBay bio says) was a jazz drummer into the Fifties, associated early on with Jack Teagarden; later a popular concert promoter and jazz writer.  Other photographs for sale depict Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Slick Jones, Jo Jones, Benny Carter, Eddie Duchin, Billy Eckstine . . . .  

But Sidney Catlett, short-lived and magisterial, is our subject here. 

The first photograph is a famous one, a still from one of Louis Armstrong’s Soundies, circa 1942.  The second is less familiar: Teddy Wilson’s sextet at Cafe Society, circa 1944: WIlson, Benny Morton, Emmett Berry, Ed Hall, Sid, Johnny Williams. 

But this one is the masterpiece, I think. 

As a composition, it’s not flawless; the empty space to Sidney’s left suggests it was less posed than captured.  But I imagine that the photographer was moderately hemmed in by the situation.  The setting seems a concert stage; (s)he may have been using natural light (I don’t catch the reflections one associates with a flashbulb) — thus the portrait has a candid character to it and Sidney seems caught unaware, in motion. 

Sidney’s mouth is half-open, as if he was making an emphatic sound in tune with his drums; his eyes seem half-focused, as if he was in a rhythmic trance.  But his face seems peaceful and youthful: could this be from the late Thirties? 

I know I have drum scholars in my reading audience — Hal Smith, Mike Burgevin, Kevin Dorn, Jeff Hamilton among them — what does anyone think about Sidney, the landscape, and his set? 

I love the cymbal holder on the right, Sidney’s ring, the way he is holding one brush quite firmly and the other is caught in mid-stroke, an accent off the snare. 

And I would wear that necktie myself. 

A wonderful moment in time, and we can imagine the floating, urgent sound he created: how much energy his image can still create, one hundred years after his birth.



  1. Watching footage of Big Sid is an exercise in observing physical poetry in motion. The combination of intensity and ease; the stolid bulk of his body juxtaposed with his dancing hands; the unlikely combination of concentration and pleasure on his face. A unique pleasure.

  2. That second sentence has the serious buoyancy of a Sidney four-bar break. I’m envious: wish I’d written that! Thanks, Steve! Michael

  3. Hi Michael,

    You set the bait for me didn’t you? … You rascal you! There is something special for me when I see images of BS. I always thought the top photo was from an Eddie Condon Floor Show… is there similar imagery in the Eddie Condon Scrapbook that I’ve seen? You may very well be correct connecting it to one of Pop’s b&w film shorts. It’s one I like to look at so very much I have it upstairs in my hallway and I walk past it almost daily humorously saying “Good morning (or goodnight) Sid!”

    The middle one is new to me, and what “sounds” jump out from it and into my head. Some lineup! As you know, working with two of them, Benny and Johnny graced my life and I was fortunate to see/hear Emmett, Teddy and Edmond in the 50’s and 60’s.
    Getting to the bottom photo (oh my!) it is obvious the negative was flipped in the enlarger and the print therefore is backwards. We know Sid was a righty. His hi hat is on the wrong side… and if we think he might be playing someone else’s lefty kit… the dead giveaway is his handkerchief. The bottom s/s mark indicates “same size” so it may have been used in a publication (?)- I’m almost positive the kit is “Leedy” looking at the shape of the hardware etc. and I find that “new” as we’ve seen him behind “Slingerlands” in the past.

    Yah, that IS a natty necktie- Ginny Kaminsky once saw Sid wearing a green suit!

    Tuxedo, Halley and I have been enjoying the many postings from your travels. The killers for me were the Ehud and Harry duos especially “Putting on the Ritz”- and Bob Barnard’s “It’s Been So Long.” Had not known of Bob- wonderful player… ideas!

    Thanks friend! As ever- mb

  4. I knew you would tell me something I didn’t know . . . so this means we should look at it in the mirror! Thanks, dear MB!

  5. … well I did just that, Michael… got a mirror and viewed this magnificent photograph correctly… great suggestion! Now we see his wrist watch properly on the left wrist. I’m not sure what my other drummer friends you mention above have seen of BS, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sidney’s left hand emboucher in the matched-grip as it is here and crossing over no less… probably to the floor tom which we cannot see. And notice his right hand also in match-grip but rolled palm up; a typical tympani emboucher.
    I see that as unusual, maybe giving him a very light sound on his snare… Hey! Like the gentleman says above…”dancing hands… physical poetry in motion… intensity and ease.” Beautifully said!
    Thanks again, Michael- mb

  6. Michael – the bottom photo has been reversed, I believe. Sid didn’t play left handed. It would be interesting to see the photo in the correct perspective.

  7. As Mike Burgevin and Chris Tyle said, the last photo is reversed. It looks to me as though Sid is playing BRUSHES. You can see what appears to be the ring end of a brush in his left hand (the right hand in the reversed photo) and the blur in the other hand looks more like a brush than a stick.
    I have seen the top two photos before, but the third one is new to me.
    That “Buck Rogers” type of snare drum stand would indicate that this photo was taken in the late ’40s or early ’50s…

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