Tag Archives: Big Sid Catlett

BIG SID SPEAKS, or KNOW YOUR WORTH

An excerpt from HOT MAN: THE LIFE OF ART HODES (by Art and Chadwick Hansen, University of Illinois Press, 1992).  The subject is ostensibly the Chicago jazz club, Jazz Ltd., run by Bill and Ruth Reinhardt, but I think you’ll agree it opens up to greater vistas:

Someone once asked Big Sid [Catlett] why he would play a joint like Jazz Ltd., and Sid promptly answered, “It’s not a joint.  When Big Sid plays there it’s the spot in town.”

I know many people who undervalue themselves; their mental soundtrack is “Oh, I’m so incompetent,” and their opposite numbers, who inflate themselves out of proportion to the evidence.  Sidney Catlett knew who he was and what he did, and wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it: neither false modesty or immodesty, a lesson for all, even those who don’t play drums.

LOUIS, ALL-STARS, AND FRIENDS (1947-8)

From eBay!

Louis (in a lovely white suit, playing softly), is flanked on the couch by an unknown to his right, Earl Hines (with glasses) to his left.  Behind the coffee table, standing, are Arvell Shaw and Velma Middleton.  Seated at the table, eyes on Louis, is Barney Bigard.  At the back of the picture is Sidney Catlett, wearing a wildly beautiful necktie; to his left, smiling broadly and with a trombone, is one Jack Teagarden.  The man slightly behind Jackson looks familiar, but his name eludes me.  The other people in the photo: fans or fellow entertainers?  Is it someone’s living room or a hotel room?  Will we ever know?

This seems to me like a store — rather than someone’s living room?  From the left, on a different day and time (Louis has on a dark suit), there’s Jack, his head whimsically tilted, Louis, the tantalizing gentleman again [why do I think I’ve seen him in a Soundie?], Velma, someone who looks like a prizefighter, Arvell, and Barney . . . . the latter dressed to take his leave.

Research!  Research?  (The eBay seller is sure that Ethel Waters is in the first photograph, which is amusing.)

GONE, GONE, GONE

These beautiful sad pictures were taken by the jazz scholar and drummer Sue Fischer.

And they remind us of the fragility of life — these two young men who gave us so much before death took them.  Tesch’s grave is not even close to where his family is buried; Don Murray is buried with his.

And then there’s the gravestone of the man I’ve spent the last fifty years admiring, even when I didn’t know his name:

Sue didn’t take that picture and tells me that the cemetery is closed to visitors because of some illegal activities that had taken place — which makes me sad, because I had hoped at one point to make a holy pilgrimage to this site.  I hope I will get to do so in this lifetime.

(As a digression: the Beloved, hearing me talk about Sidney for yet another time, asked me, “Why is he so important — to you or to jazz?”  I thought about it for a minute, and said, “He was generous: he made everyone around him sound better.  He was himself: you knew his sound as soon as he started.  He lifted everyone up.  He was adaptable.  Louis loved him.  And he had an enthusiastic life where he didn’t waste a moment — as well, he had a beautiful death.  To die telling a joke among friends seems ideal.”)

These pieces of carved stone make me mournful.  But perhaps they should remind us both that we are all fragile and finite yet the music we make lives on.   Tesch, Don, and Sidney left us so many uplifting beauties that — as long as we remember them with love, as long as we play their records and say, “Wow, that Teschemacher!” or “How beautiful Don Murray sounds — I hear Goodman idolized him fiercely,” or, “Did you hear what Sidney just did behind Lester?  Did you HEAR it?” then these musicians — only theoretically dead — will never vanish.  Offering such loving remembrance of the dead may be scant tribute, but our love reverberates, and the dead, I believe, know.

MOURN THE DEAD, CELEBRATE THE LIVING: CLICK HERE!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

ARE YOU COMING APART?

Feeling fragile?  In bits?  Falling to pieces?  Need to be glued back together?

Sidney Catlett once again has the answer — revealed in this 1945 advertisement:

I think this is the only color photograph of Sidney that I’ve ever seen, and it’s a glorious montage.  Before I saw this ad, I wouldn’t have gotten all that excited about plastics, adhesives, and resins — now I can’t get enough!

Courtesy of eBay, of course!

THE MUSICIANS GIVE US SO MUCH: CLICK HERE!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

SIDNEY AND SIDNEY, 1941

And Willie and Charlie, Everett and Wellman.

All will be revealed.

Look at the record label, and listen!

WHY WAIT FOR THE LAST EIGHT BARS?  CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

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HIS FATHER’S VOICE

Even if you don’t know Sidney Catlett (1910-1951, possibly the greatest percussionist in jazz) and his living son — a famous basketball player — you owe it to yourself to read this very touching article about son and father finding one another in ways that transcend the ordinary. 

Here are two links to the Washington Post article — and jazz fans will find the name of the author a special bonus.  I’m going to go through my day hearing in my head the sound of Spencer Clark (bass saxophone) in a trio with Erroll Garner and Sidney. 

Imagine what it feels like to hear your father’s voice for the first time when you are in your fifties:

And Sidney’s musical voice still reverberates for the rest of us:

http://bit.ly/eROa0t

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/40429/what-brought-big-sid-and-little-sid-catlett-together/

WHAT WOULD BIG SID DO?  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS.

https://.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQASwww

YOUNG MISTER CATLETT, 1928

Sidney Catlett, not yet nineteen, recording in Chicago with Albert Wynn, trombone; Punch Miller, trumpet; Lester Boone, reeds; Alex Hill or William Barbee, piano; Charlie Jackson, banjo: SHE’S CRYING FOR ME, October 1928.

Even given the limited drum kit he could have brought into the studios, two of Sidney’s trademarks are delightfully audible. 

The first is his sonic variety: every interlude in this recording, every soloist, is given a different percussive embrace.  Sidney never stays on one piece of equipment or produces one sound too long; we (and the musicians) never feel an unrelenting monotony.  And his variety never seems artificial, as if he’d laid it all out in advance. 

The other trademark is his flexible, springy beat — not accelerating, but urging everyone on, a kind of exuberant “Follow me!” 

And they did.  And we do.

“BEAUTY IS TRUTH,” SAY THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN

A friend who is new to the music gently asked me by email, “Hey, Michael, what’s all the fuss you’re making about this Sidney Catlett?”  And it’s a valid question deserving an answer.  But the best way to answer it is not through words, but through the experience.  Thanks to “cdbpdx” on YouTube, here’s a 1943 recording of ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall’s Blue Note Jazzmen.  Let their names never be erased: Sidney deParis, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Arthur Shirley, Israel Crosby, Sidney Catlett.  If you’d want to understand what Sidney is doing — playfully and with the utmost art — listen to the little conversations he has with the ensemble (both as part of it and joyously commenting on the good time everyone’s having) urging, encouraging, applauding — especially alongside the solos of deParis and Vic. 

I don’t mean to give my readers homework, but someday soon, listen to this recording twice with all your attention: once in its glorious complete beauty, then for Sidney Catlett himself.  Jubilation indeed.  And everyone on this recording is dead, but like Keats’s urn, they transcend mere mortality: this music is alive!

“I WANT! I WANT!” (Part Two)

From Fernando de la Riestra (translated by Samantha Avila):

Why have so many records?

There is no reason even for necessity or for accumulation.  Simply said, I get a great amount of tranquility in knowing that they will grow old beside me.  The tranquility that comes with the knowledge of the absolutely precious existence of the music and being able to enjoy it.  There are occasions when I enjoy putting the disc in the player and I profoundly enjoy the prolonged sounds of the music, just the way it was originally presented to us.  The amount of music makes it easy to finding the rhythm that’s just right.  Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or even next week, that may the state that coincides with the determined work of Sonny Rollins, and it is a great thing to have Sonny in my home to immerse myself in his music.  But sometimes the rhythm is very fast and other times it’s irritatingly slow.  But just to know that it’s there at anyone’s disposition, as a stimulus to ultimate knowledge — as well as the guarantee of a simple and sure life full of momentum.  I have many records and CDs but I never speculate about the possibility of being able to listen to every single one of them all the time, and I don’t speculate about the absurd question whether there will be time to listen to all of them. 

From KING LEAR:  “”O reason not the need!  Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous.  Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”

From “Willie The Weeper” (thanks to Mike Durham):  “Now tell me, what would you do? / If you could have all your dreams come true?  / There’s something tells me, you’d lock the door, / Like Willie the Weeper, you’d cry for more.”   

Three very different perspectives, no? 

Fernando de la Riestra speaks of the possibility for pleasure the sprawling amplitude of music can give us, and suggests we live in these moments of gratification and amplitude without needlessly gnawing on the darker questions: “Will I live to hear all of this?  Am I greedy?  Do I deserve to have all this?”

And since some of our musical idols are now dead, having as much of their music around us is a way to make it feel as if they never died: fantasy and fancy, but a way to stop our grief at their absence.  In my ears, Louis is alive . . .  But I am a Lapsed or an Enlightened Completist who no longer strains to have every note his idols ever recorded.  I did that often in my youth and found it frustrating: I did not have the resources to buy or trade for every Ben Webster recording (for example) and some of them were less than perfect . . . with apologies to Ben, of course.

Lear (early on in his painful path to seeing clearly) says to his hard-hearted daughters that the difference between people and animals is that we can allow ourselves more than bare subsistence. 

The anonymous lyricist of “Willie the Weeper” suggests that it is human nature to want and want more — although in the interests of accuracy, I must point out that Lear has yet to realize that a complete human being (king or not) is not defined by the number of knights in his entourage, but by how deeply and well he loves and forgives and receives the loving forgiveness of others. 

And Willie, having a wonderful time in his dreams, is driven by opium — so he might not speak for us all.

I am returning to this topic because the enthusiasm of the comments suggested to me that these were serious questions that went deep.  And I wanted to offer a musing illustration. 

In my previous post, SIDNEY CATLETT, TRIUMPHANT, I shared three images of photographs of Big Sid that had appeared for sale on eBay.  Sidney is my hero: he made everyone else sound better; he was himself; he brought joy; he was deeply loved and is deeply missed.  And he is not a recognizable figure to many beyond this world of jazz and percussion.

Now it can be told: I bid on and won the large portrait at the bottom of that blogpost. 

I am a very restrained bidder: I bid on less than one percent of the things I covet, and I set a monetary ceiling for myself: had the bidding gone up and up, I would have left the arena early.  And I am not a vindictive bidder: I will not purchase something to be the only one on the planet who has it.  If someone had outbid me — as has happened before — I assume only that my rival has more money and more desire . . . and I hope (s)he enjoys the purchase immensely! 

Did I NEED the photograph?  Certainly not. 

I need to pay my bills, have clean clothing, food and drink . . . but I could certainly have proceeded forward in my life without this purchase.  And in a world where so many people are less fortuntate, it would seem an impiety to proclaim that I needed this object.

But I did WANT it.  Why?

Some of my feeling comes from the adult desire for autonomy.  We are, as children and perhaps as adults, surrounded by people who don’t necessarily see the world as we do and disapprove of our pleasures.  In bidding on this photograph, I am not automatically responding to the people who said, sometimes angrily, “What do you need that for?  Haven’t you got enough of that as it is?” 

But perhaps part of being an adult with freedom and some disposable income (thus terribly fortunate) is the Thorstein Veblen principle in a mild, non-judgmental way: I can afford to buy myself something that won’t keep me warm or house me — but something that will please me when I perceive it. 

I no longer have to ask my mother for an advance on my allowance to buy a Louis Armstrong record I had never seen before (she was good about such things) so buying the portrait of Sidney is a way of saying, “I am adult enough to trust myself to spend a little money on something not essential to my life; I am adult enough to spend money on something that will please me whenever I look at it.”   

Another person might say, “What I want for dinner tonight is simply a bowl of cereal.  Or scrambled eggs and toast.  Why should I not please myself?”

Freedom to act with individuality, the maturity and self-knowledge to trust one’s impulses. 

And I will be able to hang the photograph on the wall at eye-level so that I will see Sidney as I go past him, and will be able to muse on his generous brilliance. 

I can never BE Sidney, but I can hope to draw something from his example: Be youself.  Be excellent at whatever it is you do.  Do it so that you give your gift to others. 

And there’s more.  I would call my bidding on that photograph a selective acquisition: were I to feel passionately that I had to have copies (or originals) of every photograph taken of Sidney Catlett, then I would be in a different realm.  Frankly, although I revere Sidney, I do not want to have him on every wall of the apartment: he would become inescapable.  There’s room for Pee Wee Russell, too, and my own photographs of living musicians.

I also think that my desire for the photograph is a quiet response to ignorance and mediocrity.  Strong words, you say.  Fighting words, even.  But my words are not idly chosen.  The world outside has very little interest in or knowledge of the music I and others love and celebrate here. 

Having a portrait of Sidney is my own way of saying to the world that ignores him, the world that raises mediocrities to stardom, “THIS is what you should be honoring.  I know he means nothing to you, but I refuse to forget him and what he did.”  

Having things that give us pleasure will not keep us alive a moment longer; our collections of beloved objects will have to find other owners when we die. 

But if we enter into an uplifting spiritual relationship with the things we do purchase, perhaps our lives will be enhanced by the powers they continue to possess.

And — a mournful postscript: there are so many things in our lives that we cannot control, so making these small decisions to bring beauty, elation, and solace into our existence is very important . . .

SIDNEY CATLETT, TRIUMPHANT

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.

 

JAVA JIVE

I’d love to have heard the conversation between Eddie South and Big Sid Catlett as they so politely posed for photographer Carl Mihn in September 1944 when they were both leading bands at the Streets of Paris nightclub in Los Angeles, California.  Eddie and Sid would have known each other from Chicago, but something tells me they didn’t always meet over coffee.

Cream and sugar, anyone?  Some rugelach?

This photograph was originally published in BAND LEADERS (March 1945, p. 21) in a photo spread called “Hollywood Is Hep.”  It appears here through the kind permission of the AB Fable Archives.

TIME TO BUY A NEW CAR!

I drive an aging Japanese car.  The brakes are soft; I need new struts.  It’s time to trade it in for something more reliable.  Ordinarily I’d do this locally.  And these transactions make me nervous. 

But not now: I’m taking it to Boise, Idaho, where I’ll get treated right:

Photo by Hal Smith, camera equipment by Marty Eggers, two-thirds of the Butch Thompson Trio on tour. 

Thank you, gentlemen!

BIG SID, CHICK, and PRES (from eBay)

Sidney Catlett, on the front cover of Art Hodes’s little magazine, THE JAZZ RECORD, December 1946:

I admire the eBay seller of the next item for honesty, admitting that Chick Webb’s secretary probably signed the photograph.  But it would still look good over my piano:

And for fashion, who’d be a better model than the Pres?

Beloved icons, all for a high, timely bid . . .

APOLLO THEATRE, SUMMER 1947

The photograph is by the much-missed William P. Gottlieb, and I was guided to it by John Leifert and David Weiner:

My first reaction was, “When are we going?”  And after that elation died down, amusement that they had made Sid’s last name CATLET.  I thought, “I don’t care how it’s spelled . . . !” 

A few days later, I  looked at the picture and noted that the marquee had turned Arnett into ARNET . . . and then, as they say in the UK, the penny dropped.  Nearly forty years ago, I worked in a local movie theatre as a doorman / usher / all-around functionary in an ill-fitting black jacket.  It wasn’t a career, but a way to put gas in my Volkswagen Beetle and to buy records at Record World.  The minimum wage was $1.85 an hour. 

Once in a while I had the chance to make extra money “changing the marquee,” an annoying business involving ladders and sifting through piles of huge red plastic letters to spell out THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE or whatever the new feature was.  And it dawned on me that the people who changed the Apollo Theatre’s marquee for this week in summer 1947 were running low on the letter T — especially troubling because a marquee has at least two sides. 

It’s not a mystery that kept me up at night, but it’s today’s answer to an unasked question.

“THE ODOR OF POPULARITY”

This biography of  Sidney Catlett comes directly from http://www.jazzandroots.com/big-sid-catlett.html.  I credit the original site — the “Jazz and Roots Club” found in Shrewsbury, England (I presume) so that readers know I am reporting rather than inventing. 

 Big Sid Catlett, was one of the large battery the swing era and one of the few who crossed stylistic boundaries smoothly without loss of quality would suffer. Born in Indiana and learned to play the piano as a child before the school band will pass to the battery.

He began his career in Chicago in the late twenties before moving to New York at the time of the Great Depression. His first serious contact with jazz came when he worked for Benny Carter’s orchestra in 1932. From that experience, he found work easily and well spent by the best swing bands of the time between most notably those of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson.

 

Possessor of a light rhythm and full of swing, was able to adapt their style to each soloist who accompanied him. He was admired in his time by the general public who flocked to the ballrooms and dress, elegant, classic and fun at the same time, helped him be the focus of attention among the young. As a musician he felt at ease in any situation and in any format and was one of the first battery of swing who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

It is remarkable in its contribution to the combos that organized the great clarinetist, Benny Goodman and his final year career before he died following a heart attack, was with “All Star” by Louis Armstrong where he spent his last years in the odor of popularity.

Now I understand much more than I did.  The reason for Sidney’s wondrous inventiveness was his large battery (more volts, more swing).  And he never lost quality while crossing stylistic boundaries (are those crossings rather like going through Customs at the border or more like passing through the metal detector at the airport?).  Finally — there’s something in the air.  A scent, light, elusive, entrancing.  Not Chanel; not fresh hot coffee; not the scent of new-mown hay: no!  It’s the odor of popularity. 

I’m always glad to see that anyone’s paying attention to my heroes, but word-for-word translation has its limits.

NOW HEAR THIS: Hal Smith and “OH, KATHARINA!”

 I’d posted this YouTube clip of the JAM SESSION AT COMMODORE (1943) on OH, KATHARINA! in my recent tribute to Sidney Catlett, who would have been one hundred years ago on January 17, 2010.  Here it is again, for a different reason.  Listeners like myself have spent their lives drinking in the sounds — as a child I would put my head against the cloth of the speaker grille — but I know that we don’t listen in the same way musicians do. 

So it’s a particular pleasure to be able to reprint drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith’s “close reading” of this performance, with special emphasis on Sidney’s playing within and through it.  The piece was published in the Bulletin of the Hot Club of France, and it’s a joy:

OH, SID!

By Hal Smith

 A majority of jazz fans would probably agree that Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett was one of the greatest drummers of all time—if not the greatest! Many of Sid’s recordings have been written about at length, but one of his masterpieces is seldom mentioned: “Oh, Katharina” (recorded for Commodore 2 Dec. 1943 with Eddie Condon’s Band). Sid’s playing is so exemplary on this side that it cannot be ignored.

Condon had some exceptional musicians on the session. Joining the guitarist/leader and Catlett were: Max Kaminsky-cornet; Benny Morton-trombone; Pee Wee Russell-clarinet; Joe Bushkin-piano; and Bob Casey-bass. (Catlett had worked with Russell, Kaminsky and Condon since 1933. He knew exactly what to play to bring out the best in all three).

 The other tunes recorded on 2 December were jazz standards—“Rose Room,” “Basin Street Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” “Oh, Katharina” was definitely the odd number. Supposedly it was a favorite of Bix Beiderbecke’s. That must be the reason it was included on this date, for it has little to offer as a vehicle for swinging or improvising. The melody is uninspiring and the lack of melodic or chordal movement makes it difficult to keep one’s place in the song.

On the master take, the full ensemble plays the first chorus. The chosen tempo is edgy and despite Condon’s strong 4/4 guitar, Casey’s powerful bass and Sid’s wide-open hi-hat and rim shots the band sounds uncomfortable. Bushkin plays the second chorus and the leader temporarily drops out. Almost instantly, the tempo seems to float downward, gently. (Perhaps Sid made eye contact with Bushkin or Casey?) However it happened, the tempo change brings a collective sigh of relief and the proceedings begin to swing. For the first half of the piano chorus, Sid varies the hi-hat beat from what he used on the first chorus. Instead of open and ringing, he plays the cymbals open-and-closed, gently accenting the second and fourth beats. A stinging rim shot launches the second half and a move to ride cymbal, with rim shots in unexpected places.

With the tempo now settled, Condon re-enters the rhythm section in time for Pee Wee Russell’s chorus. Sid tightens things up, playing closed hi-hat, acting as interested listener in a conversation with Russell. However, some well-placed rim shots act as a safety net in the most abstract moments of the dialogue (bars 15-16).

Next, Kaminsky and Morton split a chorus, which also has a conversational quality. Max seems to be telling a story and Sid’s perfectly-timed rim shots (bars 8-9, 11-12) are the approbation. Benny Morton was another old friend of Catlett’s. By 1943, the drummer knew instinctively how to back the great trombonist and actually anticipates Morton’s phrasing on bar 24.

Finally, it is Sid Catlett’s turn to solo and what a solo it is!!! With Bushkin providing discreet stoptimes, Sid begins with solid quarter notes, leading into a barrage of double-stroke rolls (bars 1-4). There is a double-time feel, but Sid feints doubling that meter for just an instant (bars 5-8). Next, his incredible hand-to-foot coordination is displayed by his use of bass drum accents and rhythmic patterns on a choke cymbal (bars 9-12). The virtuoso solo takes on a dense texture, redolent of Chick Webb (bars 13-16) then comes a sudden release of tension and eighth notes between rim shots and bass drum (bars 17-18). Bars 19-20 call to mind Catlett’s early inspiration, Zutty Singleton. Sid keeps Zutty’s style going through bar 27, with accented rolls and bass drum “bombs.” The solo comes to a magnificent climax in a crescendo of accented triplets.

Kaminksy, obviously inspired by what he just heard, tears into the final chorus even before the end of the drum solo! With the tempo in just the right spot, the band is on fire! The final ensemble is underpinned by Sid’s ringing hi-hat and on bar 12 he adds the perfect touch—solid afterbeat rim shots—played to the conclusion of the rideout chorus. The proceedings end with a wide-open cymbal crash and a bass drum “button.”

Sid Catlett’s monumental drumming on “Oh, Katharina” is a genuine work of art. In this writer’s opinion it ranks with “Steak Face,” “Rose Room,” “46 West 52,” “Hallelujah,” “Sleep,” “I Never Knew” and “Afternoon Of A Basie-ite” as one of Catlett’s greatest recordings. It should be heard by every jazz enthusiast!

SIDNEY CATLETT AT 100

A  jazz blog like this one might easily become necrological– mourning the deaths of musicians and jazz scholars or sadly celebrating players who have been dead a long time.  It’s a battle to tear one’s eyes away from the rear-view mirror and focus on the present.  But since I do not expect to see the celebrations for Big Sid Catlett’s two-hundredth birthday, readers will forgive me. 

Sidney Catlett was born on January 17, 1910 and died before I was born.  I don’t believe in “the best,” but Big Sid might well be The Master — at least Max Roach thought so, as did Jo Jones.  Beyond legend, there is the recorded evidence: he could play propulsively and eloquently with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Mildred Bailey, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster . . . and those are only the recorded performances I can call to mind.

Ruby Braff remembered that when he listened to Louis Armstrong’s records with their creator, Louis said to him, “There’s that Catlett again!  Seems like he was on every swinging record I ever made.” 

But being versatile, in itself, is not enough: many musicians have been versatile without being particularly distinguished.  What made Sidney Catlett so special? 

For one thing, his instantly recognizable beat.  Even simply keeping time — using one of his seemingly numberless varieties of wire-brush sweep or playing the hi-hat — his time is identifiable.  Whitney Balliett, who first helped me to listen so closely to Sid, noted that Catlett played a fraction ahead of the beat — many drummers find the best and sit right down on it — but Sid’s time seemed to urge the band forward in the most jubilant way, although he didn’t ever rush.

Along with that beat there is his gallery — or galaxy — of sounds.  His drums sound alive.  The snap of his closed hi-hat.  The seductive come-with-me of his brushwork.  The thump of his tom-toms.  The masterful NOW! of a Catlett rimshot.  Drummers of the Forties and beyond tried to copy him and some came close to capturing the broadest outlines of his style — J.C. Heard for one — but their sounds are somehow flatter, narrower, more monochromatic.  So his sound is immediately identifiable — dance music, no matter what the context. 

As with all the great artists, much of Sidney’s mastery is not just in what he did — but what he wisely chose not to do. 

Many drummers, then and now, play at the same volume as the horns.  Sidney knew how to play very softly — which made his thundering climaxes so impressive.  Some drummers insist on filling up all the spaces.  Or they accent every note, enthusiastically but unthinkingly.  The result gets tiresome before a chorus is over, rather like a forest of exclamation marks or someone with a point to make who emphasizes every word. 

Sidney knew when not to play, when not to dramatize, when not to continue the pattern.  There were exceptions: I think of Lou McGarity’s bridges on Benny Goodman records, where Sidney, either enjoying McGarity’s exuberance or wanting to push him along, drives the rhythm section along with relentless accents that could fell a sequoia.  But Catlett understood space and variety, and surprise.  He was a great dramatist behind his drums. 

So his percussive world sounds undated — springy, elegant, and funky.  The listener says, “That’s Big Sid!” but that awareness isn’t because Catlett thrusts himself to the forefront; rather, it was because he makes his fellow musicians sound better than they themselves thought possible.

I’ve been admiring his playing for as long as I can remember — one of my earliest musical experiences was hearing Louis’s RCA Victor TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, and delighting in the way Sid pushed everyone along on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’.  Later, I heard him with the Blue Note Jazzmen and every jazz group I could find.  But he continues to amaze.

“Amaze?” you say.    

As an experiment, take any record on which Sid plays a particularly engaging, swinging part (that would be ALL of them) and listen to it once.  Admire the sounds he makes, the comments he provides, the support he gives to the band.  Then, play it again, and try to anticipate his shifts, his accents.  Experienced listeners will be able to divine some of the general motions — here, Sid will shift to the hi-hat; here’s a break coming up.  But if you try to play his accents along with him, it’s nearly impossible.  Sid’s pulsing work, his amazing accompaniment, is never rote.  I would suggest ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall and the Blue Note Jazzmen — his playing is stirring, as is his work on the recently discovered 1945 Town Hall concert with Bird and Diz. 

His music is amazingly generous.  He lived a very short life and his recorded career is only slightly over two decades.  But he gave so much to his fellow musicians and to us that it seems as if he played more — and at a higher level — than the musicians who lived longer.

And he mastered the problem of being a forceful individualist while serving the community with every breath.  A question of Ego, if you will.  Catlett shouts for joy, but he does it so the band is even more joyous as a result.   

He died backstage at a concert, his arms around Helen Humes, telling her a funny story.  An admirable death, I think.  A a life well-lived. 

Jim Denham, on his fine blog, SHIRAZ SOCIALIST, has just written a tribute to Sidney: http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/big-sid-b17-jan-1910-d25-march-1951/

Ricky Riccardi really understands the majesty of Sidney: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2010/01/celebrate-big-sid-catletts-centennial.html

And, or those seeking legal ecstasy, there’s a live ROYAL GARDEN BLUES from 1948:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/09/one-hot-garden.html

Ricky also sent this from British jazz drummer John Petters — information about BBC radio programs about Sidney:

 Here are two programmes about this sensational musician this Saturday:
The Late Paul Barnes @ 23:00 on BBC Cambrideshire, Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Northampton, Suffolk & Three Counties. (Paul celebrates the
Django Reinhardt Centenary next week)

The live link on line will be:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_norfolk/

and from Sunday until the following Saturday on Iplayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002mhdx

And Alyn Shipton discusses Big Sid with drummer Richard Pite on ‘Jazz Library’ on BBC Radio 3 at 16:00 on Saturday. This is from the Radio 3 website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ps0sk

The show will be on the BBC iplayer following the broadcast

Big Sid Catlett was arguably one of the most naturally talented percussionists in jazz history. To celebrate Catlett’s centenary in January 2010, Alyn Shipton is joined by drum expert Richard Pite to pick the highlights of a recorded catalogue that includes work with the swing orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the original Louis Armstrong All Stars.

Big Sid Catlett – born 17 January 1910, Evansville, Indiana, USA, died 25 March 1951.

Coda: A word or two about the audio-visual aids.  The Drumerworld video (posted on YouTube, of course) brings together Sidney’s three main filmed appearances (leaving aside JAMMIN’ THE BLUES) — two quickly-made films from 1946-7, SEPIA CINDERELLA and BOY! WHAT A GIRL, with a guest shot by one Gene Krupa, as well as a Soundie of YOU RASCAL YOU by Louis.  I treasure these film clips but find that they need to be absorbed on two levels.  Since musicians were required to pre-record their music and then mimic playing it for the camera, what one hears and what one sees are always slightly out of step . . . so one must be able to adapt to this.  But the games Sidney and Charlie Shavers play . . . !  I have also liberally seasoned this blogpost with what might seem an odd phenomenon: YouTube videos of famous jazz records a-spinning.  For those who did not grow up with vinyl or shellac records, what could be more dull?  But I find it nostalgic in the best way — because I spent so many hours of my childhood and youth staring at the spinning label in a kind of happy trance while the music poured out of the speakers . . . very life-enhancing, and a way of getting Sidney’s sound into this post.

MISS HOLIDAY, MR. CATLETT

Amazing picture; amazing autographs.

WHO’S THAT MAN?

Much earlier in 2009, a number of jazz photographs came up for sale on eBay.  They were taken at Stuyvesant Casino in 1950, and the musicians depicted were heroic figures to me.  As always on eBay, two things happened: the bidding skyrocketed at the last minute, and (in the calming grip of Prudence) I refused to plunge into three-digit prices . . . so I ended up the proud purchaser of two of a lot of five or six.  (The photograph that isn’t the subject of this blogpost showed Wild Bill Davison and Benny Morton.)  The other mild disappointment was the size of the originals, approximately two by four.  Inches. 

Our subject for today is a little band of deities.  Hot Lips Page, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, Ralph Sutton.  It’s a poignant photograph, because both Lips and Big Sid wouldn’t live much longer.  Pee Wee was months away from his hospitalization and looks gaunt; Sidney, who had suffered a heart attack, looks sadly small behind his drums.  Perhaps some of this is the camera angle and that the horns are sitting down, which isn’t the way we usually see them in photographs.

The title of this post, however, refers to the gentleman on the far right, busily playing the baritone saxophone.  He isn’t the man you would expect — Ernie Caceres — and even the photographer didn’t know who he was.  I showed a copy of this photograph around at Whitley Bay to a number of jazz scholars who happen to be splendid players: Bent Persson, frans Sjostrom, the erudite Norman Field, and Matthias Seuffert — and no one recognized the saxophonist.  Of course, it could have been someone sitting in, some alto / baritone player from a big band — but I don’t know if mere mortals ascended the stage at the Stuyvesant Casino to play alongside such deities.

Olympus, 1950

Olympus, 1950

I ask my readers: who’s that man?  And while they’re at it, I ask them to consider — in their mind’s ear, if there is such a thing — what this little band might have sounded like.  “Celestial” is an understatement as far as I’m concerned.

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Final afterthoughts: does anyone recognize the photographer — by style or by handwriting?  Somehow I don’t think this is an amateur’s snapshot, not least because of the pencil notation “1432” we see above.  And did the Stuyvesant Casino have a bandstand like this one?  The upholstered wall (leather or naugahyde) resembles the backdrop I’ve seen in photographs of the Three Deuces.  Research!

BEN’S AUTOGRAPH BOOK

Browsing idly through Ebay (or is it eBay?), I entered the search term “jazz autographs” to see what would emerge.  Of course a number of the items for sale were autographs of players for the Utah Jazz, but this one was much more relevant, even though I have no plans to start bidding for it — the suggested price is just under two thousand dollars.

The late Staff Sergeant Benson (“Ben”) Hardy was a jazz fan who carried his copy of Charles Delaunay’s NEW HOT DISCOGRAPHY with him in the late 1940s and got many musicians to sign the pages on which their records were listed.  My eye, of course, was drawn to the page below, signed in 1948:

Catlett autographSomething special and rare, I would suggest.  If you’re interested in seeing the other signatures (including Buddy Rich, Charlie Barnet, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Louis, Velma Middleton, Tommy Dorsey and other luminaries), look for “15- RARE-Vintage-BIG BAND-AUTOGRAPHS-Jazz Legensa-SIGNED.”  My man Agustin Perez Gasco helped me to find the working link, which is http://tinyurl.com/ofkfdp

Knowing that items tend to vanish from eBay, I would do it shortly — even if your finances are rather like mine.

HE’S A SON OF THE SOUTH

louis_kids

Google Alerts is my pal, sending me news of Lester, Ruby, Big Sid, and Louis, whenever their names crop up online.  In Louis’s case, the Alert sometimes has nothing to do with music — there are schools, an airport, and a stadium named for him.  This latest bit of Armstrong-related news was surprising and more. 

A newspaper profile of a man named Herb Armstrong, a handsome Australian singer, appears in the Redcliffe & Bayside Herald.  That newspaper serves the area around Brisbane, including the colorfully-named Deception Bay

I found Herb’s brief sketch of his ancestry intriguing: 

The timbre in his voice is, perhaps, unsurprising.  Herb is a grandson of the late, great jazz musician Louis Armstrong.  “I’m a love-child,” he says.  Herb’s mother Decina met Louis Armstrong’s son, a drummer, in New Orleans.    They fell in love and the result was Herb.

None of the biographies of Louis have documented any children.  Perhaps Herb’s story should be included in the planned Forrest Whitaker film on Louis’s life?  Comments, anyone?

You can read the original profile:

http://redcliffe-and-bayside-herald.whereilive.com.au/lifestyle/story/herb-armstrongs-wonderful-world/

 

OUR OWN FOUR-DAY NYC JAZZ FESTIVAL

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This remarkable weekend began on Friday night (November 7) at the New York Historical Society on Central Park West, with a free one-hour concert featuring bassist-singer-composer Jay Leonhart, amidst what the MC introduced, somewhat oddly, as “rising stars” Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and vocals, Ted Rosenthal, piano, and Alvin Atkinson, drums. The program mixed several Richard Rodgers classics, “Shall We Dance,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” Bernstein’s “Cool,” with two Leonhart originals and a closing romp through “Lester Leaps In.”  Rosenthal sparkled; Atkinson swung.

But the high point of the evening was an exploration of what Leonhart called “a jazz prayer,” “Body and Soul.”  That 1930 song can be a problem for musicians, as it has been played so nobly by so many: Coleman Hawkins, Louis, Bird in his first flights, Duke and Blanton, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, the Benny Goodman Trio, etc.   This performance began with Leonhart’s arco solo and then reached heights with Wycliffe’s plunger-muted, stately exploration of the theme.  Wycliffe knows full well how to honor a melody rather than simply leaping into variations on chord changes).  Waggling his plunger in and out, he mixed growls and moans, naughty comedy and deep sighs, as if Tricky Sam Nanton or Vic Dickenson was playing a hymn.  The solo ended all too soon.

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Not only was the concert free, but the museum was open to all, so the Beloved and I wandered through lovely landscape paintings.  Future Fridays at the NYHS (all beginning at 6:30 PM) will feature The Western Wind (a contemporary classical vocal sextet) on November 14, on the 21, guitarists from the Manhattan School of Music (teachers and proteges); Cheryl B. Engelhardt and Oscar Rodriguez (guitar) on December 5, jazz again on December 12, with Jeb Patton, David Wong, and Tootie Heath, and ending with Latin music on the 19th from the Samuel Torres Group.

We rested on Saturday to prepare ourselves for the exuberances to come.

Sunday afternoon found us at Sweet Rhythm on Seventh Avenue South for the third gathering of Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends: this time bassist Kelly Friesen, drummer Andrew Swann, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and reedman Peter Reardon-Anderson, doubling tenor and clarinet.  Hyperbole is a dangerous thing, but I came away from these two sets thinking that I had heard the most exciting jazz in years.

I so admire Jon-Erik’s ability to shape an ad hoc ensemble into a cohesive one, and he did it through the two sets, creating jazz that was of this time and place, looking back to New Orleans and collective improvisation, forward to contemporary “Mainstream” solos.  If I kept thinking of Keynote Records 1943-46, perhaps that’s because those jubilant performances kept being evoked on the stand at Sweet Rhythm.  Rossano strode and glided, sometimes in a Basie mood (appropriately) on “Doggin’ Around” and “Topsy”; Kelly took the glories of Milt Hinton (powerful rhythm, a huge tone, beautiful arco work on “All Too Soon”) and made them his own, and Andrew Swann, slyly grinning, added Sidney Catlett and Cliff Leeman to his swinging progenitors.  Anderson, twenty-one years old, is someone we can greet at the beginning of a brilliant career (to quote Emerson on Whitman): Zoot Sims and Ed Hall stand in back of his graceful, energetic playing.  Basie got honored, but so did Bing and Louis in “I Surrender, Dear,” and Kellso reminded us that not only is he playing marvelously but he is a first-rate composer: his line on “Linger Awhile” was a memorable hide-and-seek creation.  We cheered this band, and with good reason.

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And the room was full of Jazz Friends who didn’t get up on the bandstand: Bill and Sonya Dunham, Jim and Grace Balantic, Nina Favara, Lawri Moore, Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  A righteous congregation!

And the five portraits you see here — from the top, Jon-Erik, Rossano, Kelly, Andrew, and Peter — come from this gig, courtesy of Lorna Sass, jazz photographer.

Perhaps I am a jazz glutton, but those two sets weren’t enough: I walked downtown to the Ear Inn to soak up one more set by the EarRegulars: Jon-Erik, Chris Flory on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, and Michael Blake on tenor, someone entirely new to me.  (He and Jon-Erik go ‘way back, although they hadn’t played together in years.)  Blake is exceedingly amiable, so we found ourselves chatting at the bar — about small towns near Victoria (Souk for one) and Pee Wee Russell, about the odd and gratifying ways people come to jazz, about Lucky Thompson and jazz clarinet.  Then it was time for the EarRegulars to hit, and they surely did — from a “Blue Skies” that became “In Walked Bud,” to Blake’s feature on (what else?) “Body and Soul.”  Here, backed by the wonderfully sensitive duo of Chris and Greg, he broke the theme into fragments, speculating on their possibilities, becoming harmonically bolder with a tone that ranged from purring to rasping (some echoes of Lacy), exploring the range of his instrument in a delicate, earnest, probing way.  It was a masterful performance, and I am particularly delighted to encounter such brave creativity from a player I didn’t know before.

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Of course, the near-collisions of beauty and contemporary weirdness never fail to amaze.  I was sitting at the bar at the Ear, welcomed there by Victor, who knows more jazz than most critics.  At the bar, to my left, three and sometimes four people were facing away from the band, hunched over their Black Berry or Black Berries, their iPhones, what have you.  Electronically glowing tiny screens, blue and white, shone throughout the club.  I too am a techno-addict — but why go to a bar to check your BlackBerry and ignore the live art being created not five feet away?  To treat Kellso, Blake, Flory, and Cohen as background music seems oblivious or rude.

Monday there was work — but that is always a finite obligation, even when it looms inescapably — but soon I was back in Manhattan, drawn inexorably with the Beloved to Banjo Jim’s (Avenue C and Ninth Street) to hear two groups in one night.  Banjo Jim’s seems ideal — small, congenial, a private neighborhood bar full of young people listening to the music, a real blessing.

The first group was full of old friends — Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective.  This incarnation included Charlie Caranicas on cornet, Michael Hashim on alto sax, J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and vocal, Jesse Gelber on piano, Kevin on drums.  Kevin kicked things off with a romping “I Want To Be Happy,” explicitly summoning up the 1972 New School concert where Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Kenny Davern, and Dick Wellstood — someone named Eddie Condon in charge — showed what could be done with that simple line.  (I was at that concert, too.)  J. Walter Hawkes, one of my favorite unsung singers, did his wonderful, yearning “Rose Room.”  Barbara Rosene sat in for a thoughtful “Pennies From Heaven,” complete with the fairy-tale verse, and the proceedings closed with a hot “China Boy.”

And then — as if it that hadn’t been enough — the Cangelosi Cards took the stand.  They are the stuff of local legend and they deserve every accolade.  A loosely-arranged ensemble: Jake Sanders on acoustic guitar, Marcus Milius on harmonica, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Gordon Webster on piano, Karl Meyer on violin, Cassidy Holden on bass.  They are all fine players, better than many with larger reputations.  I thought I heard a drummer but saw no one at the trap set: later I found out that their singer, Tamar Korn, has a remarkable vocabulary of clicks, hisses, and swishes — she fooled me and she swung.  The group has a Django-and-Stephane flavor, but they are not prisoners of that sound, that chugging rhythm, that repertoire.  They began with “Douce Ambiance,” moved to Harry Barris’s “It Was So Beautiful,” and then Eddie Durham’s “Topsy.”

Early on in the set, it became clear that this band has a devoted following — not just of listeners, but of dancers, who threw themselves into making the music physically three-dimensional in a limited space.  Wonderful inspired on-the-spot choreography added to the occasion, an exultant Happening.

Then Tamar Korn got up to sing — she is so petite that I hadn’t quite seen her, because I was seated at the back of the small square room.  But I heard her, and her five songs are still vibrating in my mind as I write this.  Without attempting to be mysterious in any way (she is friendly and open) she is someone unusual.  Rumor has it that she hails from California, but I secretly believe she is not from our planetary system.  When I’ve suggested this to her, she laughs . . . but doesn’t deny it.

Tamar’s singing is focused, experimental, powerful.  In her performance of “Avalon,” she began by singing the lyrics clearly, with emotion but not ever “acting,” then shifted into a wordless line, high long held notes in harmony with the horns, as if she were Adelaide Hall or a soprano saxophone, then did two choruses of the most evocative scat-singing I’ve ever heard (it went beyond Leo Watson into pure sound) and then came back to the lyrics.

Her voice is small but not narrow, her range impressive.  What I find most exhilirating is the freedom of her approach: I hear old-time country music (not, I must add, “country and western,” but real roots music), blues and bluegrass, the parlor soprano essaying light classics, opera, yodeling, swing — and pure sound.  She never appears to be singing a song in any formulaic way.  Rather, she is a vessel through whom the force of music passes: she is embraced by the emotions, the notes, the words.

And when the Cards invited their friends — that is, Charlie Caranicas, Michael Hashim, and Jesse Gelber — to join them for “Milenberg Joys,” “I’m Confessin’,” and “Avalon,” it was as close to soul-stirring ritual in a New York club as I can remember.  The room vibrated; the dancers threw their hands in the air, people stood up to see better, the music expressed intense joy.  I don’t know whether Margaret Mead had rhythm in her feet, but she would have recognized what went on at Banjo Jim’s.

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I hope to have video, thanks to Flip, to post shortly.  Tune in again!  (And another weekend is coming soon . . . tempus fugit isn’t so terrifying when there are glories like this to look forward to.)

Only in New York, I am sure.

All photographs by Lorna Sass, copyright 2008.