Tag Archives: Metropolitan Opera House Jam Session

“A SWELL GUY / NO JIVE.”

My business card has a photograph of Sidney Catlett on it, and when people stop mis-identifying him (no, that’s not Nat King Cole or Morgan Freeman) some ask me why he’s there.  I answer, “He made everyone sound better; he died after telling a good joke in the intermission of a concert, and people still miss him.”  And depending on my listeners, I might repeat what Billie Holiday said of him.

After Louis, he remains my pole star.  So I was astonished and delighted to see this photograph, which was new to me, on sale at eBay.  Torn right corner and all.  I know Sid’s handwriting, so the capital B S and C make me know the signature is genuine, and his fountain pen was working: obviously Marvin was someone special, because the inscription is carefully done, probably on a table or other flat surface.

and a closeup:

Through eBay serendipity, I found out that “Marvin” was Marvin Kohn, who had been the New York State Athletic Commissioner — and a jazz fan.  (He also had an autographed photograph of Will Bradley.)  Here’s a sketch of Marvin by Leroy Neiman:

I had invented a scenario where Sid and Marvin met at a boxing match, where Marvin offered Sid a ticket to some sporting event and then asked (as one might) for an autographed glossy in return, but I believe what might have happened would be different.  Here is Marvin’s obituary in the New York Times:

Marvin Kohn; Boxing Publicist, 70
Published: February 8, 1994

Marvin Kohn, a longtime figure in New York boxing, died Sunday at New York Hospital. He was 70.  He died three days after suffering a stroke.  Mr. Kohn was appointed a publicist for the New York State Athletic Commission, which oversees boxing, in 1951, and he later served as a deputy commissioner of the agency before retiring in 1989.  He also was a press agent for many actors and had served as publicity director for the old Hotel Astor.  He is survived by his widow, Mildred.

And a memory of Marvin from Mervyn Gee, whose blog on boxing is called SLIP & COUNTER:

Back in 1987, more than 25 years after moving to London, I was security manger at The Cumberland Hotel, a 1,000 bedroom hotel situated in the Marble Arch area. The reason I mention this is that the World Boxing Council (WBC) held their annual convention there that year and a glittering array of their champions and their entourages were at the hotel. . . . Caroline Fransen was our liason officer  . . . . [she] introduced me to Marvin Kohn, who at the time was secretary to the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) based in New York. Kohn was also deputy commissioner at the New York Athletic Commission for over 30 years and over the next decade I visited the Big Apple a number of times and Marvin introduced me to so many fascinating and influential people in the boxing scene.

Long before there were public tours of Madison Square Garden, I was privileged to be a frequent visitor and Marvin was even the only non-actor to have his caricature on the wall at Sardi’s famous restaurant. To this day, the BWAA present a “Good Guy” prize each year named after my late friend as the ‘Marvin Kohn award’. As a result of my friendship with Marvin I was even invited to the VIP lounge and restaurant at the United Nations buildings. Not bad for a little boyo from the valleys!

And from Mervyn’s site, a lovely photograph of Marvin at his desk:

But back to Sidney Catlett.  January 1944, the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, with Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, for ROSE ROOM:

and one hero speaking of another:

Now I just have to figure out where to hang the picture — because I won it.

P.S.  This post is in honor of master jazz-sleuth David Fletcher.

May your happiness increase!

“THE THRUSH AND THE SKINMAN” (January 18, 1944)

I will explain my odd title-quotation below.

Billie Holiday and Sidney Catlett in concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, January 18, 1944.

And here is the soundtrack: DO NOTHIN’ TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME, BILLIE’S BLUES, and I’LL GET BY, with Billie accompanied by Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford, and Sidney Catlett:

And you all know that Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, and Mildred Bailey appeared, with the Goodman Quintet being beamed in from the other coast.

When I bid on and won that photograph of Billie and Sidney on eBay, it came with a small rectangular strip of yellowed paper taped to its back, which read

THE THRUSH AND THE SKINMAN

“Two top jive artists are shown at the Esquire All-American jazz concert, held at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 18th. Billie Holliday does the vocalizing as drummer boy Sid Catlett pounds the skins.”

I am nostalgic about 1944 music, but I am glad that no one feels compelled to write that way anymore.  Incidentally, when I looked online to see where this picture might have appeared — searching for THRUSH and SKINMAN — I got a whole host of entries about candida, male and female yeast infections. Mmmmmmm.

My unanswered and unanswerable question about the photograph has to do with it being a posed, rather than candid shot.  Notice that neither of the two participants is in motion; there is no blur.  So.  Did the photographer say to the two of them presumably before or after the concert, “Billie, Miss Holiday.  Could you come over here?  We need a shot of you and Sidney — how do you people say it — giving each other . . . some skin?”  And for those who like metaphysics, which one put out a hand first for this hip charade?  I know the photograph is in some ways fake, but the emotions behind it are not.

P.S.  If you’re going to lift the photographic image for use on your own site, be my guest.  I wouldn’t disfigure it with a watermark . . . but real gents and ladies also write, “Photo courtesy of JAZZ LIVES.”  Thanks.

May your happiness increase!

THE GENEROSITY OF A GREAT ARTIST

My friend Kris Bauwens will be one of the great collectors of jazz paper ephemera — and he already has an astonishing collection.  He recently purchased this  gem, and generously shares it with us.

The envelope is an unassuming document in itself, but what is inside is astonishing:

SID Envelope

We don’t have Jack’s admiring letter to Sidney Catlett, but it says so much about Sid that he would take the time to write a five-page letter to a young drummer, and take him so seriously, with such great humility:

SID ONE

and

SID TWO

and

SID THREE

and

SID FOUR

and

SID FIVE

“P.S.  Photo coming up.”

SID photo for Jack 1941

I have shared this with a dear jazz percussionist friend, who says that the advice is wise and deep.  But for me, the most moving sentence in these beautifully written and generous pages is this: I assure you I will do my best to hold the admiration you express toward my work.  That is a sweet and humble statement, nearly Shakespearian, with Sidney saying to his young fan, “I will strive to be worthy of the picture you have created of me,” which shows an openness of heart, with Sidney reversing the roles of Master and Student . . . deep humility and generosity of spirit.  And if you wonder what Sidney was doing in Chicago, he was midway through his emotionally stressful period as drummer to Benny Goodman.  That he would have the time and desire to write to Jack in this fashion speaks so highly of his character.

Here’s some more evidence of Catlett generosity: recorded on January 16, 1944 at the Metropolitan Opera House: a quartet of Sid, Barney Bigard, clarinet; Art Tatum, piano; Oscar Pettiford, string bass — playing ROSE ROOM — as well as Sidney’s spoken introduction to the V-Disc:

Sidney Catlett wasn’t just tall: his spirit was Big.

May your happiness increase!