Tag Archives: portrait

THE PIED PIPER, 1940

Pee Wee Russell, in the center of a group of admiring children at the Little Red School House, New York City, 1940 — photographed by the ever-inventive Charles Peterson:

As is the case with any Peterson photograph, one not only reads the visual information on the surface but intuits a story of a moment or moments captured for those of us not even born in 1940. 

We don’t get to see enough of the children’s faces, but their expressions — ranging from exultant to puzzled — say a great deal about the sounds Charles Ellsworth Russell gave to his listeners. 

I don’t know what to say about the oddly industrial-looking ceiling, and I assume that horizontal stripes were the thing in children’s fashions in 1940.  Pee Wee (whisper it) needs a shave, although he’s wearing a neat striped suit, pocket handketchief properly aligned . . . so we can assume that a morning session with the young students was far too early for him. 

But his expression was exultant: if he was hungover, if he hadn’t been to bed, no matter: he was the Pied Piper leading this young band of boys and girls to jazz.

Thanks to Charles (Russell) and Charles (Peterson) and Don (Peterson) for this precious portrait.

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.