Zutty Singleton: Face Drives the Train
A friend once remarked that playing in a band with Zutty Singleton “was like trying to stay ahead of a freight train that was bearing down on you.” Indeed, when Singleton was inspired, the pulse of his drumming took on the power of a highballing freight! One of the best examples of this forward momentum may be heard on “King Porter Stomp” (Decca 18093), recorded under Singleton’s name in New York City on 28 May, 1940.
Zutty Singleton had previously recorded as a bandleader for Decca in 1935. His other recording credits included sessions with Fate Marable, Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, Charles LaVere, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Lionel Hampton and the wonderful sides by the “Rhythmakers” — Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Pops Foster, Al Morgan, Eddie Condon and others. After 16 years of recording with some of the greatest names in jazz, Singleton was in top form on the “New Orleans Jazz Album.”
The all-star band that recorded for Decca in 1940 consisted of: Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Benny Morton, trombone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; and Singleton. The band recorded “Canal Street Blues” and “Down in Jungle Town” under Allen’s leadership and “King Porter Stomp” and “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble” with Singleton in charge. The four sides illustrate the thrilling interaction between New Orleans musicians (Allen, Hall, Foster and Singleton) and musical colleagues from “out of town,” but Singleton is clearly the star performer on “King Porter Stomp!”
The side begins with an eight bar introduction—the horns play whole notes as Singleton comes out swinging on the snare drum: a flurry of rolls and syncopated figures, accented rolls, more syncopations, a cymbal crash, syncopated rolls and two quick cymbal crashes, all underpinned by “Face’s” driving 4/4 bass drum.
On the ensemble verse, Singleton keeps pushing the bass drum, while playing uncomplicated press rolls on the snare drum. On bars 13-16, he plays some of his trademark syncopated figures, leading into the interlude. After two bars of long rolls, accented rolls, stinging quarter notes and cymbal crashes, Singleton launches the ensemble into the trio section of the tune.
Ed Hall is the first soloist. Singleton continues to play simple, but effective press rolls on the snare drum, with the bass drum laying down an incredible foundation.
Red Allen gets the same treatment for his chorus, though Singleton accents the afterbeats on bars 11 through 16.
Behind Benny Morton’s solo, Singleton matches Morton’s cool sound, playing smooth press rolls. He raises the musical temperature on bar 16 with an explosive paradiddle, utilizing the snare drum and cowbell.
Singleton’s press rolls and bass drum pulse take on a renewed urgency as he accompanies Hall’s second solo. On bars 14-16, Singleton audibly readies himself for a solo chorus of his own.
The band plays a stoptime figure for the drums every four bars, turning Singleton loose. On the first drum solo, he stays on the snare drum, keeping the bass drum going throughout. He plays accented and syncopated rolls on the snare drum on bars 1-4.. On bars 5-8, accented long rolls. Rudimental figures are heard on bars 9-12 and again on 13-16.
For the second drum chorus, he plays ruffs, cymbal crashes and syncopations on the crash cymbals (bars 1-4); quarter notes, then paradiddles between the tom-tom and snare (5-8); syncopated rolls (9-12) and finally a militaristic flourish to end the solo, punctuated by a cymbal crash and single quarter note on the bass drum.
As the ensemble leaps back in, Singleton continues to drive the band relentlessly, playing the “ride” beat on the cymbal with his right hand, four even quarter notes to the bar on the snare with his left hand and 4/4 time on the bass drum.
Allen holds a note for four bars, signaling one more chorus, but Singleton does not play a fill (or “turnaround”) beween the penultimate and final ensemble choruses—such a device is not necessary. By now the drums have become a literal juggernaut. The rest of the band manages to stay one step ahead of the fast freight barreling down the tracks. Singleton brings the tour-de-force performance to an exciting close with a ruff, two quarter notes and a syncopated figure on the snare and a “button” on the choke cymbal.
In the years following the 1940 Decca session, Singleton recorded many outstanding sides with a wide variety of musicians from Fats Waller to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. But “King Porter Stomp” must surely rank as one of the greatest recordings of Singleton’s career. Few drummers could match Zutty for the kind of drive, pulse, tension-and-release and raw power heard on this side! It is tempting to imagine a conversation with Singleton regarding the drumming on “King Porter Stomp.” Considering his confidence in his own abilities and his sense of humor, Singleton would most likely have replied, “Watch out for that freight train, Face!”