Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Catlett, Big Sid (Sidney)

Drummer “Big” Sid Catlett's beat was steady and infectious, and made him one of the more complete drummers of the Swing Era. His concentration on interacting and locking in with others in the rhythm section created an uncommonly high level of communication. His use of dynamics greatly enhanced drama on the bandstand, and his consummate showmanship as a big man with a gentle touch and smooth technical finesse made him a favorite of fans and musicians alike.

Catlett was also one of the few pre-bop drummers who comfortably transitioned from big bands into the small combos of postwar jazz, which makes his discography a complete historical representation of one of the most significant evolutionary periods in jazz history.

Catlett, along with Roy Haynes and Kenny Clarke, was one of the few drummers to have played with both Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and his ability to adapt to both musical situations attests to his musical skill and significance.

Sidney Catlett was born in Evansville, Indiana on January 17, 1910. His father was a chauffeur, and his mother a cook who worked for a wealthy family. Sid’s interest in drumming developed early, and Sid’s mother’s employer arranged for him to take drum lessons with a local German teacher.

Catlett’s family relocated to Chicago when he was still a youngster, and soon thereafter Sid soon received his first drum kit for about $150. Throughout his teenage years at Tilden High School, Catlett studied the rudiments, drumming techniques, and music fundamentals, and immersed himself in the Chicago jazz scene, exploring the drumming of Zutty Singleton,Baby Dodds, Jaspar Taylor, Jimmy Bertrand, and Jimmy McHendricks. Louis Armstrong recalls that, of all of the fine Chicago drummers in the area at the time, Catlett was especially interested in observing Zutty Singleton:

“I remember when I was playing with Carroll Dickens at the Savoy [Chicago, 1928]. Big Sid showed up in his knickers and pestered Zutty to let him take over the tubs.”

At age 18, around the same time that he was absorbing Singleton’s refined style, Catlett began playing with violinist/clarinetist/saxophonist Darnell Howard in 1928. He then joined pianist Sammy Stewart’s Orchestra, and decided to relocate to New York City upon the group’s performances at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930.

When Stewart’s group disbanded in 1931, Catlett joined Elmer Snowden’s band, which also included Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, and Dicky Wells. He then began a inexhaustible run as a big band sideman throughout the first half of the 1930s, recording and/or performing with Benny Carter, Sam Wooding, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (1934-35), Fletcher Henderson (1936), and Don Redman (1936-1937).

It was during this first wave of extended high-profile work that Catlett customized his musical personality. While Catlett was a consummate showman and technician, it was his strong sense of swing, his musical knowledge, and above all else, his musical communication with his rhythm section mates that separated him from his contemporaries.

Slightly de-emphasizing the rudimental, military style that was pervasive in early jazz, Catlett was a big man who wasn’t afraid to play quietly and craftily while maintaining energy and interaction. While many early jazz drummers thrived by becoming “drummer’s drummers” and impressing their cohorts with speed and techniques, Catlett was first and foremost a “musician’s drummer,” ushering in the egalitarian rhythm section that would slowly begin to dominate the scene. As Dr. Billy Taylor summarizes:

“Sid listened when he played. He worked very closely with the bass player. He locked in the guy playing bass; they functioned as a team. The piano player in a trio could get up and take a walk; I mean the rhythm was right there. Rhythm sections with Sid at the drums were among the best I ever heard. His playing not only had form, it mirrored his consciousness of dynamics. Above all else, he swung. His vitality permeated everything.”

From 1938 until 1942, Catlett lent his musicality to the big band of Louis Armstrong, a friend from his early days in Chicago. Along with a veritable lineup of Red Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, and Luis Russell, among others, Catlett’s recorded highlights with the Armstrong Big Band include “Jeepers Creepers,” “What Is This Thing Called Swing,” “Poor Old Joe,” “Hep Cats’ Ball,” “Harlem Stomp,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” most recorded for the Decca Label. During this period, Armstrong’s main drum feature for Catlett was “Blues for the Second Line.”

During his tenure with Armstrong, Catlett also maintained a freelance career, recording some classic Swing Era tracks. A few of these performances included a reunion of two of the members of Elmer Snowden’s group, Roy Eldridge and Chu Berry, on the classic 1938 version of “Body and Soul,” a recording of “Summertime” with Sidney Bechet in 1939, and a reunion of Fletcher Henderson alumni - Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter – on “Smack” in 1940.

As work with Armstrong slowed, Catlett briefly joined a first-rate version of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1941 which also featured Cootie Williams, Chuck Gentry, Mel Powell, and on occasion, Charlie Christian, as is the case on the June 1941 performance of “Tuesday at Ten.”

On December 28, 1943, tenor legend Lester Young assembled a quartet including Catlett, pianist Johnny Guarnieri and bassist Slam Stewart for a session on the Keynote label, which included performances of “I Never Knew,” “Afternoon of a Basie-ite,” “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and “Just You, Just Me.”

Although the only other Young/Catlett collaboration was their appearance in the short film, Jammin’ the Blues, the meeting of these two musicians is an important musical artifact. The fully realized individual sounds of these two swing masters combine to display the past and present sounds of jazz while exhibiting enough interactive dialogue to foreshadow the spirit of the fast-approaching bebop movement, if expectedly not quite the rhythmic or harmonic vocabulary.

Additionally, while many big band drummers did not thrive in the swing-to-bop small combos in the early 1940s, Catlett’s already cymbal-heavy, quick-on-his-feet style seemed immediately adaptable in both situations. This allowed him to remain effective as the music quickly transformed, as opposed to many of the swing drummers of the period who remained loyal solely to the big band.

Many major developments occurred in Catlett’s career from 1944-1946. He spent the first part of 1944 recording and performing with Billie Holiday, as evidenced by an all-star performance featuring Holiday, Catlett, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, and Art Tatum on January 18, and a timeless take of “Embraceable You” recorded in New York on April 1.

This time period was also the most prolonged period of Catlett’s work as a leader, as evidenced by the chronological collectionSid Catlett, 1944-1946, released on the Classics label in 1998, which features his performances with Illinois Jacquet, Art Tatum, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, among others, in various combinations. Additional work as a sideman from 1944-1947 included performances with Sarah Vaughan, Don Byas, Eddie Condon, Earl Hines, James P. Johnson, and a stint with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1945.

Finally, in one of the most interesting developments of his career, Catlett joined Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker on two occasions in 1945 for some of the first recorded evidence of bebop. The first session, a studio date on May 11, featured Gillespie, Parker, Catlett, pianist Al Haig and bassist Curley Russell on classic bop tracks, including “Hot House,” “Lover Man,” “Shaw ‘Nuff,” and Gillespie's co-composition with Kenny Clarke, “Salt Peanuts.”

A little over a month later, Catlett shared drum duties with bop pioneer Max Roach at a Town Hall concert in June 11, with Roach playing the first five tunes of the set and Catlett joining Gillespie and Parker for the evening’s final two numbers, “Hot House” and “52nd Street Theme.” Although Roach is already riding a different wave here, Catlett’s communicatory style and career-long concentration on rhythm section interaction makes his playing in these earliest of bebop situations both stylistically appropriate and educationally fascinating.

In the final years of Catlett’s career, he recorded with pianist Teddy Wilson, John Kirby, and reunited with Louis Armstrong as a member of his small-group All-Stars from 1947-1949. A highlight from this period was a concert at Symphony Hall in Boston on November 30, 1947, featuring Armstrong, Catlett, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Dick Cary and Arvell Shaw on “Stars Fell on Alabama.” Armstrong also introduced three drum features for Catlett during this period: “Steak Face,” “Mop Mop,” and “Caldonia.”

In early 1951, Catlett endured a bout of pneumonia, and on March 25, while on a gig at the Chicago Opera House, suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 41.

Sid Catlett has been largely left out of modern discussions of the great drumming pioneers. It is a complicated proposition to place Catlett within the usual drumming groupings – he wasn’t as flashy or speedy as Chick Webb or Buddy Rich, he wasn’t quite as transformational as Jo Jones, and wasn’t as dedicated to bop as Max Roach or Roy Haynes. But these are hardly reasons to exclude him. On the contrary, when listening to the transition out of Dixieland, the entire Swing Era, and the transition out of the Swing Era into bebop, “Big” Sid Catett’s personal soundtrack exemplifies jazz history better than nearly any other drummer of the period.

In recent years, Catlett has finally begun to receive some of the attention he deserves from the jazz media, as evidenced by his induction into the Big Band Hall of Fame in 1996.

Select Discography:

Sid Catlett, 1944-1946 (Classics)

Louis Armstrong, Highlights from his Decca Years (Verve)

Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars, 1947-1950 (Forlane)

Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, Satchmo at Symphony Hall (Decca/GRP)

The Sidney Bechet Story (Proper)

Roy Eldridge, Heckler’s Hop (Hep)

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, 1945-1946 (Classics)

The Esquire All Stars At the Met, Volume 2 (Arpeggio Jazz)

Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown)

Benny Goodman, Best of the Big Bands, Volume 2 (Columbia/Legacy)

Billie Holiday, Complete Decca Recordings (GRP)

Charlie Parker, A Studio Chronicle 1940-1948 (JSP)

Don Redman, 1936-1939 (Classics)

Sarah Vaughan, Everything I Have is Yours (Shout Factory)

Teddy Wilson, Interaction (Drive Archive)

Lester Young, The Essential Keynote Collection, Volume One (Mercury)

The two quotes about Sid Catlett in this entry originally appeared in Burt Korall’s Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Swing Years (Oxford University Press, 1990).

Contributor: Eric Novod