“We just kept the rhythm going and hardly ever took a solo.”
Zutty Singleton was born in Bunkie, Louisiana in 1898, and was basically a self-taught drummer. During his illustrious career he worked with Steve Louis, The Tuxedo Jazz Band, Louis Nelson, The Maple Leaf Band, and the popular Fate Marable. However, Singleton would not gain national recognition until his recordings with Louis Armstrong’s Hot five were made during the ’20s.
In 1917, Singleton was part of the migration of jazz musicians to Chicago, where jazz activity was flourishing. While there, he performed with Doc Cook, Dave Payton, and Jimmie Noone, and later in New York with Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. He also recorded with Pee Wee Russell, Jelly Roll Morton, Wingy Manone, and Buster Bailey.
Known for his great suppleness, Singleton followed the melodic lines of a jazz improvisation more closely than anyone who had come before. He also utilized a more modest setup in comparison to other drummers of his era. With the exception of the standard novelty effects, Singleton limited himself to a snare drum, bass drum, two toms, and two or three cymbals.
“When we soloed,” recalled Singleton, “we had all kinds of gimmicks—skillets, ratchets, bells, Chinese toms, Chinese cymbals—everything. But there was very little rhythmic syncopation. All you had to do was keep good time.”
Another key element of Singleton’s style was his use of the snare drum press roll accentuated on the second and fourth beats to maintain the pulse. Singleton’s press roll timekeeping technique was actually the forerunner of the modern jazz cymbal beat.
“The first pair of brushes I ever had were given to me by Louis Cotrelle,” said Singleton. “I studied Cotrelle’s work a lot during the early days. But Louis didn’t care about brushes, so he gave them to me. They were the first pair of brushes I ever saw in my life. Before that, you had to get your soft effects by controlling your touch with the sticks.”
In 1974, Singleton was awarded the Gene Krupa Award, and in 1975 he was voted into the NARAS Hall Of Fame for his performances on the Louis Armstrong Hot Five recordings that were made in 1928. A stroke rendered Singleton inactive in 1969, and he died in New York in ’75. Fans of traditional jazz continue to rank Arthur “Zutty” Singleton as a true jazz drumming pioneer and a leader in the field.