From The Past

Big Sid Catlett

R. Willis Tale


big sid copySid Catlett, to those unfamiliar with the name, was considered one of the greatest jazz drummers of the 30’s and early 40’s, and is still recognized as one of the most significant forces in the evolution of the art of jazz drumming. His playing greatly influenced the new modernists of the late 40’s and early 50’s. Shelly Manne, Kenny Clarke, Gene Krupa, and Buddy Rich are just a few of the drummers who were directly influenced by the Catlett style.

He was a giant of a man, both musically and physically, born in Evansville, Indiana in 1910. He arrived in New York City in 1930 with Sammy Stewart, to be followed by stints with Benny Carter, McKinneys Cotton Pickers, Jeter-Pillars, Fletcher Henderson and the Don Redmond band of 1936-38. Redmond led one of the top black bands of the thirties. A four-year stay with Louis Armstrong filled the years 1938-42, along with a brief engagement with the Benny Goodman band of 1941. He led his own band in California up to 1945, though the last years of his playing career were spent freelancing in the Chicago area. Winner of the Esquire Gold award in 1944 and 45, Big Sid died in Chicago in 1951 at the age of 41.

It is essential to note, when looking back at the overall musical influence of Catlett, that his distinctive style which ultimately influenced so many players, had deep roots itself. Roots that could be traced back to the military jazz flavored march style predominate in the playing of Zutty Singleton, Tubby Hall and the legendary Baby Dodds. The swing and drive of this style had a great influence on him. But Sid wasn’t content just following along the lines which preceded him. Musical thought and conception were of the utmost importance to him. Sid clearly pointed to a new direction in terms of rhythmic thinking, and he was soon to develop a style unheard of before him. Rather than constructing his solos in a purely military rhythmic framework, his solo work became definite explorations and variations on musical lines and themes. His solos would practically carry the melodic line of the music, combined with daring and fascinating variations on those melodic lines. He would state patterns, repeat them, and embellish them thru ingenious use of melodic and tonal invention. Catlett took the drum solo and made it a true personal musical expression, clearly demonstrating a new concept to the instrument, and carved a path for the evolution which was soon to follow.

Sid Catlett was also the first drummer to make more careful and subtle use of the bass drum. The bass — up to this point — had been used primarily for a heavy emphasis on time. Sid’s approach was different. He underplayed the bass drum, yet maintained firm and steady time. He began to use the bass drum for accents and explosions of a startling nature, thus blazing a path for the new school of bop modernists who eventually dropped the time-keeping role of the bass drum altogether, preferring to use it as a separate solo voice.

Catlett, in essence, was the key figure in bridging the gap between the military style and the bop school which was to come. His musical thought led the way for Kenny Clarke, leading forerunner of the bop era, and perhaps most noticeably in the work of Max Roach who was to be greatly influenced by both Catlett and Clarke. Catlett’s style was soon to be studied and absorbed by an entire group of young drummers who were to become the great contributors in the evolution of the instrument. Big Sid Catlett. A true giant.