Someday there may be a poll to elect The Greatest Jazz Band Drummer Of All Time. But are there enough of us who remember how fine George Wettling played; enough of us to give this artist the full recognition that somehow eluded him in a much-too-short career? If ballots were allowed from other instrumentalists, it’s my personal opinion that Wettling’s name would draw an even greater number of votes.
What traits did Wettling have that made him such an outstanding drummer? There are many answers. Early recordings show that, from the beginning, the man had taste. Listen to Jimmy McPartland And His Orchestra (Decca: A-324, 18 M Series). A first impression of this album is that nobody is trying to be a star. Nothing seems to be happening. Then comes an awareness that the band is being grooved by an unobtrusive drummer who has control over the situation without hitting players over the head with too much volume.
The first part of any tune being jammed is a statement of the melody. A tasty drummer doesn’t cover up that melody the first time around. Wettling had something I call proportion; the ability to match the volume of a band without exceeding that volume. Notice his open cymbal sound at the close of each tune; a light sound of medium dynamic. That’s proportion!
When aspiring young novices were driving dancers from ballroom floors with extended drum solos (circa 1936), Wettling was limiting his role to short fills at the ends of phrases, or a four-measure solo after an ensemble last chorus. The longest drum solo I ever heard him play was eight measures. Listeners became aware that this drummer didn’t get in the way of other players who were trying to say something musically. When many drummers were puffing, making faces and changing perspiration- drenched shirts at least once a night, the modest Wettling was maintaining an unruffled look, a hint of a smile, and playing for the band. It can truly be said that George Wettling had that rare, unselfish quality of being able to remain in the background.
It was what the man didn’t play that set him apart from other hide-beaters. Cut and dried cliches of drumming were totally absent from his concepts. For example, drummers in the late ’20s and into the ’30s were using a dotted-quarternote “kick beat” at the end of every two measures (a Duke Ellington creation). But Wettling was content to play this gimmick with only his bass drum, or a woodysounding rim-shot played mf, and doing it but once, lest it become hackneyed; no repeated telegraph patterns that tip-off listeners as to what future developments may be expected from “vaudeville act” drumming.
When Wettling came out of a break, he returned to the ensemble sound with a smoothness all his own; without a letdown in intensity when building to a finish, never giving the impression that the drive had in any way been interrupted to detract from the smooth flow of ideas of other instrumentalists that are the stock in trade of great jazz men. George Wettling had something to say with his drums and he spelled it out with a tremendous sense of permutation and shading that all drummers should have big ears for.
George Wettling has often been erroneously labelled a “Dixieland Drummer.” His critics hinted that he was limited to this style of small group playing. Nothing could be further from the truth. While many drummers are at their best with small groups, Wettling blended well with any size or style unit. No surprise to musicians, British dance band leader Jack Hylton hired him to support the rich sound of his brass. And listen to Bunny Berrigan recordings for further examples of fine big band drumming. Wettling was with the Berrigan band in 1937.
Dave Tough played a great deal of “two beat,” knowing when to change to four. Wettling played more four beat bass drum, sometimes accenting the second and fourth beats within that style for perhaps two consecutive measures, then returning to an even four. He knew when to vary his bass drum patterns. On the previously mentioned Decca album, note that the bass drum accents are spontaneous and don’t get in the way of the bass player. The accented afterbeat snare drum sounds are tasty and from the center of the drum, despite the fact that professors say drums choke up when played dead center. Notice that Wettling’s driving afterbeat sound is seldom continued for more than one phrase; never so long that it becomes monotonous.
It had been my pleasure to hear George Wettling on records many years before hearing him in person. Our first meeting was prior to a rehearsal of The Philco Hour with Paul Whiteman conducting. Many excellent drummers had worked for Whiteman before and after Wettling, and through it all, George remained “Pops’ ” favorite drummer.
People who came to listen never really heard Wettling play until they got a table close to the bandstand at the Metropole in New York, or Eddie Condon’s place, or any of the many smoke-filled clubs where small groups containing big stars held forth. It was in such an atmosphere that Wettling’s sound became his best showcase. Never a hard sound from a tom-tom, tremendous lift, and perhaps his very greatest asset—the ability to make it all look so easy.
Wettling’s life away from the bandstand was a study in contrast. It was a surprise to find that he had been perusing the score of Stravinsky’s I’Histoire Du Soldat. What could be in such a piece that held his interest? Wettling had the true artist’s curiosity of what makes things tick. The last part of the piece, “Triumphal March Of The Devil,” has a very challenging section that must be played with the exact sticking specified by the composer. Wettling had patience and recognized the fact that Stravinsky’s music was not something to be faked and could be played well only if thought out correctly. Such was the makeup of this multi-talented man.
One of the best examples of Wettling’s style is on an LP issued by Columbia records: Eddie Condon’s Treasury of Jazz (CL881). From the first note of the first tune, the listener must certainly know the best is being heard. Wettling is quietly influencing the band by leaning on the beat of the bass man, rather than creating an independent beat of his own. The drums are blending and enhancing at the same time—not an easy thing to do.
On Pee Wee Russell’s “Three-Two-One Blues,” Wettling shows his ingenuity by lending body to a small group’s sound. Coming out of a 12-bar phrase, he suddenly uses an open cymbal to create a startling and explosive turn-around leading to the next 12-bar blues phrase. On the final 12 measures, rather than playing only a traditional downbeat and remaining silent for the other three beats in each bar, the creative Wettling rolls lightly on the snare drum through each measure in addition to softly punctuating each downbeat with his bass drum. Never does any of this cover the clarinet solo he is backing. A mental giant is hard at work behind his drumset throughout this recording.
It can be seen from the photo of Wettling and Whiteman, and the sound of the cymbals on the Condon All Stars recording, that Wettling was not a big cymbal user. But his cymbal sounds were always appropriate and blended well with whatever instrument he was backing. On slow ballads, his brush playing and team work with the string bass is absolute genius. When the bass is playing long, arco sounds (with bow) there is barely any sound of an afterbeat that would interfere with or interrupt the full value of each half note emanating from the bass. How many drummers had this understanding and musicianship to help a bass man by not emphasizing an afterbeat? How many drummers knew when to stop using the hi-hat?
If you’re still unconvinced of Wettling’s greatness, listen to Drumsticks, Trumpets And Dixieland (International Award Series, AK-164) where the man does a “going out” signal with a two beat feel that is just about the greatest drumming ever to be heard.
Rudimental drumming, sometimes described by “died-in-the-wool” jazz men as rhythm gone astray, or rhythm not knowing where to roost, was never a problem for Wettling. He knew when not to use rudiments and used them to perfection in his brush work. It was the accents that made these beats, and it is interesting that Wettling was keenly aware of a bouncing left-hand technique for brush playing.
Wettling was also a recording engineer’s dream. Each of his rimshots had the same sound and dynamic level. Not a metallic tin-pan sound, but the sound of wood—dry without overtones. His use of calfskin heads gave a mellowness to his sound that is difficult to obtain today.
The last time I was ever to hear this great artist was with Pete Fountain’s band. The spark and sound were still there, the smile still there, but diabetes and a lung ailment held the whip hand over one of the greatest jazz band drummers who ever lived.
He died on June 6, 1968 in New York City, and if ever a player deserved to be in a Drummer’s Hall Of Fame, it was George Wettling.
I was once hired to fill the chair George had recently vacated. To fill this man’s shoes was an impossibility. One could only try. While George Wettling never criticized any drummer, he listened to them all—and copied no one.