Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett

Sidney "Big Sid" Catlett

Though Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett came out of the swing era, he is best remembered for a drumming style that had a marked influence on the bop drummers of the 1940s. Catlett bridged the gap between the two genres, and his recordings with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker made him one of the few drummers to survive the transition from swing to bop.

Catlett was born in Evansville, Indiana, in 1910, and began his career in Chicago at sixteen. After coming to New York in 1930 with Sammy Stewart, he went on to work with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Don Redman, Rex Stewart, and Teddy Wilson. He spent 1938–42 with Louis Armstrong, and he played with Benny Goodman’s band for a short while in 1941. A notable figure on the 52nd St. scene, Catlett performed with Ben Webster, Don Byas, and Lester Young, and appears on countless records with other leading players. Winner of the Esquire Gold Award in 1944 and ’45, he later returned to Armstrong’s All-Stars band in 1947. The last years of his life were spent freelancing in Chicago, where he died in March of 1951.

“I think he had the smoothest style of any drummer of that era, and possibly since. Everything flowed.”
—Ed Shaughnessy

Like Jo Jones, Catlett influenced drummers primarily due to his conceptual innovations and contribution to the rhythm section as a whole. Acclaimed for his remarkably steady timekeeping, Catlett was a functional player who believed his primary task was to integrate the rhythm section into the work of the entire group. Though influenced early on by Zutty Singleton’s military flavor, Catlett developed a linearity that hadn’t been heard before. An incredibly adaptable drummer, he was at home in small groups or big bands, New Orleans–style to bop.

Though more low-profile than his contemporaries, Catlett could be a great showman when the need arose, and he had outstanding technical ability. However, his key motivation was the music. The epitome of grace and beauty, his playing was firm, supportive, and extremely tasteful, with a great sense of form and structure. His solos were explorations of theme-and-variation, where melodic opening statements were set up, repeated, and then embellished upon. These ingeniously structured solos exemplified Catlett’s keen sense of dynamics, humor, and surprise, beginning at times at thunderous levels and ending at delicate pianissimos. His bass drum explosions echoed in the early work of the modernists, and his hi-hat style helped popularize the instrument as a primary timekeeping device.

“He didn’t have to be the bombastic, take-over drummer. He always was
the musician.”
—Billy Taylor

Acknowledged as an important pivotal player, Big Sid would have a direct impact on the drumming of Max Roach, Art Blakey, Shelly Manne, Stan Levy, and Ed Shaughnessy. An inspired performer, Big Sid Catlett is considered one of the most important drummers who ever lived.

This article originally appeared in Ron Spagnardi’s The Great Jazz Drummers, published by Modern Drummer Publications. To order either a print copy or a digital edition with audio, visit the Shop at moderndrummer.com.

by Ron Spagnardi