Big Sid Catlett, b:17 Jan 1910; d:25 March 1951

January 16, 2010 at 6:46 pm (jazz, Jim D)

One of my heroes, the great drummer Sid Catlett

was born 100 years ago. He’s not that widely remembered these days, but some of us think he was far and away the best drummer of the swing era and – had he lived – would have had no difficulty adapting his skills to the requirements of the post-bop era. As it was, even during his short life he moved with ease from the elite big bands of the thirties, like Fletcher Henderson’s, to Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars and then to Bird and Diz, then back to the likes of Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier without any apparent stylistic difficulties and without even noticeably changing his own style.

He wasn’t the first drummer to use a hi-hat or the ride cymbal or to take extended solos or to drop bombs, but he did all those things at a time when they were considered “modern”, combining it all with a relaxed, almost casual,  authority that only the even shorter-lived Chick Webb came close to matching.

‘Big Sid’ wasn’t a particularly heavy drinker by the standards of musicians of his generation, but he lived life to the full, drove himself hard and (according to contemporary accounts) never seemed to sleep. When he became visibly ill in the late-40’s and had to retire from Armstrong’s All-Stars he didn’t seek medical attention. He collapsed and died at the age of 41 at a benefit concert for his friend the trumpeter Hot Lips Page.

“He was a musician’s  drummer. He would ask you, ‘What kind of rhythm shall I play for you?’ That was as soon as you came in the band and after you’d told him you’d get the same thing every night” -Rex Stewart (cornetist)

“Sidney Catlett was nobly constructed. He was six feet three or four inches tall and everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms, the giant tapering fingers, the cannonball fists, the barn door chest and the tiny waist and columnar neck. Big men are often more graceful than small men, and Catlett was no exception. He could swim, play football and basketball, and dance beautifully, but he never learned how to drive a car” -Whitney Balliet (writer)

Though he was such a powerful fellow he could play very lightly without sounding weak, and his generosity matched his size. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it” – Max Kaminsky (trumpeter)

“Sid was the first guy I was aware of who was the complete drummer. He could play in any style. I remember when Buddy Rich was with Tommy Dorsey he used to cut all the drummers, but not Sid. It used to annoy Buddy so much. He’d play all over his head and then Sid would gently play his simple melodic lines on drums – and make his point!” – Billy Taylor (pianist).

Here’s Big Sid on brushes, with the John Kirby Sextet in 1947:

Alyn Shipton and Brit drummer Richard Pite discuss Big Sid on BBC Radio Three, here (accessible for seven days only) -especially good on Big Sid’s legendary falling-out with Benny Goodman (leaving Goodman without drums on his  1941 recording of  ‘The Earl’) and the ease with which he sat in for Max Roach at the New York Town Hall Bird-Diz gig of 1945.



    […] Jim Denham, on his fine blog, SHIRAZ SOCIALIST, has just written a tribute to Sidney: […]

  2. Jim Denham said,

  3. Bruce said,

    Hardly surprising Big Sid could sit in for Max Roach as he was one of Max’s main inspirations. Max wrote a track called ‘For Big Sid’ that appears on his ‘Drums Unlimited’ album.

    A great swing drummer, much better

  4. Bruce said,

    … IMHO than Buddy Rich who seems to lack subtlety (understatement).

  5. Ed Shaughnessy said,

    Big sid was a warm generous
    Mentor to young drummers like
    Meon 52nd the 40’s.
    I’ll always be grateful+ try
    To be the same to “the kids”

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Ed: it’s a great honour to have you commenting here. You’re one of the people who knows what you’re talking about when it comes to jazz drumming. And you’ve played with all the greats:
    Your opinion of Big Sid carries a lot of weight.


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