This Sunday, January 17, drum legend "Big" Sid Catlett would have been 100. A real tragedy of Sid's life was the fact that he didn't even make 50, passing away at the age of 41 in 1951. But the beautiful thing about musicians is once they make a record--even if it's only one single tune--they instantly become immortal. And brother, Sid was one of the immortals.
I wish I had the time to wax poetically about Sid's greatness and the special chemistry he has with Louis Armstrong in their multiple stints together. Unfortunately, it is crunch time for my book as I am officially in the trenches these days, editing chapters each and every night (it's only unfortunate for the blog....it's VERY fortunate for me and the book!). However, I know that Michael Steinman, one of Sid's greatest supporters, will have something beautiful to share on his Jazz Lives blog so keep checking for that. And my good friend from England, Phil Ralph, has written in to tell me that Sid's greatness is going to be celebrated on BBC radio this week. Fortunately for those who don't live in England, the Internet was invented to make listening to these things quite easy. Paul Barnes will be doing a tribute to Sid on Saturday that will be able to be accessed by clicking this link starting on Sunday. And the author Alyn Shipton will be able to heard by clicking here.
So if you have some free time to spend on the Internet this weekend, it will be quite easy to get your Big Sid fix. Though the concept of free time is alien to me, I have to do something to mark the occasion. I could chose almost any Armstrong-Catlett recording and believe me, you'll get the message. But which one? "Wolverine Blues"? "I Never Knew"? "Musktrat Ramble" from Symphony Hall?
All great recordings but I think I should share a feature. And to those in the know, there was no greater Catlett feature than his workout on "Steak Face," recorded live at Symphony Hall in Boston on November 30, 1947. It's truly one of the great drum solos of all time not because Catlett smashes things hard and fast. Instead, it's the subtlety of it, the slow burn, the build-up to a ferocious climax, the obvious bits of showmanship we can only hear (Sid was a master at tossing the sticks), the melodic nature of it all. Tour de force is an often overused phrase but I dare you to come up with a better one.
"Duh, Ricky," some of the know-it-alls might be thinking. "Of course, you'd pick 'Steak Face' for a Catlett tribute. Borrrr-ing." Naturally, I have something up my sleeve...how about an unissued version of "Steak Face" from Carnegie Hall recorded just two weeks earlier on November 15, 1947? Ah, now I have your attention, huh?
The All Stars played a magnificent show at Carnegie Hall that night but none of the music has been issued (though I've shared some performances before). A few performances no longer exist and some do survive in cruddy sound. But a bunch are in briliant sound and they're not only brilliant, but very instructive to listen to. The All Stars had only been an official group for about four months but they already had the show down pat. Many of the same songs were repeated at Symphony Hall, including the features. Hell, many of the same solos were repeated at Symphony Hall. The Boston outing has been rightfully hailed as a classic for 60 years but after listening to the Carnegie Hall show, I can tell you that it was just another astonishing night by a band that had many of them.
One of my constant themes on this blog surrounds Armstrong playing "set" solos, something critics beat him up for. Well, he wasn't alone. It was clearly a generational thing and it's nothing to be ashamed of: fellow All Stars Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard played almost identical solos at both the Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall shows. But what about Catlett? Yes, him, too. The "Steak Face" at Carnegie Hall is so similar to the Symphony Hall version I've known for so song that the first time I listened to it, I thought it was the Symphony Hall version by accident. Nope, Sid just had that routine together.
That's what surprised me the most...and maybe even the least. Okay, a trumpet player can play a set solo or a saxophone player. But a drummer? I never thought of drummers playing set solos. But "Steak Face" was such a brilliantly conceived outing that it makes perfect sense to imagine Sid perfecting every second of that routine night after night. That doesn't diminsh its power or authority one single bit. Listen for yourself and raise your glass to the heavens in honor of Big Sid, the greatest drummer to ever pick up a pair of sticks (in my humble opinion).
Here's the Carnegie Hall "Steak Face":
And the famous Symphony Hall version:
Happy birthday, Big Sid!