Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy 101st Birthday to Big Sid Catlett!

Today, legendary drummer Big Sid Catlett would have been 101-years-old. It's a tragedy that Sid only made it to 41, but oh, the music he created in that time (my pal Michael Steinman recently had a post with an 18-year-old Sid swinging on a Punch Miller record from 1928, Sid's creative shadings already much in place. His partnership with Louis was one of the greatest in all of jazz and if I had the time, the Louis-Sidney relationship deserves no less than a year full of blog posts, a thesis and a hardcover book. But since I don't have the time for any of that, I'm just going right to the heart of it by sharing audio of three Catlett features on the song "Mop Mop" from the year 1947, one of which I can almost guarantee has never been shared publicly.

The song "Mop Mop" was originally credited to Coleman Hawkins as "Boff Boff" and was recorded for Commodore under that title, with Sid on December 4, 1943. A little more than a month later, it was featured at the famous Esquire jazz concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, with Sid also getting his innings in. The song's a catchy riff contrafact of "I Got Rhythm" with a melody that is ideal for the drums; I can't count how many drummers I've heard sneak a snatch of it into a solo.

By 1947, "Boff Boff' had turned into "Mop Mop," but aside from the title change, everything else was the same. Catlett hadn't performed with Louis for years but he returned for an all-star event at Carnegie Hall on February 8, 1947. The main feature of this concert was a first half that placed Louis in a small-group setting, sitting in with Edmond Hall's sextet for a romping set. The second half featured Louis with his brassy big band of the time (not one of his finest units) but with the added attraction of Billie Holiday and the return of Big Sid. History has focused so much on the small-group part of the evening, that Sid's feature has become almost forgotten. Well, not anymore: here's Big Sid and Louis's big band on "Mop Mop" (oh, and the pretty poor boppish trumpet at the start is definitely not Louis!):

Excellent stuff, Big Sid. The small-group portion was such a hit, it led to Louis's famed Town Hall concert in May 1947, once again with Sid on drums. When that night became the stuff of legend, it was time for Louis to ditch the big band and lead a small group. The drum choice was a no-brainer as Big Sid became the full-time tub thumper from August 1947 until ill health forced him to leave in March 1949.
[UPDATE: After posting a link to this blog on Facebook earlier today, a disagreement broke out as to whether or not the trumpeter on that first bridge is Louis. I still say it's not but a very respected historian says it is. I don't think I can be swayed so I ask you dear readers to sign in and leave a comment....did Louis take that first bridge or is that a youngster in the trumpet section? Let me know!]

By November 1947, the All Stars were being booked in prestigious places such as Carnegie Hall and Boston's Symphony Hall. The Symphony Hall show is one of best-known recordings in the Armstrong discography, having been released by Decca in 1951 (though it's not complete; we still have to wait for the day when a complete edition gets the royal treatment). At both venues, Sid got two features, "Steak Face" and "Mop Mop." Last year, for Sid's centennial, I shared both versions of "Steak Face" in a post that can be found be clicking here. As I noted back then, Sid had worked out huge chunks of his solos, setting them like Armstrong did on some of his trumpet solos and fellow All Stars Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard did with their features. It's a practice that's all but taboo today but this was a generation and these guys worked to achieve the perfect solo. Once they had, why start from scratch?

So let's jump in with quite a rarity, a never-before-issued version of "Mop Mop" from Carnegie Hall, November 15, 1947:

Dynamite stuff. Sid's use of dynamics is something to marvel at; he builds things to a such a quiet, low simmer, making the listener pay attention. But for all of his creativity and remarkable swing, one can never forget that Sid was one of the greatest showmen in the history of jazz. We have precious little video of Sid in action but if you listen closely, you can hear spaces where Sid was probably tossing and twirling his sticks. At the Louis Armstrong House Museum, we have a photo of Sid with four drumsticks, one under his neck and one in his armpit, in the middle of twirling them around his head, a trick Lionel Hampton later did. I've seen critics frown on Hampton's use of showmanship then praise Sid's taste but I have a feeling that if video survived of one of these "Mop Mop's," we'd see enough showmanship to make our heads spin like those sticks. And that's not a bad thing.

Oh, and how about that band? Man, Louis is killing it and the rest of the group sounds great (Teagarden can't help but quote "I Got Rhythm" at the end, something he did at the Esquire concert...he probably didn't believe in contrafacts). Two weeks after Carnegie Hall, the band traveled up to Boston for the aforementioned Symphony Hall show. This is a well-known Catlett feature but it doesn't hurt to hear it again, especially to compare the similarities (of which there are many) with the Carengie Hall version we just heard.

Because it's so well known, I've dipped into my bag to share a little rare treasure to set the mood. In 1956, Louis did a series of Voice of America broadcasts where he acted as his own disc-jockey, selected music and introducing it with stories and such. I've shared many of these tidbits before and I'm about to do so again as in the third hour of broadcasts, Louis selected this version of "Mop Mop," which, in the original release, reverted back to the original title of "Boff Boff." Here's Louis introducing it with some very kind words about the dear, departed Sid (and a plug for being "physic-minded'!):

And finally, the main event, "Boff Boff" at Symphony Hall:

Another magnificent feature (though listen to Sid apparently drum his sticks during final toss around the 4:30 mark, with Louis offering a pained, "Ohhh" in response!). Many broadcasts survive from Sid's two years with Louis but only one more "Mop Mop" was captured, a great one from Ciro's in Philadelphia in 1948. But I'm going to save that for another day as I don't want to empty my arsenal of goodies in one shot. So until that day, enjoy these three gems from 1947 and don't forget to celebrate the genius of Big Sid Catlett EVERY day!


Hal Smith said...

Thank you for remembering the greatest jazz drummer of all, and for posting that wonderful music!!!

Anonymous said...

My goodness... it could never get any better than that... his ideas... the combinations... his tonalities... his forces... Although "Boff" is built on a march it's totally African and that's what I love about Sid... his Africanism. Like Hal says "the greatest (jazz) drummer of all."
Thanks Ricky! Mike Burgevin

Michael Steinman said...

Thank you for the plug up front -- Sid is alive as I write this! But about the trumpet playing on MOP MOP: the thin tone, the phrasing (and tonation) -- that's one of the young cats in Louis's band showing off at Carnegie Hall with his new licks. Louis never ever played such stuff, and his only satire of bebop was vocal (lyrics by Milt Gabler, THE BOPPENPOOF SONG). Have the noted historian compare that solo with any of Louis's known playing from the same concert . . .

Ken Mathieson said...

Fantastic stuff! Sid was my inspiration and prime influence when I was starting out as a cub drummer, so I know every second of the Symphony Hall Boff Boff. It's fascinating to hear the Carnegie Hall cuts, especially the longer work-out from 15 Nov 1947 which is so beautifully recorded.

Clearly Sid had worked out the main thematic materials of this solo, but in performance, he's improvising on these themes: the detail and interpretation vary radically within a broad overall structure from version to version. It's maybe a bit fanciful to call it a sonata construction, but it's a "theme and variation approach" and so melodic you can sing huge chunks of it!

As for the showmanship, we can't see it on a sound-clip, but the musicality of his playing isn't damaged by the show-biz stuff. Incidentally, on the 15 Nov '47 Carnegie Hall clip, over 2.5 seconds elapse just before the out-chorus while a stick goes up in the air. That's some throw and the cymbal smash at the end is right on the money!

Thanks for making this available and I can't wait to hear the version from Ciro's.

Ken Mathieson

Randy said...

As always, thanks for both the information and the music. It's always a great treat to hear something I haven't heard yet and you've done it yet again! On that trumpet on the first bridge, I can not see any way that it's Louis. As another commenter has said, the tonality, phrasing, and tone just aren't Louis at all. Like you, I've spent most of my life listening to postwar Louis and have never heard anything even remotely approaching that bridge in conception or execution. So I'm with you but would love to understand the well known historian's reasons for thinking it's Louis. Again, thanks Ricky!

Peter Howell said...

Sid is the master. The most swinging and tasteful drummer ever to pick up a pair of sticks (or brushes). Gone, but definitely not forgotten.