Celebrate Big Sid Catlett's Centennial With A Little "Steak Face"

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!


Terry Teachout said…
Big Sid was one of the two greatest jazz drummers who ever lived.
Ricky Riccardi said…
Dave Tough being the other, Terry?
Terry Teachout said…
Yep--I think they were peers, and peerless (though of course there were other wonderful drummers in those days!).
Mike Forbes said…
I first heard this on a 45rpm EP I bought in the mid-50s. The other side had the Body and Soul feature for Barney Bigard. Again this is almost a carbon copy for B&S at other concerts. Have you reviewed Body and Soul? I think it's a most memorable performance (but not featuring Louis, of course)
Jim Denham said…
“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
Peter Howell said…
Great, thanks for putting this online. Big Sid is my favourate drummer, with Papa Jo and Dave Tough following close behind.
Dave said…
To my ear Sid's Symphony Hall solo is more polished and mature. It flows without interruption absolutely perfectly from start to finish, whereas in the Carnegie Hall solo there are a few breaks just a second or two too long or too brief.

Sid was, like Louis, a master at timing and playing off the on-beat, always a thrilling way to play and a bonus for us listeners because this always keeps us on the edge of our seats, as in "Oh-oh; what's coming next?" - where again like Louis - Big Sid knew exactly what to do, whether it was a splash on the splash cymbal, a bomb dropped on his beautifully-tuned base drum or tom-toms, a rata-tat-tat on his high hat or playing around the entire set with a flourish and a sound that will likely never be matched.

IMHO most drummers rush themselves into a solo and lose its profile through a self-driven eagerness to shine. Sid saw far beyond this and was patient enough to wait and let the time and timing develop itself. Every one of his solos throughout his too-short career is perfect note-for-note. Add one more - or subtract one - and the solo falls apart.

Like Louis he had an unmatched ability to anticipate what was coming next, whether with a singer or instrumentalist, and could fill - or leave empty (very difficult to do!) - exactly for what the next bar felt and sounded best, musically and otherwise.

Big Sid was sought after by singers and numerous colleagues because of this skill, where they knew that with him they would not only feel more comfortable than with almost any other drummer, but also that with Sid they knew he was going to augment their performance, not detract from it (with, for example, noisy cymbal work throughout their solo, or other distracting pyrotechnics).

Big Sid learned a lot about drumming through his early years of watching and playing for vaudeville dancers, who quickly came to enjoy the experience on their side of the floor. They got a kick (bad pun; sorry!) out of his beat pushing them to move in very intricate, fast-stepping ways beyond the score, where they were soon demanding that he always be the drummer in the band.

Above all, like the handful of superlative artists who have graced the ages with their talents and skills, Big Sid just 'knew' what to do. Such unique intuition cannot be taught, and fortunate are we that we have what we do from his very short career.

Finally, Sid made possibly the first recording as a traditional-style drummer sliding over to bop, which revealed once again his intuitive abilities. He could easily have become one of its leading exponents.

I have been listening to the Symphony Hall solo for over 50 years and have yet to tire of it. I do not know of another solo by any other jazz drummer that is as melodic, as musically imaginative and creative, as thrilling and compelling.

Happy Birthday Sidney!
Jeff Myers said…
I am very late and new to the fans of "Big" Sid party. But no less enthusiastic. I do believe he has become my personal all time Favorite Drummer. I am in awe of the Continuity, and Finesse that he demonstrates.
I personally prefer the Carnegie Hall version of Steak Face. Primarily for the wonderful Bonus of Louis' Introduction, and trailing comments.
It seems that this Blog is the ONLY place that it is available. I am so happy to have discovered it, and Grateful to Ricky Riccardi for making it available.

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