© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
As long as Martin Williams was around, a man that Gary Giddins has called “... the most influential Jazz critic of his generation,” there would be no forgetting of Jazz pioneers.
This article about the spearheading Jazz drummer Arthur James “Zutty” Singleton is further proof of this assertion.
Martin’s essay on Zutty is based on material included in Jazz Masters of New Orleans which was published by Collier Books in 1965.
“THE HISTORY of jazz drums, according to the version that has cropped up during the last few years, goes something like this: Baby Dodds to Sidney Catlett and Jo Jones to Kenny Clarke to Max Roach and so forth.
But from Dodds to Catlett is a big jump. Besides, this version leaves out a very important drummer, Zutty Singleton. And leaving Zutty Singleton out of the history of jazz would be almost as incongruous as leaving out Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines.
Singleton's most recent recordings have been in accompaniment to singers Victoria Spivey and Alberta Hunter on the Bluesville label, and as participant in some musical Fats Waller reminiscences, led by pianist Dick Wellstood and featuring trumpeter Herman Autrey, on Swingville. These would place Singleton, roughly, in the late 1920s and in the '30s. In one sense, that is where Singleton does belong, yet the facts are that he has also recorded with the archetypal modernist, Charlie Parker, and says of him, "He was the greatest. If you knew anything about music, you knew that right away."
For most people, Baby Dodds represents New Orleans drums. Perhaps that is as it should be, for Dodds' busy and provocative style does belong with the classic period of Crescent City music and with the style and phrasing of its great instrumentalists, such as Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver.
But Zutty Singleton sounded good with Louis Armstrong, and he was almost the first drummer who could truly complement Armstrong's new and provocative ideas of rhythm and phrasing. He, therefore, did not so much summarize the part of jazz drums — as did Dodds — as he outlined their future. So, it is doubly unfortunate that his reputation lived in Dodds' shadow for nearly 15 years.
Singleton was Armstrong's drummer, much as Earl Hines was Armstrong's pianist. And Singleton became Dave Tough's drummer, George Wettling's drummer, and Sid Catlett's drummer. In a sense, Zutty's ideas dominated the swing period, and thereby perhaps evoked the modern period too.
At any rate, it does seem particularly appropriate that Singleton should first have attracted attention playing with Louis Armstrong, should have bolstered his reputation playing with Roy Eldridge in the mid-'30s, and should have been one of the drummers to record with Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-'40s.
Singleton lives today in a comfortable, bright two-room flat at the Alvin, a favorite hotel with musicians, at Broadway and 52nd St. in New York City. His living room, appropriately if perhaps not significantly, overlooks Bird-land, and his mind can range over all of jazz' history.
"No," he said, "I didn't play like the older-style drummers. When I started, I listened to Louis Cottrell — Louis, Senior — who played the Orpheum Theater; Paul Detroit, who just died; and Henry Zeno.
"They all knew how to phrase, and they always played under the band, never loud or overbearing. And they never played too much cymbal. I liked Cottrell's roll and the tone he got. I liked the way Detroit played with the theater acts. He helped me get to play the Lyric Theater in New Orleans, and I worked with Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and many other well-known singers."
Singleton still considers the 1928 Hines-Armstrong-Singleton recordings the best he has made — Fireworks, Skip the Gutter, and Don't Jive Me, through the revolutionary West End Blues, the superb Muggles, and ending with the salaciously classic Tight Like That. (Most of these are now available on Columbia CL 853.)
"Hines had it, too, like Louis," he said. "He has always been my favorite pianist, along with Fats Waller. Those records are my idea of jazz. We didn't call that music Dixieland or anything like that. It was just plain jazz."
And except for a few ensembles, the music on those records was the work of soloists and their accompanists, and the ideas they laid down in turn laid out the future path the music was to take.
"Of course, I had worked with Louis before, in New Orleans," Singleton continued. "You might say he had worked for me. He had just come back from the river-boats, and I got together a little four-piece group to play at the Orchard, a place owned by Butchie Hernandez. I had Johnny St. Cyr on banjo and guitar, Eudell Wilson on bass, Louis, and myself. Guitar, bass, and drums was the rhythm — it was so smooth with those three."
ARTHUR JAMES SINGLETON was born in Bunkie, La., in 1898 and attended school in New Orleans. "Zutty" is Creole patois for cute, and the name was laid on him by an aunt while he was still in the cradle.
Zutty speaks of fascination for drums that goes back to childhood:
"My mother worked for a McBride family. McBride ran a drugstore in Bunkie and played drums in the town band. I used to play with his son Raymond, and one afternoon we found the drum set in the basement. There were no sticks, but I pulled the stays out of the back of a kitchen chair and started to play on them. This was the first time I actually had my hands on any drums."
It was in his early years as a theater musician in New Orleans that Singleton made one of his most important stylistic discoveries about jazz drums. He puts it this way:
"Ethel Waters came to town to play the Lyric, and she taught me the Charleston beat — her way of doing it — for one of her special numbers. It wouldn't come off right at first. Then I found out that if I played four beats on the bass drum instead of two, that made it easy!"
In 1923 Singleton made a move that many New Orleans musicians were making. He began to work on riverboats, the St. Paul and the Capitol, which offered nightly excursions, including dancing. The boats, with their headquarters in St. Louis, were run by the Streckfus family, Capt. John Streckfus most actively, and the line made New Orleans its winter headquarters. Singleton's musical boss was pianist-leader Fate Marable.
Marable's is a fascinating and largely untold story. He was, Singleton said, "a remarkable musician." From New Orleans, for example, he hired Louis Armstrong, the Dodds brothers, Pops Foster, Johnny St. Cyr, Singleton, Red Allen, and many others. He was still an important Midwestern musician in the late '30s when his bands had saxophonist Earl Bostic and bassist Jimmy Blanton, for two examples. And he was an important teacher and disciplinarian to almost all the men he ever hired.
"When I joined him," Singleton attested, "I was replacing a drummer who not only read, but played bells, xylophone, and so forth. All I could do was try to read while I kept time. But Capt. John told Fate to get me to look up and stop keeping my head down looking at the music.
"It was like being in the service to work for Capt. John. He would buy the newest records, by Fletcher Henderson or Paul Whiteman or someone like that, and if he liked a part of the arrangement, we would have to copy it. We started with a stock arrangement and had to figure out how to work it in, but Fate was always musical enough to do it. I remember I had to buy a gong to play Fletcher Henderson's Shanghai Shuffle."
Singleton made records with Marable, incidentally, in New Orleans in March, 1924 — sides that are so rare that many jazz historians have stated that the important pianist-leader never recorded at all.
From the excursion boats to the Streckfus headquarters, St. Louis, was an almost logical step. And it was the one that Zutty took next.
The history of jazz in St. Louis is another largely untold story, one that decidedly needs telling. Most jazz histories are likely to treat the city as a kind of stopping-off place along the route from New Orleans to Chicago. But long before a New Orleans style was established, St. Louis had been a center of ragtime. The St. Louis musicians, possibly because of that tradition, were in some ways more technically adept and sophisticated than the New Orleans men.
The city had fostered Marable, and it also fostered trumpeter-leader Charles Creath, whom Zutty Singleton joined in 1924. His reputation had preceded him, he recalled: "Charlie Creath heard me when we played a dance in Louisville, while I was still with Fate, and he came back saying, 'I heard the drummin'est s.o.b. in the world.'
Pops Foster was playing bass with Creath then, and Creath had found out that I was from New Orleans, but Pops told him, 'Yeah I know him, but he's only a kid.'
"They played a nice kind of jazz in St. Louis, and they improvised very well, with nice melodies."
The "they" also included some highly important white jazz musicians of the time.
"We knew Frankie Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke, Pee Wee Russell, and those fellows," Singleton said "We used to jam with them at the Westlake Dance Pavillion, where they played with Ted Janson's band, every Wednesday night. I remember once the Creath musicians were to play a benefit at the Booker T. Washington Theater, and we got the idea to ask them to join us on the stage. They just about screamed with delight."
Creath's pianist was his sister, Margie. She was soon Mrs. Arthur Singleton—and she still is.
IN 1925 Singleton was again following the course of jazz: he and his wife decided to go to Chicago. They packed the Model T Ford they owned and set out. It was not his first trip there. He had gone in 1916 just to see the town, and he also was there in 1917 in the Navy.
This time the trip was professional, and Singleton got his first job substituting for Baby Dodds in a group that included Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Natty Dominique on trumpet. But his most important job was with the orchestra of Charles (Doc) Cook—"Doc Cook and His Seventeen Interns." Cook had been the attraction at Chicago's Dreamland, and his orchestra featured trumpeter Freddie Keppard and the great clarinetist Jimmie Noone. At the same time, Singleton and Noone, with pianist Jerome Carrington, became members of a trio that Noone led at an afterhours club, the Nest, beginning each night at 1 a.m.
The job at the Nest was a particularly fruitful experience. Singleton remembers frequent visits from an attentive Benny Goodman, an appreciative Artie Shaw, and an enthusiastic Carl Sandburg. He also remembers Maurice Ravel, sitting in near-disbelief at Noone's clarinet solos. (The story goes that Ravel transcribed a few of them but found his classical players unable to reproduce them.) And it was at this period that there was a frequent visitor named Sidney Catlett, a young drummer on whom Singleton had an important influence. Catlett, in fact, did so much playing with the group that Noone used to request of him, "Let Zutty sit in for a while."
It was at this period, and a direct result of the Nest engagement, that Singleton made another of his important musical discoveries about jazz drumming.
Previously, drum solos had been either brief breaks — usually a couple of beats, or a couple of bars — or they were random things, in which the player would strut out his tricks until he ran out of them, whereupon the horn men would resume.
A trio has only three players after all, and at the Nest, Noone and Carrington became used to spelling each other for long solo stretches in the early morning hours. Soon, Noone got the idea of turning also to Singleton.
"Why don't you play for a while?" he'd ask. "Take a chorus."
Zutty would do exactly that; he played a chorus to the piece they were doing, humming it over to himself, and not only finishing at the end of a 12 or 16 or 32 bars, but also marking off the four- and eight-bar internal phrases of the piece as they came along. Young Catlett must have been impressed, for many drummers attest to having first heard Catlett form drum solos in this manner.
Singleton had decided on the basic components of his drum set quite early, almost from the beginning, and they made for a more modest array than most drummers were using at the time: a bass drum; a snare; two tomtoms (the old-style, shallow ones); and two, or more usually three, cymbals. Zutty did not like the wood and temple blocks most drummers of the time employed, nor the cowbells nor the array of chimes and gongs and kettle drums that some show drummers sported.
He also had been using brushes for some years, in addition to sticks. Manuel Perez, the New Orleans cornetist, had early become intrigued with these new pieces of equipment when he saw them in Chicago before World War I, and he sent a pair back to his friend Louis Cottrell in New Orleans. Cottrell fastidiously rejected the brushes because of the way they dirtied his drumheads, and he passed them on to Singleton.
Drums had long been a problem to recording engineers. They still are, in fact, but until the very late '20s jazz and popular percussionists were encouraged to clop away on wood blocks or temple blocks and on cymbals muffled or choked by one hand while being struck by a stick held in the other. From recordings, therefore, listeners get a false picture of how the important early drummers actually played; on the job they might use snare, bass, or cymbals in a way that simply would not register properly on early recording equipment.
However, Singleton did play differently from the rest. His set was simpler. He never used the hi-hat (the pair of cymbals worked with a foot pedal) — "it interferes with the bass," he said. And even then he would play long passages, perhaps whole choruses, on a single ride cymbal sometimes slightly damping it by holding his left drumstick under it and sometimes playing the cymbal unhindered. As usual, he will not now claim to have invented the technique, but he does say, "Well, I can't remember taking it from anybody."
"Even Joe Oliver liked that beat," he added, "and tomtom offbeats too. But different guys wanted different cymbals. Some even liked the old sizzle cymbals, the kind with rivets in them."
But of all his techniques, Singleton was especially favored for his brush work on the snare drum, and it is, therefore, particularly fitting that he should have been one of the first drummers to record that effect. And it is even more fitting that it should have been on the Armstrong-Hines sessions. The producer of the dates Tommy Rockwell, was responsible. He was determined to get Singleton's brush work on records.
"He finally tried holding my snare right on top of the microphone, while I played it with the brushes," Zutty said. "It worked."
It was a dispute over his drum set that finally provoked Singleton to leave Doc Cook.
"I had just got a new set of pearl drums, with a 28-by-16 bass drum," Singleton recalled. "He wanted a deep sound and a big drum, a 28-by-18, and we fell out over this — I was asking myself if I ever decided to leave Cook, what would I do with a big drum like that?"
By the early '30s, Singleton was well established at the Three Deuces club in Chicago, one of the first clubs in that city (or, for that matter, almost any city) that one would actually call a "jazz club," a club catering to listeners.
He was first the leader of Zutty and His Band, which recorded for Decca. And after the Deuces closed temporarily (water seepage was flooding the basement), he reopened with Roy Eldridge. His importance at the time also made him one of the subjects for an early feature story in a then-new music publication called Down Beat. In the mid-'30s, Art Tatum went into the Deuces, bringing his own drummer. Singleton moved on to New York.
He soon became a fixture at the late, lamented Nick's in Greenwich Village, where he might be, say, Sidney Bechet's drummer one week and lead the group himself the next. He was still busy making records, with Bechet, Lionel Hampton, Mezz Mezzrow, Pee Wee Russell, and many another.
In 1941 Zutty was appearing at Jimmy Ryan's on 52nd St. when he was approached by officials of 20th Century-Fox for a part in an all-Negro musical, Stormy Weather, which was to star dancer Bill Robinson and singer Lena Horne. He accepted, and for his sequence worked with one of his favorite musicians, Fats Waller.
After Stormy Weather, there was a brief return to Ryan's, but then Los Angeles again became Singleton's home — for several eventful and enjoyable years, as it turned out. His first job was at Billy Berg's in a group with Roy Eldridge's saxophonist brother, Joe. He soon joined Slim Gaillard's trio at Berg's during what was probably the singer-comedian's most successful period. Singleton recalled the time:
"Slim was going great! And what rhythm! There was Slim and Tiny Brown, the bass player. He had a hit record in Cement Mixer, and we had a Hollywood crowd almost every night — Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Levant, Betty Grable. Berg's stayed packed — you had to be somebody just to get in there. Slim's favorite trick was to do a take-off on the latest movie of anybody who came in. I remember one night he got Gregory Peck by doing a spooky version of Spellbound, complete with music."
It was at this time that the records with Parker and Gillespie were made — originally issued under Gaillard's name — as Gillespie brought his early modern group to Los Angeles for a turbulent stay at Berg's.
"I wish that trio of Slim's was together right now," Singleton said. "We were modern, old-time — anything."
Some of Zutty's other California gigs included a successful series of weekend "all-star" sessions conducted by the local broadcaster who called himself the Lamplighter. Singleton also worked in Ken Murray's long-continuing comedy and music show Blackouts. And he did a series of broadcasts with Orson Welles. For the latter, Singleton was responsible for persuading Kid Ory to come out of what almost amounted to retirement.
"I thought that people would appreciate his kind of music again," Singleton said. "In fact, I never thought it had gotten a real chance with the public. Ory was off the trombone, playing bass in a dance hall. I persuaded him to pick up his horn again. And we got Mutt Carey on trumpet, Ed Garland on bass, Bud Scott on guitar, and my old friend Jimmie Noone, who was then playing jazz clubs in Los Angeles—the Streets of Paris, places like that." Noone died not long after the Welles broadcasts had begun, but Ory was soon into a renewed career.
After World War II Singleton was featured in New Orleans, one of the several attempts Hollywood has made to build a narrative around the history of jazz. Singleton, along with clarinetist Barney Bigard and Ory, was a part of the group especially assembled for Louis Armstrong in the film. They made many more musical sequences than appeared in the film and, as Singleton remembers it, spent even more time playing for the pleasure of cast, crew, visitors from nearby sound stages — and, to be sure, themselves.
A couple of years later, Zutty left California, enticed to France along with trumpeter Lee Collins, by a rather grandiose plan for bookings, imparted by clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, who had become a Paris resident.
The initial reception at a Salle Pleyelle concert in Paris was wonderful, and Singleton said the subsequent response he got from audiences on the tour was personally gratifying. Otherwise, the less said now about this turbulent venture, the better; the recriminations were well reported in Down Beat at the time.
So, in the early 1950s Singleton was again in New York. For a long time, a Singleton trio, with Tony Parenti on clarinet and Dick Wellstood on piano, was responsible for drawing the people from the bustling Broadway-area streets into the Metropole every afternoon. He also often has been heard at the weekend Dixieland - mainstream "jam sessions." And currently he is working at Jimmy Ryan's, now located on W. 54th St.
Among young drummers, Singleton will single out Rufus Jones, formerly of the Maynard Ferguson Band, particularly for his speed.
He greatly admires Max Roach but confesses that he finds some of Roach's followers "a little far out for me."
"I have read so many lies about jazz," Zutty will say ruminatively. "I was a young drummer once. I took over. And everybody said they wanted to hear Zutty play."
That is as much ego as Zutty will display. They are indeed rare words for Zutty Singleton, because he is modest about his abilities, his innovations, and contributions to jazz drumming. But, then, he may demonstrate a technique, on his drums, if they are handy, or with his voice and hands and feet. At those moments Zutty Singleton still seems a young drummer taking over.
November 21, 1963