Thursday, March 11, 2010

World's Greatest Drummers: My Short List

It's Thursday afternoon and I feel like stirring up controversy. The catalyst for this post is going over some old posts I have made on various forums regarding who is the best drummer. The truth be known, the best is a matter of personal opinion and, often, is the drummer who most inspires you. I could easily whip out a list of ten, but coming up with the top three takes some deep thought.

Chick Webb is always going to top my list, and my reasons are simple: first, he overcame physical handicaps that should have kept him in a wheelchair. That he even could play drums is a feat in itself. Second, he combined chops that were superhuman with a sense of music that made him the idol of every drummer who saw or heard him. In Legends of Jazz Drumming Louis Bellson waxed enthusiastic about Chick's God given talents and cited him as one of three drummers who inspired him to take up drums. Even Buddy Rich whose normal mode was characterized by an overinflated ego cited Chick as the best. Bert Korall devoted 34 pages to Chick in Drummin' Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz The Swing Years, but a real gem is Ron Fritts' Ella Fitzgerald: The Chick Webb Years and Beyond 1935-1948. If you haven't listened to Chick lately, try this Chick Webb discography (I definitely recommend Stompin' at the Savoy). That Chick was competitive is amply shown in stories of the many battles of the bands he won at the Savoy. Here is an account of the famous Chick Webb/Count Basie battle. Benny Goodman's band suffered the same fate every time they played the Savoy opposite Chick, and Krupa once said before one engagement that he was going to get another drum lesson.

The choice comes to - in my personal short list - either Papa Jo Jones or Big Sid Catlett as the second best drummer. I have made my admiration for Jo Jones clear in my 26 February post about him, but that does not automatically confer the number two spot.

Indeed, it was a tough call, but Big Sid Catlett wins it by a hair. Actually, it was a number of small factors that pushed my opinion towards Sid, foremost of which was the fact that he continued growing musically in his all-too-short life, starting as one of Louis Armstrong's favorite drummers, through the Swing/Big Band era, to bebop. Had his untimely demise not occurred at a short forty one years of age, there is no telling how he would have evolved, but I like to think that he would have gone the same route as one of his contemporaries, Panama Francis, and worked magic in the studio making pop and rock hits. We'll never know. Papa Jo, as much as I love and admire the man, became irascible as he grew older, walking out of studio sessions if the music didn't swing. That does not diminish his significant contributions to drumming, including practically defining hi-hat and brush playing that changed the art of drum kit playing, but it does tarnish my concept of greatness. Ironically, one of my favorite clips of Jo Jones is of him backing Chuck Berry on Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day (see my 19 February post.)

Big Sid, though, touched every drummer who saw him, and if I were to list testimonials it would take pages. Instead, I am going to quote Louis Bellson who is a drummer that should be on everyone's top ten list of greatest drummers. Here is what Louis said when inducted into the Percussive Arts Hall of Fame:

“My mentors,” Bellson told Modern Drummer in 1991, “were Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Big Sid Catlett, Baby Dodds, Davey Tough, and Gene Krupa.

"Let me say this, anyone today who does not say they were influenced by Big Sid, must not play the drums." ---Louis Bellson, 1995.

There are those who can say better than I what made Big Sid great: Michael Steinman's Sidney at 100 not only says it better than I ever could, but he includes some amazing sound files that epitomize Big Sid's playing. Two other pages, one by Sirazsocialist and the other by The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong also sum up my feelings about Big Sid. There is one final page on this great drummer's centennial, Big Sid, a force in the 1940s, that adds yet another set of reasons to hold Big Sid as one of the greatest drummers ever born.

I'll close with two of my favorite photos of Mr. Catlett, and hope you will dig deeper into the man and the musician.

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