Zutty Singleton

August 20, 2012

Drum Face

A master of the art of jazz drumming, Zutty Singleton played with a springy, joyous beat, usually displaying more flexibility than his often more stately contemporaries. Even Baby Dodds, generally regarded as the finest of New Orleans drummers, rarely played with Zutty’s sprightly grace.

Jazz drummer on stage

He was born Arthur James Singleton in Bunkie, Louisiana, on 14 May 1898. Zutty’s nickname was bestowed upon him while still a babe-in-arms, the name reflecting the happy countenance he retained throughout his life. Playing drums from a very early age, he worked professionally for the first time in his mid-teens. After military service during World War 1, he played drums with numerous bands in New Orleans, including those of Oscar ‘Papa’ Celestin, ‘Big Eye’ Louis Nelson and Luis Russell, before joining the educational hothouse that was Fate Marable’s riverboat band.

The riverboat experience spread Zutty’s reputation to St. Louis where he played in Charlie Creath’s band and married Charlie’s sister, pianist Marge Creath. In Chicago he drummed with headlining leaders such as Doc Cooke, Dave Peyton and Jimmie Noone, before teaming up with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Among the most important jazz recordings ever made are his late 1920s sessions with Louis Armstrong’s Savoy Ballroom small band.

New York beckoned and there Zutty played with Carroll Dickerson’s top flight band and freelanced throughout the 1930s. He played on numerous recording sessions, including dates with Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton. In the early 1940s, Zutty frequently led his own band, and also backed frontline artists, among whom were such disparate figures as bluesman T-Bone Walker and proto-bopper Charlie Parker. He worked on radio and in films, appearing on-screen in Stormy Weather (1943) and New Orleans (1946).


Stormy Weather poster

Unhappy that he was not invited to join the all-star band formed to back Armstrong in the mid-1940s, Zutty remained active, working with many jazzmen, including Eddie Condon, Joe Marsala and Wingy Manone.

Early in the 1950s, Zutty spent time in Europe in bands led by Mezz Mezzrow, Bill Coleman, Hot Lips Page and Lillian Armstrong. During the rest of the 1950s and on through the 1960s, Zutty worked mostly in New York, which is where he had made his home. Towards the end of the 1960s, he appeared in the remarkable French documentary film, L’Aventure Du Jazz (1969), playing unaccompanied drum solos. The soundtrack of this film was released on a double LP, but I think not yet on CD; similarly, I believe that the film has yet to become available on DVD.

Zutty’s playing career ended following a stroke in 1970 and he lived out his life in New York with Marge. Widely admired and regarded as a father figure to the city’s jazz community, he died there on 14 July 1975.

The buoyancy Zutty brought to his playing ensured that any session on which he played swung mightily. An early champion of wire brushes and a distinctive user of the sock cymbal, together with other ear-catching effects, placed him well ahead of his time as a jazz drummer. A wide-ranging compilation of Zutty’s recordings over the years can be heard on a two-volume set issued by Big Bill Bissonnette on his Jazz Crusade label. Zutty-cd

A gifted soloist, Zutty would sometimes follow the penchant of New Orleans drummers for starting a solo playing the melodic line of the number before creating rhythmic variations. A memorable example of his skill as a drum soloist is the unaccompanied Drum Face on a Mezzrow date in Paris in 1951 (released on a Jazz Legacy LP); other fine examples are heard on sessions recorded for Fat Cat’s Jazz, notably the LP, Zutty And The Clarinet Kings.  Zutty-and-Kings-cdThese records show him to be witty, inventive, always swinging, and offering much to be admired and emulated by later generations of jazz drummers.




 Been here . . .. . . and gone


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