Heroes #2: Arthur ‘Zutty’ Singleton, 1898-1975

Zutty and I played together pretty nearly all our lives.” – Louis Armstrong

Zutty Singleton.jpg

With LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S [second] HOT FIVE, 1928-9

By popular consensus, Zutty (pronounced ‘Zooty’ – a Creole term meaning ‘cute’), is really the only musician to rank as an equal with the great Baby Dodds in the pantheon of 1920s jazz drummers. Although he arrived a year or two later on the scene than Dodds, he matches his peer in almost every respect. Zutty’s pedigree (growing up in the New Orleans parade bands) his huge and varied body of work (recording and performing on and off with both Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton throughout their lives as well as a host of other legendary figures) and the sheer quality of his playing (which becomes more clear as the decade, and recording technology, progresses) all set him above virtually every other drummer active during the period. Despite the fact that Zutty survived Dodds (who died in 1959) and continued to perform and record into the 1960s, there is a feeling that his legacy has since been slightly lost in the long shadow cast by the treasure-trove of information left by Dodds (in the form of a spoken-word record and an engaging autobiography). Zutty consequently appears to us a rather more enigmatic figure, and close attention to his recorded work is more important to fully appreciate his contribution to jazz drumming.

Zutty was born in May 1898 in Bunkie, Louisiana. He began professionally as a teenager playing in a duo with pianist Steve Lewis, an eccentric pianist who would later go on to play in Armand J. Piron’s famous orchestra. The first recordings Singleton made were in 1924 with Fate Marable’s Society Syncopators, a band which worked primarily on the Streckfus Line of Mississippi steamboats. Zutty had joined Marable’s band in 1921, indirectly replacing Baby Dodds, who had left to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago (Floyd Casey filled in between them). Marable’s band was famous for its huge range of repertoire, and whilst incorporating elements of jazz improvisation, his players primarily had to be crack readers. It was with Marable that Zutty fully learned his trade as a professional. He later recalled:

“When some musician would get a job on the riverboats with Fate Marable, they’d say, ‘Well, you’re going to the conservatory […] the men who worked with him had to  be really good. […] When I joined him […] the best I could do was try to read, with my head buried in the music sheet while I kept time. […] The way it worked on the boats was Monday nights the dances were for colored. Every night the boats would travel up and down the river for a while and then come back. The riverboat bands played dance music mostly. But Fate had things like Jelly Roll Morton’s tunes in his book, numbers like ‘The Pearls’ and ‘Jelly Roll Blues’. And he had songs like ‘Frankie And Johnny’.”

Marable’s band’s recording of Roy Bargy’s ‘Pianoflage’ (presumably a pun on ‘camouflage’ – the Great War was still fresh in many minds) is a rattling good piece of early 20s jazz with some very propulsive banjo playing, some nifty novelty alto saxophone and a lot of neat muted trombone. However, we can only hear the twenty-six year-old Zutty at a few choice moments, playing a choked cymbal (incidentally, a smaller and higher-pitched one than that which Baby Dodds used with King Oliver around the same time) and distantly, in the last chorus, a woodblock. Singleton later recalled making these records:
‘Frankie And Johnny’, with Fate’s band, was the first record I was ever on. At that time they brought the machines along with them [presumably on the riverboat?] and we made the record for OKeh in New Orleans. The other side was ‘Piano Flight’ [sic.]

It seems a fair assumption that he may have been dissuaded from using his full set by the OKeh recording engineers for fear that drums would ruin the recording, just as their counterparts at Gennett had restricted Baby Dodds to cymbal and block when recording King Oliver’s band the previous year.

St.Louis pianist Margie Creath recalled her brother Charlie returning from hearing Zutty with Marable’s band when the riverboat stopped there in 1924 and telling her, “I heard the drummin’est s.o.b. in the world.” Soon after this Singleton left the river and settled in St.Louis for a time, where he played and recorded with Charlie Creath’s band and eventually married Margie. In 1925 the Singletons moved to Chicago and Zutty quickly began working with the best bands in the city: Doc Cook’s, Jimmie Noone’s, and Carroll Dickerson’s at the newly-opened Savoy Ballroom, where he was reunited with another riverboat alumnus – Louis Armstrong. By 1928, the success of his Hot Five records of the middle 20s had made Armstrong one of the best-selling recording artists in America. However, the Hot Five was never a gigging band and after having spent the latter part of the previous year experimenting with larger recording ensembles (featuring Baby Dodds or Tubby Hall on drums), Armstrong decided to re-form his Hot Five again, this time using personnel from Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra – Armstrong’s regular gig. These included the exceptional pianist Earl Hines and Zutty Singleton on drums.

Throughout his career Zutty seems to have been keen to stay abreast of new developments in percussion instrument design. He was an early adept of the brushes, began to use modern-style tunable toms soon after they first appeared, and in his later years smoothly made the transition to hi-hat and ride cymbal when they came into vogue. In 1928 he adopted a novelty percussion instrument which might then have seemed destined to become a standard part of the drum set, yet it would disappear completely within a few years – the ‘Bock-A-Da-Bock’ or hand cymbal. Zutty’s name became synonymous with this instrument, as (for better or worse) he used it prominently on some of the most timeless records made in the decade.  I could have chosen ‘Fireworks’, ‘West End Blues’ or ‘Sugar Foot Strut’ by Louis’ second Hot Five, all of which showcase Singleton’s mastery(!) of the bock-a-da-bock. The classic example though is surely ‘A Monday Date’, with its opening skit in which, after ribbing Earl Hines and tuning up the band, Louis growls the immortal words:

            ‘Say, c’mon Zutty: whip them cymbals, Pops.’

The other highlight of Singleton’s 1920s recording career came a year or so later, when he cut four sides with the only true genius other than Armstrong active in jazz at this point – pianist Jelly Roll Morton – in a trio setting, the third musician being New Orleans clarinettist Barney Bigard. This was the third time Singleton had played successor to Baby Dodds in a band (first Marable’s, then Armstrong’s, and now Morton’s – Dodds had recorded two sides in a trio of Morton’s with Dodds’s brother Johnny on clarinet two years before). To my mind the trio sides Zutty recorded with Morton’s trio are his best work during the 20s, and some of the greatest and most clearly-recorded jazz drumming of the entire decade. Singleton’s drums sound full and round, and in such a small band the wonderful detail in his playing is at last clearly audible.

On ‘Smilin’ The Blues Away’, an elegant and intricate composition, Zutty begins playing press rolls on his snare drum with occasional syncopated fills on tomtoms and rims. Behind Morton’s piano solo he plays beautiful swinging brushes, leading back into Bigard’s solo with a classic second-line style fill. Throughout he displays his trademark musicality and delicacy of touch combined with a sense of groove which powers the band without ever becoming overbearing.
Many years later, Zutty recalled how the session was organised by Morton: “All he wanted me to do was keep time. Keep time, listen, and try to phrase. But he didn’t have parts written out.”

Zutty’s playing on these trio records with Morton and Bigard is so excellent – let’s have another one!

‘My Little Dixie Home’ – don’t be put off by the corny title – is a serious piece of jazz. It swings seemingly effortlessly, and Zutty’s drums once again are at the heart of it all. The first few choruses find him mixing up his press rolls with New Orleans-style fills (perhaps inspired by the title and the presence of two fellow Crescent City musicians?) on tomtoms and cowbell, then picking up the hand cymbals once again (though in a much more subtle manner than he had with Armstrong!) to accompany Morton’s piano solo. Towards the end of the number Singleton even prefigures the direction jazz drumming was eventually to take decades later, when for half a chorus or so he rides on an open cymbal for several bars at a time. A complete transcription of Zutty’s performance on this side can be found on the ‘Library’ page.

Whenever anyone asks about 1920s drumming, what instruments were used, what sort of textures and rhythmic patterns those drummers played (when keeping time and filling) and how to put it all together in a band situation, I can only ever point to these trio records as an ideal place to start listening, and (if you’re serious!) transcribing. Zutty simply has it all, and for once we can actually hear him do it properly. ‘Keep time and try to phrase’ – it was what Morton asked him to do, and he did so beautifully.

A last word should perhaps be said on the relationship between Singleton and Baby Dodds, jazz’s first two great drummers, who both grew up in New Orleans and knew each other from boyhood. They crossed paths – and perhaps swords – many times throughout their careers and frequently replaced each other in various bands. It’s hard to believe that they were deadly professional rivals – surely such a thing would have been remembered and passed on by other musicians – but there does seem to have been at least a coolness between them. Certainly they do not seem to have been best friends and brothers-in-arms as you might have hoped.

In his book ‘Jazz Masters of New Orleans’ [1967], Martin Williams recounts an incident at a jam session at Butchy Fernandez’s club in New Orleans, where Zutty and Louis Armstrong held a brief residency in the early 20s:
“One particular evening Baby Dodds was rough enough on Singleton’s drums to break a hole in one of them. The relationship between the two drummers was never the same afterward.”

I can find no corroborating evidence for this anecdote but it’s worth noting that in his autobiography the great bass player Pops Foster recalled that young Zutty was ‘a hardheaded guy who was headstrong and would never listen. He was always wanting to fight about something’. Dodds mentions Singleton – fellow hometown boy and his only real professional peer throughout his life – just three times in his 96-page autobiography: twice in passing and once to state:
“I was the inspiration for another fellow who became a very famous drummer, Zutty Singleton […] He was still a kid in school but he used to love my drumming. He once asked his uncle [Willie Bontemps] ‘I wonder, will I ever drum like that fellow?’ I never taught Zutty a thing but I was his inspiration.”

It’s worth noting that Baby refers to Zutty as a ‘famous’ drummer, rather than a talented one, and that the whole anecdote seems designed to downplay and diminish Zutty’s status relative to his own. Maybe if Singleton had left a book of his own we’d have his side of the story. Regardless, both were geniuses and true originators in their own ways, and deserve equal billing as the founding fathers of jazz drumming.