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, 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), his legacy has since been slightly lost in the long shadow cast by the treasure-trove of information Dodds left behind in the form of multiple spoken recordings and an engaging autobiography. Zutty, besides a few brief recorded interviews, left little of his story in his own words, and consequently appears to us a rather more enigmatic figure. Close attention to his recorded work is thus even more important to fully appreciate his concept of jazz and his contribution to drumming.

Arthur James Singleton was born in May 1898 in Bunkie, Louisiana, and spent much of his childhood moving around the South as his mother was a peripatetic teacher of English among the many French-speaking Cajun communities. He began working regularly around 1915 – whilst still a teenager – playing in a duo with Steve Lewis, an eccentric pianist who would later go on to play in Armand J. Piron’s famous orchestra. Of these formative years, Zutty said: “I was just playing with Steve, just drum and piano […] we’d get little party jobs, home jobs, and different little private parties” – although he was keen to point out that at this stage he did not consider himself a professional musician. Lewis also introduced the young Singleton to a number of other pianists active in 1910s New Orleans that would go on to become important jazz figures in the years to come. Zutty was deeply affected by hearing Jelly Roll Morton for the first time: “I thought he was great; I liked his time, his tempo, the way he played the piano. I felt that I could keep time with him […] I really didn’t know him, I just knew who he was.”

Later in his life, Zutty stated that during the Great War towards the end of the 1910s he served in the Navy alongside Charles Bolden, the son of Buddy – although, unlike many of his contemporaries, no official documentation from Zutty’s time in uniform has yet come to light as far as I’m aware. However, a stint in the armed forces would certainly help to account for a conspicuous lack of information regarding his activities during the period around 1916-23, when he presumably was first serving and then, having been demobilised, returned to his former life in New Orleans.

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.

One of the important stops the riverboats made was upriver in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1924 Margie Creath (pronounced Creth) was a pianist and keen student of the Jelly Roll Morton style of jazz piano, who had been playing in her brother Charlie’s jazz band in and around the St. Louis area for the last few years. She recalled Charlie returning from hearing the Marable band one night when their boat had docked in town and telling her that Marable had “got a guy playing drums – he’s the drummin’est S.O.B. I ever heard in my life! Now I’ve been trying to tell you guys how to play drums; he’s playing the type of drums that I always wanted in my band.” Creath, deeply impressed, introduced himself and despite contrary advice from bassist Pops Foster, he invited Singleton to come up to St. Louis to sit in on a rehearsal. When Zutty arrived at Creath’s house, he found three local drummers there, whom Creath then asked the new arrival to instruct in his authentic New Orleans style. This show of appreciation convinced Singleton to abandon the nomadic life of the river musician for good, to settle in St. Louis. There he made a good living playing regularly with Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs who held a residency at West Lake; it was during this period too that Zutty began his lifelong romance with Margie Creath, whom he would eventully marry.

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 (see Map), 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. It all began with a chance encounter during a regular working day at the Savoy Ballroom with the Dickerson orchestra.

“After rehearsal we were walking down South Parkway, and who did we run into but – Jelly […] that day he had on a pale pink silk shirt, panama hat […] and I noticed that diamond in his tooth. […] Louis said, ‘Hey Jelly, how about coming over to the house?’  Lil [Armstrong’s pianist wife] had just got a brand new baby grand. […] We went on over to Louis’ house […] and just had a wonderful time talking to Jelly. […] After that we got very close together – we hit it off.”

The connection Zutty felt he’d made with the pianist who’d inspired him so much as a youngster was evidently reciprocal; soon he recieved a call from Morton to come and record with his group in an unusual trio setting, the third musician being another New Orleans expat, clarinettist Barney Bigard. Uncomfortably, however, this was now the third time Singleton had played successor to Baby Dodds on the drum chair of a given band: first with Marable, then Armstrong, and now with Morton too. The piano-clarinet-drums format was evidently one that Jelly Roll particularly liked – he’d previously tried Dodds and his clarinettist brother Johnny on a trio session in 1927, and the following year had cut a single side with Omer Simeon on clarinet and drummer Tommy Benford.

To my mind the trio sides Singleton 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 […] Nobody could feel sad or brought-down at a recording, because Jelly Roll always had something funny to say. When he’d want to correct somebody on something, he’d make a joke out of it, because he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. That’s the kind of psychology he used. You felt like you were doing something – he made you feel like you were doing something.”

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.

In late 1929 Singleton moved to New York with Armstrong, and for the next few years enjoyed great success on the East Coast. Indeed, unlike many of his peers, he managed to avoid the ignominy of becoming musically irrelevant as Swing arrived in earnest during the middle 1930s. He continued to intuitively adapt his style to suit the ongoing evolutions of mainstream jazz, and as the decades passed he prominently worked with modernists such as Roy Eldridge, Slim Gaillard and Bill Coleman as well as regular reunions with Armstrong, Morton, Simeon, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan and many other old pals from the great days of ’20s Chicago. He moved to Hollywood in the 1940s to feature in a number of films, then lived and worked for a time in France before eventually returning to New York where he died in 1975, at the grand old age of 77.

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 (usually so kind and good-hearted!) 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.

Regardless, both were geniuses and true originators in their own ways, and deserve equal billing as the founding fathers of jazz drumming.