Born in Bunkie, Louisiana on 14th May 1898 and a contemporary of Baby Dodds, Zutty adapted and developed his style and was quite at ease playing in Traditional Jazz Bands, Swing Bands, with the likes of Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton, as well as Be-Bop groups with Slim Gaillard, Dodo Marmarosa, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
It is important to note that although he played with these musicians, his style was rooted in the New Orleans idiom. He also recorded a number of Caribbean style tracks, notably with Sidney Bechet in 1939, where an imaginative shifting rhythm was called for, somewhat removed from the parade press roll style of drumming. Singleton was not as challenging, rhythmically as Dodds, who would drop bombs in the most unusual places, and he certainly played more on top of the beat. He was more predictable with his accents and fills and his woodblock work lacks the variety and colour of Dodds. Zutty's style was, however, much easier for young white Chicagoans, George Wettling, Dave Tough and Gene Krupa to copy.
Like Dodds, Zutty did the rounds with the established bands in New Orleans before joining Fate Marable on the steam boats.
Fate Marable's River Boat Band
Zutty's first recordings were with "Chas Creath's Jazz O Maniacs" in 1926, but he came to prominence with the second "Louis Armstrong Hot Five" (Savoy Ballroom Five) in 1928, which also featured Earl Hines. On "My Monday Date" he can be heard playing innovative rhythms on small cymbals.
Recording with "Jelly Roll Morton's Trio" in 1929, Zutty can be heard using a variety of snare drum press rolls and single strokes. He also played an important pioneering role in the use of wire brushes and for just 8 bars, open ride cymbal. Click image below.
An early soloist, Zutty made use of his full drum kit, hopping from snare to toms to cowbell with consummate ease. "Who Stole The Lock" recorded in 1932 with Red Allen, offers an early Singleton solo. From this it can be seen that, like Krupa's solos, Zutty tells a story. The time is never broken. Early drum solos were aimed at dancers and listeners.
The New Orleans parade style of drumming is much in evidence on "Good Old New York" recorded in 1939 with Jelly Roll Morton. The use of the rim shots in the closing bars of this short solo again highlight the debt that Krupa (and George Wettling) owed to Zutty. "Jungle Drums" recorded with Sidney Bechet
in 1938 nods in the direction of Krupa's "Sing Sing Sing" solo, with pounding tom toms
laying down a driving introduction. Note the musicality of the piece as Zutty plays between the two toms. "King Porter Stomp" recorded in 1940, again with Red Allen, is a fine example of a well constructed solo. Listen to the combination of press rolls, single strokes, accents, tom tom beats and cymbal flurries.
For my money, however the most enchanting Singleton solo is on the 1943 Fats Waller recording of "Moppin' & Boppin" . This 20 bar introduction is pure magic. Starting with a rhythmic statement on tom toms, Zutty then swings into a wonderful figure played between the snare, toms and cowbell, before easing into a tight press roll wich develops into a parradiddle figure, before bringing the band in with his traditional cowbell call (another device Krupa was proud to acknowledge the source of).
A final example of a full chorus played, using the New Orleans style press roll and variations leading in to a selection of single, accented, then rim shot strokes, can be heard on Slim Gaillard's 1946 recording of "The Hop" . Taken at a swift tempo, Zutty gradually builds the tension, throughout the solo, exploring a number of ideas and expressions, and proving that drum solos can be as musically valid as any other solo.
Zutty Singleton was one of the prime movers of Jazz drumming. A technically profficient player, he sounds and appears on film a loose and flexible performer.
Together with Baby Dodds, he is the most important early exponent of the instrument. Not afraid to keep up with changing trends, he embraced the hi-hat and later the ride cymbal. His press roll accompaniments have a distinctive four beat feel as opposed to the two beat emphasis of Dodds. He remained a bass drum player when the boppers forsook the instrument as a means of keeping time. Zutty's bass drum would normally pay four beats.
Later years found him in decline, with age making his ride rhythms sound stiff and laboured, a similar problem experienced by Cozy Cole in his later recordings. Zutty died in New York in 1975.
Recommended viewing - Stormy Weather film with Fats Waller 1943, & New Orleans 1946 with Louis Armstrong.
© John Petters, May 2006