Zutty Singleton was a master of his art and after Baby Dodds was the finest of the New Orleans drummers. He played with a springy, joyous beat that ultimately gave him more flexibility than his more stately contemporary.
He was born Arthur James Singleton in Bunkie, Louisiana, on 14 May 1898. His nickname was bestowed upon him while he was still a babe-in-arms: the name indicating the happy countenance that he was to retain for the rest of his life. Playing drums from a very early age, he worked professionally for the first time when he was 17 years old. After serving in the army during World War 1, he worked with numerous bands in New Orleans, including those led by Oscar 'Papa' Celestin, 'Big Eye' Louis Nelson and Luis Russell, before joining the educational hothouse that was Fate Marable's riverboat band. Through the riverboat experience his reputation spread to St. Louis where he played in Charlie Creath's band and married Charlie's sister, the pianist Marge Creath. After a spell back in New Orleans, Zutty's next port of call was Chicago where he was hired by headlining leaders such as Doc Cooke, Dave Peyton and Jimmie Noone before teaming up with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. He also played in a trio with Jelly Roll Morton and Barney Bigard. New York beckoned and there he played with another top flight band, that led by Carroll Dickerson. He freelanced extensively in New York throughout the 1930s, playing on numerous recording sessions, including dates with Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton.
In the early 1940s, Zutty continued his varied recording career, frequently leading his own band, and also playing behind frontline artists, among whom were such disparate figures as T-Bone Walker and Charlie Parker. He worked in films and on radio; appearing on-screen in Stormy Weather (1943) and New Orleans (1946), and on Orson Welles's radio show. Reportedly, he was deeply distressed when he was not invited to join the all-star band formed to back Armstrong in the mid-40s, but he remained highly active, working with Eddie Condon, Joe Marsala and Wingy Manone, among many. Early in the 1950s, Zutty spent some time in Europe in bands led by Mezz Mezzrow, Bill Coleman, Hot Lips Page and Lillian Armstrong. Once again, several fine recording sessions resulted. During the rest of the 50s and on through the 60s, Zutty worked mostly in New York, which is where he had made his home. During the latter part of this period he made several records on which he was the featured performer, mostly for Fat Cat's Jazz. Towards the end of the 60s, Zutty appeared in the remarkable French documentary film, L'Aventure Du Jazz (1969), playing unaccompanied drum solos (the soundtrack of this film was released on LP).
For all practical purposes, Zutty's career ended following a stroke in 1970. He lived out his life in New York with Marge and was 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 the session on which he played always swung. His late 20s recordings with Louis Armstrong's Savoy Ballroom small band are among the most important recordings ever made and they remain in print to this day. 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. The appearance with Charlie Parker was atypical; he happened to be a member of Slim Gaillard's group which backed Bird for what was virtually a one-off appearance. Nevertheless, his flexibility meant that he was able to acquit himself without unsettling either the performance or his reputation.
A gifted soloist, Zutty would sometimes follow the penchant of New Orleans drummers for starting a solo by playing the melodic line of the number before creating rhythmic variations. It is one of several rare skills his generation of drummers possessed, a skill that has sadly fallen into decline. Other solo excursions, such as a memorable unaccompanied ‘Drum Face’ on a Mezzrow date in Paris in 1951, and the Fat Cat's Jazz sessions, including the outstanding album, Zutty And The Clarinet Kings (apparently none of these is as yet on CD) show him to be witty, inventive and always swinging. Like several other drummers of the past, such as Big Sid Catlett and Jo Jones, Zutty offered much to be admired and emulated by later generations of jazz drummers. Unlike them, he seems not to have his champions, which is an unwarranted shame.
Recommended recordings (probably not on CD): Mezz Mezzrow And His Orchestra (Jazz Legacy JL 65); Zutty And The Clarinet Kings (Fat Cat's Jazz FCJ 100)