Art Blakey on Chick Webb and Big Sid Catlett

blakey_artLeslie Gourse: Blakey had learned to play the drums by listening to recordings of [Chick] Webb and Big Sid Catlett, which prepared him to play with several big swing bands in the 1940s. Eventually.., Blakey met those drummers and got advice from them.

“Catlett was a huge man,” Blakey [said]. “He’d sit at the drum and make it sound like a butterfly – so pretty – it had nothing to do with loudness.

“Catlett could play just as soft with a pair of sticks as you can play with a pair of brushes. And Catlett could take the brushes and play with them like sticks. Sid was so big that when he sat down at a twenty-eight-inch bass drum, it looked like a toy. He was a master. I tried to pattern myself on him. He said, ‘Just roll.’

“[Webb] told me…to learn how to space my energy.”

Blakey…had…an act in which he threw different-colored drumsticks around. Webb caught the act and [said], “OK, kid, the first thing I want to tell you: The rhythm ain’t in the air; it’s on the hides.” Webb…told [Blakey] to show up the next morning to practice playing press rolls on a snare drum. “I want you to roll ’til you get to one hundred, and I don’t want you to break that roll,” he instructed. Every day Blakey showed up to follow Webb’s instructions. “I liked to busted my wrist,” Blakey [said]. “I developed a press roll out of that.”

Blakey was trying to improve his music-reading skills when Big Sid Catlett came to a rehearsal of the [Billy] Eckstine band and told him, “Don’t try to read everything; take some and leave some. And when you get in trouble, roll.”

Blakey [said] “One night I had a bottle of whiskey in my coat pocket and I was drinking through a straw from a bottle during the show. When I came off the stage, Sid Catlett grabbed me, hugged me, and picked me up. But when he felt the bottle, he put me down, hit me, and knocked me to the floor. He told me, ‘Next time learn how to master your instrument before you learn how to drink. Next time I catch you, I’ll break your neck.’

Source: “Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger,” by Leslie Gourse, Schirmer Trade Books, 2002

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