NOT long ago I went on a ten-day jazz cruise to the Caribbean on the Queen Elizabeth II.I had been on half a dozen jazz cruises on other ships, always as a critic. This time I went as a musician -- a drummer. I wanted to test Kenneth Tynan's famous aphorism "A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car." I wanted to find out, once and for all, if I could drive the car.
My erratic noncareer as a drummer began in 1942, when I was going on sixteen. I was a freshman at Phillips Exeter Academy, and had been working blindly toward jazz by way of the jazz-flavored dance bands of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and Harry James. During my first Christmas vacation I was taken to one of Milt Gabler's Sunday-afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan's, on West Fifty-second Street, in New York. They weren't really jam sessions except for the closing number, a fast "Bugle Call Rag," in which all the musicians from the two alternating bands Gabler had hired got up on the tiny bandstand and let go. There might be three or four trumpets, several reeds, a couple of trombones, and a four-man rhythm section; the number, with its many breaks, would become a "cutting" contest, in which the trumpets in particular tried to outshout one another. It was the first head-on live jazz I had heard, and it was shocking and exhilarating. The famous old New Orleans drummer Zutty Singleton was hypnotic. He moved his head to the rhythm in peculiar ducking motions, shot his hands at his cymbals as if he were shooting his cuffs, hit stunning rim shots, and made fearsome, inscrutable faces, his eyelids flickering like heat lightning.
Back at school I started trying to play drums, to be Zutty Singleton. In fact, several of us, through some accidental shared chemistry, started playing together: two trumpeters, a clarinetist, a pianist, and I. We played in the basement of Phillips Church, which was honeycombed with soundproof practice rooms, one of them big enough for a dozen or more musicians. In the instrument room I found a snare drum with a hole in it, a small cymbal, and a bass drum. We taught ourselves a kind of baggy Dixieland, and by the end of the year we could play recognizable versions of "Tin Roof Blues" and "Shine On Harvest Moon." We gained momentum, and musicians, the following fall. We had jam sessions in the church basement, and on a dance weekend Mary Ellin Berlin (now Barrett), the daughter of Irving Berlin, sat in on our out-of-tune upright and played thunderous boogie-woogie.
In the spring we played a short set before the Saturday-night movie in the gym for an audience of some 800 students and faculty members. The closer was "Bugle Call Rag," and it featured a drum solo. Driven largely by fright, I had the sensation that I was getting faster and faster -- that I had become possessed and would never be able to stop. But, like all drum solos, this one got a big hand. We also provided seating music for the annual school musical. As we were about to go into "Blue Skies," which we had just learned, Doc Perry -- Lewis Perry, the gray, godlike headmaster of the academy, who made it a seignorial habit to interview every boy briefly once a year ("How are you, Balliett? Are you doing well in your work? Are you happy at Exeter?") -- got up from his seat on the far side of the auditorium, bore down on the band, stopped, and, leaning over, said in my ear, "Take that disgusting chewing gum out of your mouth." Red-faced and rattled, I did, fastening it to the underside of my bass-drum rim. (Gene Krupa had made it de rigueurfor drummers to chew gum while playing.)
By 1944 I had enough confidence in my playing to make a fool of myself. One summer night I went with friends to the Three Deuces, on Fifty-second Street, to hear Big Sid Catlett's quartet. The master of all jazz drummers, Catlett had become my god. Six foot three, he had enormous, magical hands, impeccable taste, time, and technique, and had played with everyone from Jelly Roll Morton to Charlie Parker, effortlessly buoying them all. His quartet at the Three Deuces included Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, Marlowe Morris on piano, and John Simmons on bass. In the first set Webster, standing stock-still and holding his tenor straight up and down in front of him as if he were a flag bearer, got off beauty after beauty, while Catlett, tending him at every turn, alternated miraculous four-bar breaks with a couple of short, intricately simple solos. In a kind of imitative madness I got up at the end of the set and asked Catlett if I could sit in on his drums with the intermission group, the Loumell Morgan trio. Morgan was a pianist, and, as was the fashion, often played standing up. Catlett made a face, said, "Don't break anything, boy," and sat down behind me. Morgan -- out to test this whitey -- went into "Mop Mop," a riff number based on "I Got Rhythm." He set a tempo so fast it would have taxed Catlett. I was left behind by the time we reached the first bridge, and that's all I remember. I don't know whether I tried to finish the set or got down from the bandstand and left. I do remember Catlett's drums, though: his tom-toms packed tight around his snare, his cymbals in an easy ring just beyond -- a small house for such a big man.