Rediscovering Dad: A hoops legend found a lost jazz voice.
Rediscovering Dad: A hoops legend found a lost jazz voice. Credit: Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

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For a 62-year-old who played major college basketball and even did a spell in the NBA, Sid Catlett thinks about high school basketball a lot.

But it’s only one game that holds sway over Catlett: DeMatha Catholic High School’s 46-43 win in 1965 over Power Memorial Academy. Catlett was a DeMatha sophomore, the youngest player on the floor. Schoolboy hoops obsessives will tell you that the matchup was the most important high school basketball game ever played—around here or anywhere.

“Nothing I was involved in was bigger,” says Catlett, who headed off to Notre Dame after high school, then spent the 1971-1972 season with the Cincinnati Royals.

He’s not the only guy who can’t shake that game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Power Memorial center and NBA legend, was in town this week to reminisce about it on TV with a fellow Hall of Famer, former DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten.

DeMatha’s win snapped the New York school’s 71-game winning streak, brought Wootten national renown, and gave Abdul-Jabbar the only loss of his high school career.

But Catlett’s reason for celebrating the game transcends athletics: “Playing in that allowed me to hear my father speak,” he says.

Just as basketball fans know the DeMatha/Power game wasn’t just another game, jazz lovers don’t regard Catlett’s dad as just another dad. He was Big Sid Catlett, literally and figuratively among the biggest drummers of the 1930s and 1940s. Big Sid pounded out the beat for, among others, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong.

“Sid was a powerhouse,” says Rob Bamberger, host of “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” on WAMU-FM. “Benny Goodman thought him too loud when Sid was with [Goodman’s big band].”

Big Sid is also regarded as a trail-blazing entertainer. His assortment of crowd-pleasing tricks included throwing a stick in the air and lighting a cigarette before it came down, all without missing a beat. Jazz aficionado Antoine Sanfuentes, who worked his way from behind the drum kit for a host of local acts (Kevin Johnson and the Lineman, Billy Hancock, Cathy Ponton King) all the way up to Washington bureau chief of NBC News, counts himself among those awed by Big Sid’s chops.

“I can only imagine what it was like to be in the room watching Big Sid driving Louis Armstrong’s big band,” says Sanfuentes. “If we had a time machine, I would input those dates.”

Little Sid’s parents—Big Sid and the former Florence Jackson—met when the drummer played a gig in D.C., her hometown. The Washington Post archives contain a preview of a 1945 Turner’s Arena show organized by future music mogul Ahmet Ertegun. That night, according to the preview, Catlett would play in a racially-integrated combo alongside saxist Spencer Clark and pianist Errol Garner: “Whip in a large number of the best swingmen now playing in Washington and the chances are this will be a jam session to go down in history—provided the history is recorded on asbestos paper!”

After getting married, the couple made a home in Big Sid’s hometown of Chicago. Little Sid was born there in 1948. But on Easter Sunday of 1951, Big Sid had a heart attack backstage at the Chicago Opera House. He died at 41 years old.

Little Sid was only two.

“I have almost no recollection of my father,” he says.

Florence moved the family back to D.C. after Big Sid’s death, settling on the 200 block of Channing Street NE. Whenever he was near top-flight jazz artists-—when he was babysat by Dinah Washington or went backstage when Armstrong played Carter Barron Amphitheatre in 1963—Catlett would coax stories about his father.

Little Sid remembers playing the drums a lot in his early years, trying to imitate what he’d heard on the Big Sid 78s he says his mother played “all the time.”

“But then I’m 12 years old and I’m 6-foot-2,” he says, “and there was no way I’d survive in the community without playing basketball. I couldn’t serve two masters.”

So Catlett put down the sticks and began spending his time at Edgewood and Turkey Thicket playgrounds. Like his mates, Catlett tried to emulate local hoop legends such as Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing. At Turkey Thicket, he also met Monk Malloy, a Notre Dame star who played alongside future Georgetown coach John Thompson at Bishop Carroll Catholic High in the late 1950s. Getting to know Malloy, who went on to become Notre Dame’s president, would influence Catlett’s college choice.

Looking back, Catlett sees his father’s influence. “Even though he physically wasn’t there, just knowing he did well in the profession he chose, doing well became something I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to be like Dad.”

Little Sid grew to 6’8’’, catching the attention of Wootten, who was building DeMatha into the most powerful program in a region teeming with hoops talent. Wootten’s legendary emphasis on fundamentals helped Catlett compete with the best centers or forwards in town. “That means I was a swing man, too,” Catlett laughs. (Due more to size than his bloodlines, Little Sid’s nickname at DeMatha was “Big Sid.”)

Catlett was named first team All-Met after his 1966-1967 senior season. He could have gone to almost any school in the country, but made a pact with fellow D.C. superstars Austin Carr of Mackin and Collis Jones of St. John’s to all go to Notre Dame together. “We were the Miami Heat of our day,” he says.

The first big game of Catlett’s college career came on Dec. 7, 1968, the opening game of Notre Dame’s Athletic and Convocation Center, which the Fighting Irish still call home. The opponent: UCLA, led by the senior center who would soon change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

This time, Alcindor’s squad topped Catlett’s, 88-75.

But Catlett no longer regards that game as a loss. It strengthened his bond with Abdul-Jabbar. Turns out, Abdul-Jabbar was also the son of a jazz musician. And along the way to becoming one of the greatest players in NBA history, he amassed one of the largest collections of jazz LPs in the world—and became a fan of Big Sid Catlett.

Fast forward to 2003. Abdul-Jabbar was in D.C. on a book tour and got to thinking about the DeMatha/Power Memorial and Notre Dame/UCLA games. He called Catlett at home. He mentioned a French DVD he’d found at Tower Records, The Small Black Groups. The compilation of vintage movie clips, he said, included footage of Big Sid’s appearances in a pair of 1940s feature films.

“Kareem told me my dad talked,” Catlett says.

Catlett jumped in his car and drove to the old Tower Records in Rockville. There was a copy of the DVD in stock. Catlett brought the disc home. Sitting alone in his living room, he put it on.

Sure enough, there was his dad pounding out the big beat. And, as billed, Big Sid had small speaking parts, too.

“I had never heard my father speak,” Little Sid says. “I didn’t have a clue he was in the movies. So here I was, a guy in his fifties, hearing his dad talk for the first time. It was an incredibly private, emotional moment.”

Although the inventory of YouTube and other Internet video sites has expanded wildly in the years since Abdul-Jabbar tipped him off, Catlett isn’t convinced he ever would have come across those special clips if he hadn’t gotten a call “out of the blue” from his old rival.

And he knows if he hadn’t played basketball at DeMatha on that day in 1965, he never would have gotten the call.

“Playing in that game ultimately allowed me to hear my dad speak,” he says. “For that I’m thankful. I’m thankful to Kareem, and to DeMatha.” cp

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