UPDATE: Full obituary for Buddy Catlett:
George James “Buddy” Catlett, one of the most illustrious musicians to come up through Seattle’s Jackson Street jazz scene in the 1940s, died Wednesday, Nov. 12. Mr. Catlett was 81.
He had been living at the Leon Sullivan Health Care Center in Seattle’s Central District and had not performed since 2011, due to heart problems and other illnesses.
In a message sent via his publicist, lifelong friend Quincy Jones described Catlett as “one of the greatest bass players to ever take the stage.”
Mr. Catlett’s swinging, full-bodied, “in the pocket” thrum anchored bands led by Jones, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.
Born in Long Beach, Calif. and raised in Seattle, Mr. Catlett came from a family of black pioneers — his grandfather, George Catlett, settled in Yakima in 1903 — and while attending Garfield High School, played saxophone with Jones in the Bumps Blackwell Junior Band. Sidelined by pleurisy in 1950 for two years, Catlett switched to the bass on his doctor’s advice.
Nicknamed “Bumblebee,” the diminutive, rotund musician was known not only for his superb musicianship, but for his gentle spirit.
“He would never trash talk anybody,” said his companion of the last 12 years, Jessica Davis. “He was really humble.”
He also had a sly sense of humor.
Pianist Marc Seales, mentored by Mr. Catlett, said he taught him that being a jazz musician was “about working, not just the art part. One time we were talking about Wilbur Ware and Quincy Jones and Red Holloway — guys from Chicago, man — and he said, ‘Those guys could go anywhere with nothing and get a job, get your house — and then get your old lady.’”
After “paying dues” in local groups, Mr. Catlett went on the road with bandleader Horace Henderson in 1956 and subsequently worked with guitarist Johnny Smith and Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader.
In 1959, he went to Paris with Jones’ short-lived but now-legendary big band in a musical called “Free and Easy,” starring Sammy Davis Jr. The show folded, but the band — which also featured Seattleites Floyd Standifer (trumpet) and Patti Bown (piano) — stayed in Europe eight months.
Mr. Catlett then joined Basie, with whom he recorded a classic album with Frank Sinatra, “With Rose Colored Glasses,” and subsequently worked with pianists Red Garland and Junior Mance, drummer Chico Hamilton and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.
In 1965, Mr. Catlett was hired by Armstrong, with whom he played, recorded and toured until 1969.
Throughout his early life and middle age, Mr. Catlett struggled with alcohol addiction. In the ’70s, he came home to recover, eventually getting sober by the early ‘80s.
Over time, he became an important elder on the Seattle scene. Wherever he played, national touring artists would come to listen.
“One night I was playing with Buddy at Tula’s,” recalled Seales. “Wynton Marsalis came in and said, ‘I came down to play with Buddy.’”
Catlett was celebrated on his home turf. Local nonprofit Earshot Jazz inducted him into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991 and the city proclaimed February 21, 2008, Buddy Catlett Day.
Mr. Catlett was preceded in death by ex-wife Rebecca Turner and second wife Rita Pettaway. Survivors include his brother, Ernie Catlett, of Federal Way; his sister, Linda Wint, of Federal Way; daughter, Natalie, of Tukwila; and sons Dale, of Kent, and Gregory, of Denver.
Services have not been announced. A musical celebration will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1 at Jazz Alley.
George James “Buddy” Catlett, one of the most illustrious musicians to come up on Seattle’s Jackson Street jazz scene of the 1940s, died Wednesday, Nov. 12. Catlett was 81. He had been living at the Leon Sullivan Health Care Center in Seattle’s Central District and had not performed for some time.
Best known as a swinging, “in the pocket” bassist with a muscular, full-bodied sound, Mr. Catlett anchored the bands of Count Basie, Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong for long stints, recording with them, as well.
Born in Long Beach, Calif., Mr. Catlett grew up in Seattle and came from a family of black pioneers that traces its history back to the early 1900s. The diminutive, rotund musician — nicknamed “Bumblebee” by his friends — attended Garfield High School and started out on alto saxophone, which he played with Jones in a band led by their classmate, Charles Taylor. However, in 1950, the young sax man was struck with pleurisy, which his doctor feared was tuberculosis, so he was advised to stop playing a wind instrument. This led to his taking up the bass fiddle.
After “paying his dues” in local bands led by trumpeter Floyd Standifer and others, Catlett left town in 1956 to join Horace Henderson (Fletcher Henderson’s brother). Mr. Catlett subsequently worked with guitarist Johnny Smith and Latin vibraphonist Cal Tjader. In 1959, the bassist’s former classmate Jones hired Mr. Catlett in a new big band, which Jones took to Europe as part of a musical called “Free and Easy,” starring Sammy Davis Jr. The show folded after a few performances, but the band — which also featured Standifer and Seattle pianist Patti Bown — stayed in Europe for eight months.
Jones’ big band — legendary in the annals of modern jazz and rivaled at the time by only Basie and Ellington – was economically unsustainable, but it nevertheless recorded highly-regarded albums, notably “Birth of a Band.” With Basie, Mr. Catlett also recorded a classic album with Frank Sinatra, “With Rose Colored Glasses,” and subsequently worked with pianists Red Garland and Junior Mance, drummer Chico Hamilton and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.
In the late ’60s, Mr. Catlett was hired by Armstrong, with whom he played, recorded and toured until 1969.
Throughout his early life and middle age, Mr. Catlett struggled with alcohol. In the ’70s, when jazz work became scarce, he dropped out of music for a while, and decided to come back to Seattle to recover. Gradually, he re-entered the jazz world on the home front, becoming an important part of the local scene, working at now-defunct clubs such as the New Orleans Restaurant and Lofurno’s, where national figures from his days on the road, such as Clark Terry and Jones, would regularly drop by. His accomplishments were celebrated by the Seattle jazz non-profit Earshot Jazz when it inducted Mr. Catlett into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame, in 1991.
Please check SoundPosts Friday, Nov. 14, and the print edition of The Seattle Times Saturday, Nov. 15, for comments from the jazz world about Mr. Catlett’s passing.