THE SELF-TAUGHT drummer Panama Francis was not so much a throwback as a stayback. His beliefs were set during the Swing Era. Despite becoming the most highly regarded recording session drummer in the pop music of the Fifties - working across the spectrum from Buddy Holly to Dinah Washington - he remained true to the jazz music of his youth and became the most successful jazz dinosaur. It was as though Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Bebop had never happened. "Drummers have forgotten how to play the bass drum, and the bass drum is the heart of a band," he claimed.
His views probably date from 9 January 1942, two years after Francis began playing with Lucky Millinder's band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, known across the world as "The Home of Happy Feet". On that night what the ballroom's manager described as "the raggediest looking band" he had ever seen was booked to play in a "Battle of the Bands" against the Millinder band. The new band, from Kansas City, was led by Jay McShann and included a young saxophone player called Charlie Parker. One of the Millinder musicians sent a note to the McShann band. It said, "We're going to send you hicks back to the sticks." In true fairy-tale style Parker and McShann then wiped the dance-floor with the New Yorkers. "When Jay turned his boys loose he had hellions working," said a musician who was there. "Just roaring wild men."
This is not to give an impression of Francis as sedate, for one of his first jobs in New York was with a hellion indeed, the young trumpeter Roy Eldridge. It was while deputising in Eldridge's 1939 band for the drummer Sid Catlett that Francis was given his nickname. When asked by his manager Joe Glaser to identify the new drummer, Eldridge forgot the name but observing the hat that Francis was wearing said, "That's Panama". It stuck.
Francis began his career in 1934 by playing with the band led by tenor saxist George Kelly. He stayed for four years before moving to New York as drummer with Billy Hicks and His Sizzling Six. He was heard by Eldridge and joined the trumpeter's band. Francis moved on to the Savoy with Millinder in 1940 and made many recordings and a number of "Soundies" - five-minute films - with him. Millinder was hard to work for. "Lucky liked firing people so much that one time he even fired himself," recalled Dizzy Gillespie.
So Francis left in 1946, first for Willie Bryant's band and then for the more conservative waters of the Cab Calloway Orchestra. A good showman, he fitted in well with Calloway. "We'd never play more than two instrumentals a night, though," he remembered. "Somehow Cab was able to sing for three hours at a stretch, and he did, every night." He stayed with Calloway until the singer's fortunes ebbed and he broke up his band.
During the decade that followed Francis came with …