Basically an overlooked figure on the drums, Sylvester Payne manages to make it into very few jazz encyclopedias. He is one of those players whose discography seems to be quite large simply because he got chances to play with major figures in the development of bebop, and these sessions were recorded in some crude manner. These nightclub performances or radio airshots were taped beginning in the mid-'40s, when the brilliant Charlie Parker was in Chicago and New York City playing with several different bands led by trumpeter Cootie Williams in which Sylvester Payne was sitting on the drum throne. His first name is used again in order to keep him apart from Sonny Payne, another drummer from the same era who also worked with Williams.
Discographers might get a pain sorting out these Payne guys, and they are sometimes thought to be brothers. Sonny Payne's real name was Percival Payne, after all, and it is logical that parents who dole out the name Percival might also want to make use of Sylvester. But if Sylvester Payne, nicknamed and sometimes credited as Vess Payne, is any relation to Sonny Payne, it is not a fact that is mentioned in any of the biographical data relating to the latter artist. One of the major differences between these two types of Paynes is the directions their careers took. Sonny Payne became known as the grandstanding drummer with the Count Basie band; he is strictly known as a jazz player and made more than 200 recordings in that genre.
Sylvester Payne, on the other paradiddle, developed into one of a group of veteran drummers who were involved heavily in jazz at first, only to bring a welcome swing feeling into the world of rhythm & blues and soul recordings in the '50s. Along with players such as Panama Francis and Kaiser Marshall, Payne got calls for recording sessions by singers such as LaVern Baker, a development that prompted swinging discographers such as Tom Lord to quit counting his recording sessions as they were no longer considered to be jazz. For the record, obviously, Lord has compiled 20 appearances by this Payne on jazz sides in a decade ending in 1953. After this, Payne seems to have spent his time providing backbeats in studios, but for the drummer this must have seemed more like a logical transition than an abrupt switch in styles. Take the presence of titles by rhythm & blues bandleader Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in the Payne discography, for example. These actually come from the drummer's so-called jazz period, when Vinson was also a sideman with Williams. Payne actually moved into a more full-time status with Willliams when Vinson jumped off the band to start his own outfit and took regular drummer Butch Ballard with him. Yet when it comes time to talk shop with drumming experts, it is Payne's work on the rhythm & blues sessions that gets the most accolades. As for his attempts to back up Parker, not every listener has been thrilled with the eventual release of every scrap of tape featuring the alto saxophonist, as evidenced by this comment from reviewer Stuart Nicholson: "Indeed, the emergence of countless airchecks with all manner of drummers bashing away behind the saxophonist without appearing to trouble him in the slightest has positively inured all but Parker purists to rhythmic imperfections.