Happy Feet – Chick Webb

January 24, 2013

One of the finest jazz drummers of the big band era and also one of the most inspirational, Chick Webb overcame huge obstacles on his way to legendary fame.

Born in Baltimore in 1909, he was crippled by spinal tuberculosis, which left him with minimal use of his legs and a hunched back. Learning to play drums at an early age, perhaps as therapy for his condition, he was still a teenager when he landed a job in Philly’s Jazzola Orchestra. In 1925, guitarist John Truehart, fellow Jazzola sideman, decided to try his luck in New York City and Chick decided to go along for the ride. It was a fortuitous decision.

chick webb

In New York, the young drummer worked briefly with Edgar Dowell and played in sessions with up-coming jazz artists such as Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Tony Hardwick, and Duke Ellington before forming his own five-piece group. This was in 1926, and he secured a five-month gig at the Black Bottom Club, followed at the start of 1927 by work at the Paddock Club. There, he led an eight-piece group, the Harlem Stompers, which he took into the Savoy for a brief engagement. During the rest of the 1920s, Chick and his men played various nightspots around the New York area, including Roseland, the Cotton Club, and the Strand Roof, a spell that saw his band gradually expanding to eleven pieces. In 1931, Chick Webb and his Stompers began the first of several long, regular seasons at Harlem’s hottest dance venue, hot chocolates revuethe already legendary Savoy, an arrangement that lasted until 1935. When not at the Savoy, Chick’s band toured, including an early 1930s spell with the Hot Chocolates revue.

 

 

Chick Webb’s early line-ups featured many top-flight musicians, among them John Kirby, Louis Jordan, Don Redman, Don Kirkpatrick, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Edgar Sampson, the latter two providing arrangements that were key factors in the band’s growing success.

ASV Living Era
5416

In 1932, the band played a series of theater dates with Louis Armstrong, and in 1934 was booked into a long engagement at New York’s Casino de Paris. The band’s sound and Chick’s showmanship quickly attracted a large following, and the Stompers became known a little more sedately as the Chick Webb Orchestra. But there was nothing sedate about the music played; not then, and not during the coming few years. In that later period, the band included Mario Bauza, known as the ‘Father of Afro-Cuban Jazz’, while long-standing sidemen included Bobby Stark and his old friend John Trueheart, who was a stalwart of an outstanding rhythm section rounded out by Tommy Fulford and Beverly Peer. Unlike many bands of the swing era, the personnel was notably stable, a factor that undoubtedly went far in creating its distinctive sound.

chick webb - folkways CD

Folkways
FJ 02818


Following the trend of swing era bands, Chick had a singer, Charlie Linton, but in 1935 he allowed himself to be pressured into hiring a younger, hipper singer. The band’s frontman was Bardu Ali, and he heard 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald perform at the Harlem Opera and brought her to Chick for an audition. Although Chick and his men were not immediately convinced, before long the inexperienced but fast-learning young woman proved to be a star attraction. While Ella’s first recordings with the band, I’ll Chase The Blues Away and Love And Kisses, were inauspicious, a session in Oc­tober 1935 brought Rhythm And Romance and other popular songs of the moment that were much better. By the following year, Ella’s contributions had become a significant part of the band’s recording sessions and If You Can’t Sing It, You’ll Have To Swing It (better known as Mr. Paganini), became very popular. Even more successful was A-Tisket, A-Tasket, a nonsense song for which the singer helped contribute the lyric. Motivation for this song was to bring some cheer to Chick Webb who was undergoing one of his many periods of hospital­ization. chick & ella Another hit for Ella and the band was early 1939’s Undecided , a better song than its forerunners and one that is superbly per­formed by the singer while the drummer boosts the band into a dynamic performance. By this time, Ella’s popularity was huge and almost every record the band made was a vocal (only In The Groove At The Grove from the band’s 1939 released output is an instrumental), and no one was in any doubt about Ella Fitzgerald’s vital role in the band’s success.

Sadly, the success of the band was not matched at a personal level. From 1938, Chick Webb’s health, never good, had begun to fail badly. He often had difficulty finishing performances and was hospitalized several times, but despite his physical frailty he continued to tour and record with his orchestra. He became even more seriously ill and entered a Baltimore hospital where, after undergoing a major operation he died on 16 June 1939.

After his death, Ella Fitzgerald took over Chick Webb’s orchestra and for a while kept it going (with Bill Beason doing a commendable job of playing drums in what was, after all, a drummer’s band). It couldn’t last, though, and after two years Ella gave up and turned solo. The group then disbanded.

chick webb - hep cd

Hep Records
CD 82


Although Chick Webb never learned to read music, he was a consummate musician and perfected the ability to  memorize s arrangements. He made full use of his drum kit, especially the high-hat cymbal of which he was a master, and during his short career he raised the standard for all drummers with his inventiveness and expertise. Chick’s musicianship inspired many other performers, including rival swing era drummer Gene Krupa and future Jazz Messenger Art Blakey.

 

Unmistakable, unsurpassable, and unforgettable, Chick Webb’s name echoes through generations into the present day. Although he was small in stature, in all other respects he was a giant of jazz.

Documentary film maker, Jeff Kaufman, has traced Chick Webb’s life and career in The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America. Produced in partnership with New York’s The New Heritage Theatre Group, this film draws on historical writing, reminiscences and reflections by dancers, singers, friends and above all musicians. Jeff Kaufman’s film was very well received when it premiered at the 38th Seattle International Film Festival in the summer of 2012 and was also screened, again to considerable acclaim, at the Walter Reade Theater as part of The 50th New York Film Festival in the fall of 2012.

Among other sites of interest are Sarah Carney’s Thrive, and Amazon, the place to go for albums by Chick Webb, the King of the Savoy.

 

Been here . . .
. . . and gone!


 

  

 

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