Drumming Delights

February 28, 2015

I have long taken an interest in jazz drumming, an interest that over the years has led me to write articles for magazines and on-line sites on several drummers. Among those featured on this site are Chick Webb, Dave Tough, Sonny Greer (see below), Zutty Singleton, and Gene Krupa. Also, in 1987, my book, Gene Krupa: His Life and Times, was published and although now out of print this is available to eager searchers among the second-hand stacks at Amazon. Regrettably, over the years it was only rarely that I became aware of women drummers in jazz. Among the first of the few who caught my ear were Pauline Braddy, whose playing with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was outstanding, Dotty Dodgion, who played briefly with Benny Goodman and hence came to my attention when I was writing a book on the King of Swing, and Viola Smith, who had a long and varied career, was known as the “female Gene Krupa”, and is still alive and kicking at over 100. In recent years I have greatly admired the playing of Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, reviewing albums by the last named on this site and in Jazz Journal. These musicians and a few others apart, this was pretty much the sum of my knowledge. Not surprisingly, therefore, I was intrigued to see advance publicity for a book devoted entirely to female drummers and hoped to review it for JJ but another contributor beat me to it. So, I bought a copy from Amazon and what a delight it has been to read it.

Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country by Angela Smith (Rowman and Littlefield ISBN 978-0-8108-8834-0)

As Angela Smith’s subtitle makes clear, this work is not restricted to jazz; far from it in fact, but this wide-ranging scope is by no means an impediment to anyone with interest in any of the musical fields covered. It will also appeal to those interested specifically in the difficult role women have in the world of popular music, a role that while easier today than it was several decades ago, is still fraught with the all-too familiar prejudices of a male-dominated business.women drummers

Broadly, Smith takes a chronological approach, which means for the jazz fan the earlier and later chapters hold most obvious interest, but I think that anyone choosing to skip past the other genres will not only do the author a disservice but will also miss a great deal that is interesting and revelatory, which it certainly was for me. To a considerable extent, Smith has drawn upon interviews with drummers, some previously published in magazines and books but many personally conducted by herself. These direct sources bring to life the many struggles and occasional triumphs of these musicians and the resulting volume will provide a valuable future resource for music historians. They might also have the effect of sending readers scurrying off to find CDs (all too often deleted) of these women.

To digress for a moment: another long-ago book of mine (written with Mike Pinfold) was The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986). Because no one before had tried to do what we did there, we covered a lot of ground, too much perhaps, and in a later book, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we narrowed the scope and hence were able to examine the subject in greater detail. To some extent, the ground covered in Angela Smith’s book is similarly encyclopedic and I find myself hoping that she might be considering another book on this topic in which she can narrow the scope and get right inside individual lives and careers and in particular examine and explain stylistic differences, something that will be especially interesting when comparing and contrasting drummers from different genres. If the author does take another look at the subject, I’ll certainly buy that book as well. In the meantime, Women Drummers is an admirable work, one that is an important reference book and is also worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in this fascinating corner of the world of music that hitherto has been only rarely, if ever, illuminated.

Angela Smith’s book can be bought from walk-in and on-line stores, which includes Amazon.

Sonny Greer – the Duke’s man

Maybe it’s just me and my occasional mistaken perceptions, but when reading about the glories of the Duke Ellington orchestras, and especially those he led from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1940s, I am struck by a notable omission. Although jazz historians and critics pay well-deserved attention to many of the fine instrumentalists, among them Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams and Ben Webster, and also arranger Billy Strayhorn, there are far fewer words written about the long-serving drummer Sonny Greer. If I am right in regarding him as a forgotten man, it prompts the question: Why?

sonny greer

Photographs of the band show him as a prominent and flamboyant figure, sitting high up on the bandstand surrounded not only by the regular drums and cymbals that every big band drummer had, but also with a spectacular array of other percussion instruments, including gleaming bells, gongs, timpani and xylophone. For all the quantity of instruments, however, Greer’s aural contribution was muted; he never thundered, preferring to add color to the Ellington band’s sound and to supply a pulse that was felt rather than heard. He was not a soloist, as were so many other musicians in the band, and while seeing him live at dance-halls was doubtless memorable, sometimes on record he was barely audible. Only an assumption, I know, but I somehow doubt that this was the fault of the recording engineers. Listening to the Ellington band on albums such as the outstanding At Fargo, 1940 Live or The Blanton-Webster Band, it quickly becomes apparent that while every man in the band was individually swinging, Greer was largely responsible for creating and maintaining the relentless sense of understated propulsion the band brought to its performances.Duke-at-Fargo-1-150x150

So, who was Sonny Greer? He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December 1895 (the year is sometimes questioned), in Long Branch, New Jersey. He played locally for a few years but by 1919 he had moved to Washington, DC, where he met Duke Ellington, the two men playing together in both Washington and New York City. As Ellington settled into his role as bandleader, so the drummer became an integral part of the music being created. Stylistically, Greer was subtle and relaxed, the latter quality sometimes, it must be said, leading to an unfortunately casual attitude toward keeping time. Most often, though, his style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band’s seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed in order to realize his compositions.Blanton-Webster-150x150 Fortunately, any timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the earliest years by guitarist Freddie Guy (another invaluable and largely unsung figure) and a little later on by the extraordinary bassist Jimmy Blanton but the drummer played his own part in generating the easy, loping swing that made the band so distinctive.

Only rarely during the 1930s and 1940s did Sonny Greer work outside the aegis of Ellington. Apart from a few small group sessions led by other Ellingtonians, and an appearance on one of Lionel Hampton’s famous Victor recording sessions, on which he was again in Ellingtonian company, his early career was spent inside the Ellington orchestra. By the end of the 1940s, however, Greer had outstayed the welcome of even Ellington, who tolerated more indiscretions from his sidemen than almost any of his fellow bandleaders of the era. Greer never shook off the smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, hard-drinking persona that had been a part of him from the beginning when he had often kept himself in funds by moonlighting as a pool hustler. Most of that persona was not detrimental to his playing, but the drinking was. Gradually, his on-stage behavior deteriorated and in 1951 Ellington was forced to ask him to leave the band.

Thereafter, Greer freelanced, recording with other ex-Ellingtonians such as Johnny Hodges and Tyree Glenn and also with contemporaries like Henry ‛Red’ Allen and J.C. Higginbotham. In the late 1960s and 1970s Greer led his own groups, usually a trio, and he also appeared at concerts celebrating Ellington where he consistently proved that he was never more at ease than when playing his old boss’s music. Despite the lifestyle he chose, he lived a long life, eventually dying in New York City on 23 March 1982.

For all his perceived failings as a drummer, in retrospect it is apparent that Greer was just right for Ellington for the era in which he occupied the drum chair. As the years passed other fine drummers came into Ellington’s band, notably Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard. The former of these musicians, while an exceptional player, was the least Ellingtonian of all the drummers who played in the band. Woodyard was ideal for later Ellington, bringing to the band elements of Greer’s subtlety and Bellson’s dramatic power. But for the early Ellington bands, especially those that played during the late 1930s and early 1940s, it is clear that Sonny Greer was the perfect drummer. With anyone else, the band would not have sounded the same and if it had not sounded the same then it would not have been what it was – the greatest jazz orchestra of its time.

Gene Krupa – Drummin’ Man

April 2, 2013

October 2013 will bring the 40th anniversary of the death of Gene Krupa, a jazz musician whose name remains known today not only to fans of the music of the Swing Era but also to admirers among the Now generation, many of them aspiring musicians who were not yet born when he died in 1973. One of the most popular musicians of his time, Gene Krupa was the drummer with Benny Goodman’s ground-breaking band during the Swing Era through which he gained international fame. This was a time when many musicians were idolized by screaming, adoring fans in a way that had no precedent – although, heaven knows, it has had more than enough antecedents. Even so, the treatment of pop artists from the late 1950s onwards, all the way down to the present day, only rarely reaches the heights attending Gene Krupa in his heyday.Jazz drums

Today, Gene’s astonishingly undiminished popularity is revealed through Internet websites that feature him, some dedicated solely to him, and by the numerous reissues of his records along with videos and magazine articles. In the USA, the UK and continental Europe there are Gene Krupa tribute bands that perform live to sell-out audiences.

Why – and what was so special about him?

Gene was as magnetic as a movie star, filled with wild exuberance as his raven-colored hair, flashing brown eyes and black suit contrasted with the snow-white marine pearl drums that surrounded him.

Anita O’Day (in her autobiography)

Certainly the movie star looks helped, but it was much more than that. Gene’s dynamic, frequently spectacular, playing style attracted the attention of people who had neither knowledge of nor liking for jazz. Part of the attraction lay in his personal charisma; and there was also the manner in which his boundless enthusiasm for and unending delight in his music transmitted itself to others. Musicians were lifted by his presence in a band and audiences inevitably responded gleefully even if, at times, their enthusiasm was for the showbiz glitz rather than underlying musical qualities. At times he acted like the superstar he was, earning mild disapproval from some musicians (comments by pianist Bob Kitsis reveal him to be one of this minority). If Gene did act this way, his behavior in this respect might be explained, if not excused, by his awareness of what the mass audience wanted; and there might also have been an underlying fear that his fame could vanish overnight, plunging him back into the the borderline poverty in which he had been raised.

Gene Krupa

Eugene Bertram Krupa was born in Chicago on 15 January 1909, the last of a large family of Polish Catholics. (The age span of the Krupa kids was huge – 23 years between Gene and his eldest sibling.) Death was always a grim factor in the poorer districts of Chicago, and Gene’s family did not escape. His father, Bartley (Bartlomiej) Krupa, died in 1916, a brother in 1918, a sister in 1923, and in 1928, when he was just starting to make his way in the world, his mother died. Anna Krupa had wanted her youngest son to enter the church, but he had other ideas. Even so, he briefly studied in a seminary before the lure of the city’s speakeasies proved too strong. That was was about as far away from the church as it was possible to go, because the world of jazz, which beckoned the youngster, was deemed by many to be the Devil’s domain.

Properbox Records

Properbox Records

Gene had begun playing drums (a brother helping him buy his first kit) and by the mid-1920s he was being recognized in Chicago’s South Side clubs. Among other rising jazz musicians with whom he played were Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Condon. However, he was itching for the big time and that meant New York, which is where he went in 1929. It was a decision he never regretted. Gene’s early record dates had already attracted worldwide attention; on his first, in 1927, he broke new ground, reputedly being the first jazz drummer to be allowed to use a full drum kit in a recording studio (the old-fashioned recording equipment couldn’t take the reverberation of the bass drum but Gene and the sound engineers figured out a way to do it). Subsequently, he played on recordings that turned out to be masterpieces or milestones. While they were doubtless thought of at the time as just another job, he was on Coleman Hawkins’ classic 1929 recording of One Hour, and in 1933 he backed Billie Holiday on her first-ever recording session. But it was in 1934 that he took the step that was to make him a national figure. It was at the end of that year when he joined Benny Goodman and helped boost the band to its place as the country’s top popular music attraction. There was also the band within the band, the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet, that illuminated Gene’s name in even brighter lights. For many – perhaps the majority – of its thousands of fans, Goodman’s band was the epitome of Swing. And Gene Krupa was the heartbeat of the band that reached its peak at its 16 January 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall.

For just about the three most important years of my life Gene plugged along with me, taking the breaks as they came, working as hard as any man could.

Benny Goodman (in his autobiography)

Among many records made by Gene with Benny were exceptional small group tracks such as Who? and, Gene’s own declared favorite, Runnin’ Wild. As for the big band recordings, whatever might have been thought at the time, it is probably Sing, Sing, Sing that most evokes this point in their time together (and it is being used in films and on television through to the present day).

Primo Records

Primo Records


For all their commercial popularity together, like many other professionally successful relationships the Gene and Benny pairing had problems. Sharing the spotlight was never something that came readily to the bandleader; after all, he was widely declared to be the King of Swing (although there is evidence that the title was first bestowed on Gene as part of an instrument makers’ publicity campaign). Whatever the root cause, in 1938, Benny and Gene had an on-stage disagreement during a performance at Philadelphia’s Earle Theatre. The outcome was that Gene quit the band. It was headline news, and fans were distraught. But within weeks Gene had his own band and was soon chasing his old boss for the number one spot. The next few years saw tours and recording sessions, that produced successes for the new band such as Drummin’ Man, Wire Brush Stomp, and Blue Rhythm Fantasy. As time passed, the band gradually shifted from being a supporting group for an always soloing drummer, to being one of the best jazz big bands of the era, with key figures apart from the leader – among them trumpeter Roy Eldridge (one of the first black musicians to be a regular member of an otherwise all-white band) and singer Anita O’Day.

Sony Records

Sony Records

Among popular recordings by this band were Let Me Off Uptown, After You’ve Gone, Rockin’ Chair and Massachusetts.

For a while, it might be that those nagging thoughts arose; was this too good to last? It was.

Headline news of a different kind came in 1943 when Gene was busted by San Francisco police officers on charges linked to the possession of marijuana and involving a young man, allegedly underage, deemed to be handling the drug. The media, ever fickle, turned on the man they had helped make into a national idol. Imprisoned and thoroughly dejected by what had happened, Gene thought of retiring. Enough of the truth about what really happened – in and out of court – seeped out for Gene to be granted an early release from prison (although the absolute details would not become public knowledge until many years after Krupa’s death). Surprisingly, because the popular press had attacked him mercilessly, the newly-freed man’s popularity was undimmed. At the time, enough of the unsavory reality and political motivation behind the police action was revealed for Gene to consider himself to have been exonerated. After brief spells with Benny Goodman, who had quickly stepped in with a helpful offer of work, and with Tommy Dorsey, Gene decided to reform a band. Following this resumption of his career, he became more popular than ever before and, simultaneously, the quality of his playing and that of his band reached new heights. Although his own playing style remained largely unaltered, he eagerly embraced new concepts entering jazz at this time and gave career-boosting jobs to young beboppers, including Don Fagerquist, Dodo Marmarosa, Red Rodney and Gerry Mulligan (the latter taken on as an arranger).

Hep Records

Hep Records

Popular recordings around this time included Lover, Opus 1 and Leave Us Leap, with its pulse-prodding freeze beat. At the time of this new peak in his career, the mid-1940s, Gene Krupa was still only 34 years old and he was already a legend.

The first thing that marijuana does is distort time and time is the essence to a drummer.

Gene Krupa

But what effect had all this adulation, the attendant riches, and the high – and low – times had on the man behind the public persona? He had married Ethel McGuire, the switchboard girl at the Dixie Hotel in New York where musicians stayed when in town, but life on the road and its tempting pleasures of wine, women and song threatened their relationship. In Gene’s case the wine (drugs were not his thing, but he liked a taste) and the women (who included movie stars, such as Lana Turner) at times threatened to overwhelm the song. He and Ethel had divorced but were drawn together again at the time of the San Francisco drug bust. They remarried but Ethel’s early death, she was only 46, marred what might have been a fairy-tale ending. As he grew older, Gene retained his good looks and his attractiveness to women was undiminished. The result was a succession of on-the-road affairs until he married again, this time to Patricia, 25 years his junior, with whom he continued to raise Mary Grace and Michael, two adopted handicapped children; sadly, this marriage also foundered.

Although Gene’s career as leader of a big band was over by the 1950s, he continued to lead small groups, usually a quartet, playing prestigious venues in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tokyo, and he toured internationally as a member of Jazz At The Philharmonic.

Charly Records

Charly Records

He also taught drum skills, studied classical music, and explored the complexities of ethnic percussion. He had appeared in several films in the 1930s and 40s, then appeared as himself in 1950s biopics about Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. 300px-The_Gene_Krupa_Story_1959_posterIn 1959 he played on the soundtrack of his own biopic, Drum Crazy: the Gene Krupa Story, but even Sal Mineo, the actor playing Gene on screen, admitted that the film was a travesty – however, it seemed not to harm either Gene’s reputation or his late career.

Despite a heart condition, in the 1960s Gene played on, sometimes leading his own quartet, or even a big band (if only on record).

Mr Music Records

Mr Music Records

Verve Records

Verve Records

He also appeared on stage and on television with a reunited Benny Goodman Quartet. Although not generally known to audiences, Gene suffered from recurring spinal problems that meant he was frequently in great pain. Not all public appearances were planned in detail. Dave Frishberg played piano in Gene’s quartet at New York’s Metropole in the early 1960s and recalled that one evening just as they ended a one-hour set, Benny Goodman walked in with his clarinet. The audience went wild, management were practically dragging people in to swell the crowd and the club’s photographer went into overdrive promising autographed pictures to everyone. An hour later, Benny packed up his clarinet and left without signing a single photo. Dave noted that Gene, drenched in sweat, sat on the stage, patiently signing pictures, asking each customer who he should inscribe it to. Later, in the dressing room, Gene and Dave studied one of the shots; it was of Benny on the bandstand, clarinet in mouth, legs astride, and his flies open. ‘Buttons!’ Gene said. ‘Buttons! That suit’s probably from about 1940.’ Other sessions included a Chicago date with a local band that included Marcus Belgrave, fortuitously recorded and later released on CD; a quartet date at the New School; and a Chicagoans in New York date at the same venue that reunited Gene with old pals Wild Bill Davison and Eddie Condon. By the early 1970s, though, his health had deteriorated with the onset of a form of leukemia, but he never gave up although concerts were sometimes preceded by blood transfusions and he had to carefully pace his playing to allow him to recover strength between numbers.

Chiaroscuro Records

Chiaroscuro Records

Chiaroscuro Records

Chiaroscuro Records

Gene’s decision to hide his problems from fans proved successful and audiences at the time were unaware of his condition. Today, listeners to recordings of those performances, or viewers of videos, can neither hear nor see any hint of the truth.

It wasn’t only audiences who admired Gene. Just as he had respected, revered almost, Baby Dodds and Chick Webb, significant predecessors in jazz drumming, he was in turn respected by contemporaries, like Buddy Rich, and successors, like Louie Bellson, whose early career was boosted when he won a Gene Krupa contest.

Great, man.

Buddy Rich

I think Gene Krupa was the influence that started a lot of youngsters playing. He made me start digging drums . . . I liked the way he was playing solos . . . he made the public aware of drum solos.

Roy Porter to Mark Gardner in Jazz and Blues

When I was back in high school, I used to do an impression of him.

Butch Miles to Eddie Cook in Jazz Journal

He was a wonderful, kind man and a great player. He brought drums to the foreground. He is still a household name.

Louie Bellson

 Although Gene Krupa has been the subject of many magazine and newspaper articles and numerous passages in books, there was never a book about him until mine appeared in 1987. Written to conform to a series format, at only 40,000 words Gene Krupa: his Life and Times, could not deal fully with this extraordinary man’s life and career. Gene Krupa biographyNevertheless, it sold out as did a 1992 reprint; today copies can be bought from Internet secondhand bookstores. As far as I am aware, only one other book on Krupa has appeared, Bruce H. Klauber’s The World of Gene Krupa.

In the years since publication of my book, new material has emerged, including the full story of the drug bust. This came in 1999 when T. Dennis Brown, Ph.D., of the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Massachusetts, located and interviewed at length John Pateakos, the young man at the heart of the fraudulent case. Additionally, fascinating new information about Gene’s private life has surfaced, adding texture to an already brimful story.

As a glance at print and on-line work reveals, there is a remarkably sustained level of interest in Gene Krupa. Numerous CDs and some videos are available at Amazon and other online stores. In addition to this, available from Bruce Klauber’s website are rare CDs and DVDs of Gene Krupa, not only playing, but also talking about his life and career.

DBK Jazz Records

DBK Jazz Records

Also on Bruce Klauber’s site are details of performances by Bruce’s own Krupa-inspired bands. Additionally, anyone wanting to learn more about this fine musician should visit Joe Pagano’s invaluable site.

All of Gene’s old enthusiasm and musical vitality remained intact until he suffered a final heart attack on 16 October 1973, just a couple of months after an engagement with the Benny Goodman Quartet. That so much interest should exist all these years after his death is testimony to a remarkable individual, man and musician, who lives on not only in print and on screen, but most importantly through the many hundreds of fine records he made and which are bequeathed to us all. Snare drum

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

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

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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