At the helm of one of the most outstanding jazz bands of the 1930s, Chick Webb emerged as both a tremendously influential drummer and orchestra leader. Webb was the first jazz drummer to become a nationally recognized bandleader and helped transform traditional Dixieland-style percussion into a modern swing idiom. Dwarfed by a deformity of the spine that left him hunchbacked and less than five feet tall, Webb produced innovative rhythms that remained unencumbered by physical limitations. Though nearly obscured behind his 28-inch bass drum, Webb drove his orchestra with an innate sense of swing that brought accolades from jazz great Duke Ellington to young drummer Gene Krupa, whose musical style and a drum-led ensemble would remain deeply indebted to Webb’s musical legacy. Webb is a pivotal figure in the history of jazz; his later obscurity fails to overshadow his role in defining the art of modern drumming and its integration and conceptual definition within the jazz orchestra.
William Henry Webb was born on February 10, 1909, in Baltimore, Maryland. A member of a poor family, he was raised by his mother and spent most of his childhood at the home of his grandfather, a porter employed at a downtown Baltimore shoe store. At a young age, Webb, inflicted with spinal tuberculosis, underwent an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Although the operation enabled him to walk, it resulted in the limited use of his legs and shoulders. Webb refused to let his physical deformity hinder his dream of becoming a drummer. By age three he played on pots and pans and later practiced rhythms on iron railings and marble steps around his neighborhood. With money earned from selling newspapers, he purchased a secondhand drum set and began to perform with local aspiring musicians.
Harlem: The Great Jazz Oasis
Webb’s first professional engagement came about when he joined the Jazzola Orchestra, playing drums with the band on excursion boats that crossed Sheepshead Bay. In the Jazzola Orchestra, he met lifelong friend and musical sideman John Truehart, a talented Baltimore-born banjo player and guitarist. When Truehart returned from an unsuccessful trip to find musical employment in New York City, he left once again in 1924, this time accompanied by Webb, who longed to explore the musical nightlife of Harlem.
In Harlem Webb played with saxophonists Tony Hard-wick, Johnny Hodges, and Benny Carter, and pianist Duke Ellington in the legendary Sunday jam sessions held at Small’s Paradise. Webb’s association with trumpeter
For the Record…
Born William Henry Webb, February 10, 1909, in Baltimore, MD; died June 16, 1939, in Baltimore.
Professional drummer with Jazzola Orchestra, Baltimore, MD, early 1920s; moved to New York City, 1924, and played in clubs around Harlem; bandleader, beginning in 1926; leader of Savoy Ballroom’s house band, beginning in 1931; recorded for Columbia and Decca labels, beginning in 1934; hired singer Ella Fitzgerald, 1935.
Awards: The city of Baltimore dedicated a memorial recreational center to Webb, 1947.
Bobby Stark, a member of Edgar Dowell’s band, resulted in his first musical job in New York. While visiting a club where Dowell’s band was auditioning, Webb, through the urging of Stark, was allowed to sit in for the group’s absent drummer. Impressed with Webb’s stage presence and musicianship, the club owner agreed to hire the band, with the guarantee that Dowell would feature the unknown drummer.
Eventually Ellington, one of Webb’s most outspoken admirers, booked him and four sidemen at the Black Bottom Club. Although the group fell under Webb’s nominal leadership, the drummer possessed no desire to become a bandleader. “At that time,” Ellington explained in Hear Me Talkin’to Ya, “Chick wasn’t thinking anything about getting along on his own, his mind was all on the drums.” Following a five-month stint at the Black Bottom Club, Ellington booked Webb at the Paddock Club—an engagement that resulted in the expansion of the band to eight members. At the Pad-dock Club, located below Carroll’s Theater on Seventh Avenue, Webb and his band found steady employment until a fire forced the closing of the club in 1926.
King of the Savoy
Despite his persistent reluctance to become a bandleader, Webb followed the advice of cousin and bandmem-ber Johnny Hodges and took his band to the Savoy Ballroom in 1927. The Savoy was a ballroom that stretched the entire length of 140th and 141st Streets. According to David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue, the club was “architecturally … dazzled with a spacious lobby framing a huge cut-glass chandelier and marble staircase, an orange and blue dance hall with soda fountain, and heavy carpeting covering half its area, the remainder a burnished dance floor 250 feet by 50 feet with two bandstands.” Known by Har-lemites as “theTrack,” the Savoy accommodated 4,000 dancers and some of the best jazz orchestras of the period.
At the Savoy’s battle of the band contests, Webb’s Harlem Stompers reigned victorious against the ensembles of Fletcher Henderson, Fess Williams, Lloyd Scott, and Alex Jackson. One such battle in May of 1927 inspired a Down Beat critic to write, as quoted in the book Ella Fitzgerald, “Chick had such amazing musicians in his band and they played with so much feeling and fervor that they swung the crowd right over to them, astounding everybody.”
A Little Girl Named Ella
After his contract expired at the Savoy, Webb booked his band at the Rose Danceland on 125th Street in December of 1927. Instead of staying at the Rose Danceland, however, Webb took a job playing behind vaudeville dancers. Ill-suited for the engagement, the band not only lostthe job, but outraged the owners of the Rose Danceland, who became embittered at the financial loss incurred by Webb’s sudden departure. The lack of steady work and the erratic management by Webb forced several musicians to leave the band. Among them were key soloists like Hodges, who joined Ellington, and Stark, who periodically left for employment with Fletcher Henderson.
Webb’s return to the Savoy in 1931 proved triumphant. Steady employment at the Savoy enabled Webb to assemble a formidable musical lineup with trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonists Benny Carter, Edgar Sampson, and Don Redman. Described by Ellington as “battle mad,” Webb took on the best ensembles of the day, winning legendary victories against the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1937 and Count Basie in 1938. Webb’s band emerged successful on record as well. In 1934 they released an album for Columbia under the name Chick Webb’s Savoy Orchestra and later that year signed with Decca, producing the Edgar Sampson compositions “Blue Lou,” “Blue Minor,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and “Don’t Be That Way.”
In 1935 Savoy manager Charlie Buchanan called upon Webb to find a popular singer to boost the commercial potential of his group. Though Webb had featured several singers, including handsome balladeer Charles Linton, Buchanan pressured him to find a young female vocalist versed in the modern swing style. Linton learned of a 17-year-old singer, Ella Fitzgerald, who had won first prize at the Apollo Theater’s amateur show.
At first reluctant to hire the young singer, Webb soon added Fitzgerald to the band’s payroll. The singer became an instant success with Harlem crowds and within a few weeks of joining the band—in June of 1935—she recorded the sides “Are You Here to Stay” and “Love and Kisses.” Many of the Webb/Fitzgerald recordings bordered on commercial novelty numbers, but the pair did bring the band nationwide fame and first-rate bookings. “Despite the trite material Ella chose (or was obliged) to sing,” wrote Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era, “her innate talent shone through. Indeed, she lifted these banal songs to heights they did not deserve by her impeccable pitch.”
For the next three years, Webb recorded 60 numbers featuring Fitzgerald, while only producing 14 instrumental recordings, including the critically acclaimed “Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie” and “Harlem Congo,” arranged by guitarist Charlie Dixon. These instrumentals exhibit Webb’s flawless drumming—his complete control over timing and the tasteful use of fills. On these recordings one can hear his use of cowbell, cymbal, wood block, snare-drum, tom-toms, and bass drum, on which he pounded out steady four-four time.
A Musical Father Figure
As his band found fame, however, Webb’s health worsened. Refusing to allow his illness to stand in the way of his musical career, he continually booked the band to play extensive tours and theater engagements. As Barry Ulanov noted in A History of Jazz, Webb was wholly devoted to playing the drums and leading his band and countered the effects of his illness by explaining, “I’ve gotta keep my boys working.”
In the early months of 1939, Webb began to collapse after shows, his face often bearing a grayish, sickly complexion. While playing on a riverboat outside Washington, D.C., he fell ill and had to be rushed to Johns Hopkins—the same Baltimore hospital where he had received treatment some 25 years earlier. Following an operation in June of 1939, he fell into an extremely weak state. As Ulanov wrote in A History of Jazz, “At eight o’clock in the evening of the sixteenth, with his relatives and close friends around him, Chick asked his mother to raise him up. Raised, he faced everybody in the room, grinned, jutted his jaw, and announced cockily, ’I’m sorry I gotto go!’—and died.”
To jazz artists of the Swing Era, Chick Webb was a musical father figure. In dance halls throughout the United States musicians such as Gene Krupa crowded around bandstands to study Webb’s drum style. Perhaps Krupa best summed up his mentor when he exclaimed in Modern Drummer, “He had style!” For it was Webb’s tasteful control and use of the drum kit that enabled him to help modernize the whole concept of jazz percussion. Years later, music writer Helen Oakley Dance recalled in Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, the Swing Years how Webb would boast that “ain’t nobody gonna cut me or my band.” In his short 30 years, he more that lived up this pronouncement, leaving behind a musical legacy that continues to awe jazz historians and listeners who recall a time when the “King of the Savoy” reigned.
Stompin’ at the Savoy (recorded 1936), Circle, 1985.
Spinnin’the Webb, Decca Jazz, 1994.
Chick Webb Volume 1—A Legend: 1929-1936, MCA.
Chick Webb Volume 2—King of the Savoy: 1937-1939, Decca.
Rhythm Man: 1934-35, Hep.
Strictly Jive 1936-1938, MCA.
1939 Radio Recordings, Tax.
With Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald With Chick Webb, Ace of Hearts.
Ella Swings the Band, MCA.
Korall, Burt, Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, the Swing Years, Shirmer Books, 1990.
Lewis, Levering David, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Nicholson, Stuart, Ella Fitzgerald, Victor Gollanez, 1993.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made it, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Dover Publications, 1966.
Ulanov, Barry, A History of Jazz in America, Viking Press, 1952.
Modern Drummer, January 1988.
Jazz Journal International, April 1986; February 1989.
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