Chick Webb, born William Henry Webb (February 10, 1905 - June 16, 1939), was an African-American jazz drummer and big band leader. Both as a drummer and as a leader, Chick Webb occupies a legendary place in jazz. Severely handicapped by a childhood illness and nearly a dwarf, Webb was able to become perhaps the most powerful drummer of the classic era, thus symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over the flesh.
In addition to its great musical quality, Webb’s band was intimately linked to Swing music’s dance tradition, serving aficionados at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom for many years. Even though a few contemporary orchestras could pride themselves for a greater wealth of top soloists, the bouncy energy and special mood generated by Webb and his band have never been replicated.
Life and career
Webb was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to William H. and Marie Johnson Webb. He suffered from childhood tuberculosis, leaving him with short height and a badly deformed spine. He supported himself as a newspaper boy and saved up money to buy drums, and first played professionally at age 11.
When he was twenty, he moved to New York City and by the following year, 1926, he was leading his own band in Harlem. Jazz drummer Tommy Benford said he gave Webb drum lessons when he first arrived in New York.
Webb alternated between band tours and residencies at New York City clubs through the late 1920s. In 1931, his band became the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. He became one of the best-regarded bandleaders and drummers of the new "Swing" style. The Savoy often featured "Battle of the Bands" where Webb's band would compete with other top bands (such as the Benny Goodman Orchestra or the Count Basie Orchestra) from opposing bandstands, usually defeating them. Most famous in history is a meeting with Goodman that left that band’s star drummer, Gene Krupa, defeated and exhausted. Chick Webb also counts Duke Ellington among his many admirers.
Webb married a woman named Sallye, and in 1935, he began featuring a teenage Ella Fitzgerald as vocalist. He formally adopted her.
In November of 1938, Webb's health began to decline, and from then until his death, he alternated time on the bandstand with time in hospitals. He died the following year back in his original hometown of Baltimore. After his death, Ella Fitzgerald led the Chick Webb band for the remainder of the swing era.
It has often been deplored that Webb’s music has not been adequately preserved on recordings. This is true of many early musicians, but it is especially true of drummers, since the recording techniques of the early days did not allow that instrument to be heard properly. Still, in the 1930s, when Webb became famous, the technique had sufficiently evolved and his drumming can be heard quite well on a number of recordings. “Harlem Congo” (1937), “Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie” (1937), and “Liza (All The Clouds’ll Roll Away)” (1938) contain his greatest recorded solos, but even when playing in the background or performing short breaks, his drumming can be heard quite well. The special atmosphere of his band can also be felt, though there is no doubt that the live experience (without the recordings’ time limit of 2 or 3 minutes) must have been something else altogether.
Like many of the early jazz musicians, Webb was unable to read music.
Chick Webb was by no means the first significant drummer in jazz. Many drummers, both black and white, had preceded him and even gained significance, among them such pioneers as Zutty Singleton and Warren Baby Dodds. But Webb, being the leader of a major big band, naturally gained a significance he would not have had otherwise. Until Gene Krupa turned jazz drummers into potential superstars at around the same time Webb was playing, drums remained somewhat in the background, in a supporting role. This also had something to do with the fact that the earliest recording techniques did not allow drummers to use their whole arsenal. Chick Webb was not as demonstrative in his band as Gene Krupa would be. He did not claim every opportunity to perform impressive solos, though at times he did. Regardless, his powerful and subtle swing was omnipresent whenever he would play and it totally dominated his band.
Most later drummers acknowledged his formative influence. Drumming legend Buddy Rich cited Webb's powerful technique and virtuoso performances as heavily influential on his own drumming, and even referred to Webb as, "the daddy of them all."
Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald
Another issue with Webb’s musical legacy has to do with what, in many ways, came as a great blessing: His discovery of Ella Fitzgerald when she won a singing contest on "Harlem Amateur Hour," at the Apollo Theater in 1934. All swing bands, black and white, were obliged to often perform sub-standard commercial material to survive, and this invariably involved poor lyrics performed by often miserable singers spoiling otherwise great performances. Having a singer of Ella’s caliber allowed Webb to avoid that predicament, but not entirely. First, Ella was still a teen. Though she had a unique freshness to her voice at that time, she was far from being the accomplished singer she would become. And her presence often eclipses Webb’s drumming and the rest of the band more than many would have hoped for. Finally, though this is irrelevant to the musical quality of the performances, Chick Webb’s recordings have routinely been reissued under Ella’s name, because of her higher name recognition, which is of course unfair to his legacy.
The Webb band never boasted a great number of top-flight soloists, like the bands of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington or Count Basie, but the players it included over the years were more than adequate and the band had its own sound, hence a clear identity—the most important element. Outstanding among Webb’s collaborators was multi-instrumentalist Edgar Sampson (alto and baritone saxophones, violin), who was with the band from 1933-1936. Above all, Sampson was a great arranger in the vein of Benny Carter. Sampson was also the composer of the bands main hits, such as “Stomping at the Savoy,” “Don’t Be That Way,” and “Blue Lou,” all of which became standards. Trumpeters Taft Jordan and Bobby Stark, trombone player Sandy Williams, and early jazz flutist Wayman Carver were among his other important soloists. In addition to his big band, Webb also used a small group from among his musicians to make recordings under the name of Chick Webb and His Little Chicks.
Disputed birth date
As for several early jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Coleman Hawkins, Chick Webb’s actual birth date has remained uncertain (a sign of the social circumstance into which they were born). Many sources give Webb's birth year as 1909. 1902 and 1907 have also been suggested. However, there is research that shows that 1905 might be the correct year. Eric B. Borgman claims that he has proven that Webb was actually born in 1905, based on the 1910 and 1920 United States censuses. The Internet Movie Database has since adopted the 1905 year.
Webb is one of the jazz drummers whose style is imitated by street drummer Gene Palma in the film Taxi Driver, suggesting his influence is pervasive down the decades.
- Fritts, Ron. Ella Fitzgerald: The Chick Webb Years and Beyond—1935-1948. The Scarecrow Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0810848818
- Korall, Burt. Drummin' Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz—The Swing Years. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0195157628
- Miller, Norma and Evette Jensen. Swingin' at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer. Temple University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-1566394949
- Schleman, Hilton R. Rhythm on Record. Greenwood Press Reprint, 1978. ISBN 978-0313202575
All links retrieved February 10, 2017.
- Chick Webb: Baltimore's Jazz Giant.
- Chick Webb Featuring many photos of Webb.
- Internet Movie Data Base.
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