When Drummers Speak of Chick Webb, They Use Tones of Reverence
Finally, we have a much-needed cradle-to-grave narrative of this elusive but crucial figure in jazz history, who died in 1939 at age 34.
‘Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat That Changed America’
By Stephanie Stein Crease
Oxford University Press; Oxford Cultural Biographies
William Henry “Chick” Webb lived only 34 years, but in that short time he left an indelible, multi-layered legacy to American music and cast a giant shadow over the history of jazz — particularly to drummers.
During his final years, he was celebrated as the leader of one of the most popular big bands of the early swing era; in its perch as the band in residence at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, Webb’s Orchestra exerted a vast influence over what musicians all over America were playing, and what people were dancing to across the globe. In the process, he also launched the career of the First Lady of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald.
Still, Webb’s greatest gift to future generations was his own musicianship: if he wasn’t the greatest drummer of all time, he’s certainly the player whom other superstar drummers most often named as their favorite, starting with Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Papa Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and virtually every percussionist who came of age in the 1930s or ’40s.
Despite his importance to the subsequent development of jazz, relatively little has been written about Chick Webb; for nearly 80 years since his tragically young death in 1939, not enough was known about him, particularly his early years. There certainly was never enough information to fill out a biography, until now.
Stephanie Stein Crease, author of a previous biography of another elusive but crucial figure in jazz history, the arranger and bandleader Gil Evans, has finally given us a much-needed cradle-to-grave narrative of this most essential of all jazz drummers. She has extracted much family lore from his relatives; none are old enough to have known Webb directly, but still they know more about his life than anyone else.
Then, too, she’s combed the archives; As I well know from my own projects, it’s probably easier now in 2023 to research the life of a major musician because in the last few years or so, many vintage music publications and the African-American press have been digitized and made available. Lastly, there’s testimony from dozens of drummers, all of whom speak of Webb in tones of absolute reverence.
Complicating the saga is Webb’s physical situation. As Ms. Crease writes, “Almost every news clipping about Webb brought up his spinal deformity, his height, or what is now considered his disability. He was called a ‘midget,’ a ‘crippled genius,’ a ‘hunchback dwarf.’ Webb was afflicted with the chronic effects of disease and some forms of disability: an impaired spine, uneven gait, and sometimes severe pain. His childhood bout with spinal tuberculosis resulted in his shortened spinal column due to compressed vertebrae, as well as his hump.”
Ms. Stein’s book includes specific details regarding his disability, along with a vivid account of his early days in the Baltimore music scene. After Webb arrives at Harlem, Ms. Stein charts the construction and development of the Savoy Ballroom, showing how and why it became the absolute epicenter of American music, particularly for Black people from all over the country.
As we learn from “Rhythm Man,” it was essentially Duke Ellington who empowered Webb to become a bandleader. At the height of the jazz age around 1925, Ellington, himself a recent arrival from Washington, D.C., had more job offers than he could fill, so he originally recruited Webb as a kind of a subcontractor. Webb became determined to make it as a leader at a time when the overwhelming majority of Black bands were led by pianists: The four biggest were probably Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, and Count Basie.
Webb’s fortunes rose along with the Savoy’s; by the start of the swing era, the bandleader-drummer was regarded as a Harlem cultural hero and the ballroom itself was more than a dance hall — truly an internationally celebrated community institution. Webb’s greatest accomplishment was to show the world how a drummer could take charge musically. As Max Roach put it, “He was the first drummer I’ve seen that sat in front of the band! He was introduced and sat right in front of the orchestra.”
Webb’s moment in the spotlight was relatively brief; between 1935, when the 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald came on board, and his death four years later. During that time they were an unstoppable duo, the King and the Princess of the Savoy. In Artie Shaw’s memorable phrase, Webb “literally lifted the band,” adding, “When it cut loose he was behind every phrase like a charioteer driving horses.”
As the contemporary drummer Kenny Washington puts it, “Webb really wrote the blueprint for big band drummers. The rest of the guys — Papa Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Ray McKinley, even Mel Lewis — all looked up to Chick because he wrote the book in terms of big band drumming.”
Webb’s own arranger, Van Alexander — the man largely responsible for their breakthrough hit “A Tisket, A Tasket” — contended, “The recordings keep Chick’s enormous talent a secret, they only suggest what he could do. I saw and heard him live night after night and it was never less than exhilarating.”
If Alexander is correct, then Webb must have been truly beyond incredible, since many of his best sides are jazz and big band milestones. His 1937 “I Got Rhythm” (actually performed by a quintet) is a mini-masterpiece in which Webb’s trap drum kit interacts with one of the first recorded flute solos in all of jazz, played by Wayman Carver.
There are dozens of recorded examples of Webb lifting and pushing the band, as Shaw put it, helping to make orchestral jazz classics out of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Don’t Be That Way,” “Blue Minor,” and “Blue Lou.” (All of these, by the way, can be heard in the Mosaic Records set, “The Complete Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions, 1934-1941,” or, in a more concise form, streaming in the playlist “Chick Webb Essentials” on Apple Music.)
Webb also was a fierce combatant, who participated in history-making band battles at the Savoy, most famously against Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. Eighty-five years later, we’re still debating the outcome, but it’s generally agreed that Webb won at least two out of three. When he died of Pott disease in June 1939, it was a moment of national mourning in the Black community and for music and dance lovers everywhere.
“I found direction when I first heard Chick, he changed everything around for me,” Gene Krupa said. Webb “had style, but there was so much beyond style. Chick had drive and ingenuity and magnetism that drew drummers by the dozens.”