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The Hottest Drummer You've Never Heard
A new book pays tribute to the amazing Chick Webb, the hardest swinging jazz drummer of his day
Elvin Jones sits at (or near) the top of the drum hierarchy. His titanic playing with the John Coltrane Quartet is still the gold standard for sizzling hot polyrhythms.
But who did Jones himself admire?
In an interview he called attention to a mostly forgotten figure from the 1930s named Chick Webb. He praised Webb’s solo on the 1938 recording of “Liza” as “the most fascinating drum solo I’d ever heard, and I don’t think there’s anything to compare with that.”
He’s doing everything! He’s completely avant-garde! And the tonality of the drums…you know, the texture of his sound was so beautiful, that even with the bad technology of those recordings I can imagine what it would have sounded like with the naked ear. I think it’s one of the greatest ever. It’s a classic, absolutely classic.
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Of course, back in the 1930s, Chick Webb was no secret. He was the greatest drummer in jazz, the most swingin’ musician in Harlem. Every jazz fan knew that. And if you had any doubts, you just needed to pay a visit to the Savoy Ballroom, located at 596 Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st Streets.
That was the epicenter of hot jazz in the world. And that’s where Chick Webb was driving the beat for thousands of dancers.
In 1937, Benny Goodman was the most popular musician in America. But on May 11 of that year, he made the mistake of taking on Chick Webb in a celebrated battle of the bands at the Savoy. Some 4,000 people squeezed into the ballroom—and another 5,000 were turned away at the door. Police had to protect the bandstand and the perimeter of the dance hall.
Webb pulled out his hottest band charts that night, and triumphed over his celebrated rival. Goodman’s drummer Gene Krupa—a legend in his own right—acknowledged Webb’s supremacy: “Chick Webb cut me down to ribbons,” he admitted. “I’ve never been cut by a better man.”
Jo Jones, the revered drummer for Count Basie—who had also been defeated in a Savoy showdown with Webb—offered similarly extravagant praise for his rival. “I don’t speak of Chick Webb the drummer,” he explained. “I speak of Chick Webb the epitome.”
But these successes were short-lived. The year after his triumphs at the Savoy, Chick Webb was dead at age 34.
His band still flourished in the aftermath, but now under the leadership of singer Ella Fitzgerald, whose career Webb had helped launch. For many jazz fans today, that’s Chick Webb’s greatest claim to fame—namely his role in elevating Ella to stardom.
That’s hardly fair to the greatest drummer of the Swing Era. But even the Swing Era proved to be short-lived—with newer styles supplanting its leading exponents both on the jazz scene and the larger world of popular music. Had he lived, Webb probably could have navigated through this cultural shift—I have no problem imagining him at the helm of hot 1940s and 1950s modern jazz bands.
But he never got the chance.
In music, like war, the survivors create the narrative. And Webb for all his brilliance, was not around to make his case. Almost nobody alive today heard him perform in person. He’s even less than a memory—merely a vibrant presence on a few recordings cherished by a small and shrinking number of fans.
But, finally, a book has come along, the first in-depth biographical study of Chick Webb. Until now, my go-to source on Webb has been Burt Korall’s book Drummin’ Men from 1990, which devotes 35 pages to his life and times. Then a book-length bio of Webb appeared in 2014, but it’s just 68 pages. We’ve long needed something better.
And we finally have it. The author is Stephanie Stein Crease, who has also written a fine book about composer and arranger Gil Evans. Now—84 years after Chick Webb’s death—she tells his story in the rich detail it deserves. Her book, released earlier this year by Oxford University Press, is entitled Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America.
Webb faced long odds from the start. Born in Baltimore in 1905, he was afflicted with spinal tuberculosis in early childhood. This left him with a deformed spine and a hump on his back. For part of his childhood, he couldn’t walk, and his adult stature was barely four feet.
Webb suffered from lifelong pain. He would periodically revisit Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had been treated since his youth. Drumming might have initially been a form of physical therapy—a daily activity to strengthen his body. But it soon became something more. Before long, he was performing in dance halls and basement clubs in his home town.
Finally in 1924, at age 19, Webb moved to New York. He quickly made a mark as a drummer, helped out by Duke Ellington, who got the youngster a gig as a bandleader. But the venue, The Black Bottom, operated illegally as a speakeasy during Prohibition—so Webb had to handle the additional responsibilities of working for gangsters and watching out for police.
For all this, the band made $200 per week—and $30 of it went to Ellington as his commission. But the band was so popular, that the engagement lasted for five months. When it finally ended, Ellington helped Webb secure another speakeasy gig at the Paddock Club, where the band was now an octet.
But Webb’s big break came in February 1927, when he got his first booking at the Savoy Ballroom—where he would play for more than a thousand dancers on the floor. The engagement was a success, and Webb got booked again in May for the debut of the “battle of the bands’ concept at the venue—where he competed with better known ensembles led by Fletcher Henderson, King Oliver, and Fess Williams. The event attracted a record crowd that night, and although no winner was declared, Webb got enthusiastic coverage in the press.
Chick Webb was now a rising star. He went on his first road tour, and got choice opportunities to sub for Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club and Fletcher Henderson at Roseland. Webb now was leading a 12-piece unit, with three trumpet, two trombones, three saxes, and rhythm section. Russell Procope, who was a band member during this period, recalled that when Ellington and Henderson were on the road, “we used to stick out our chests and say: ‘Now we are the best band in New York.’”
The Great Depression curtailed the careers of many musicians in the early 1930s, but Webb continued to flourish. He now led the house band at the Savoy, and enjoyed opportunities to record. The weekly booking rate for his band rose sharply in the early 1930s to $900, and at one point in 1935 reached $1,200—the equivalent of $25,000 today.
His March 1931 tracks, with charts by Benny Carter, showcase the band’s strong rhythmic groove and progressive leanings. But the next year, Webb scored a bigger coup, recording with Louis Armstrong for RCA Victor.
This was an ideal setting for the drummer. He could keep the band swinging from behind his kit, while Armstrong sang, joked, and entertained—skills that Webb himself lacked. But, unfortunately, Armstrong’s lip was in bad shape the day of the session, and Webb was advised to avoid the bass drum. So the results only hint at what an Armstrong-Webb collaboration might have delivered in better circumstances. Even so, two of the tracks recorded that day were top 20 hits
Webb needed this kind of colleague in his working band—a charismatic singer with stage presence. But he wouldn’t find it until he met Ella Fitzgerald. Yet even before that turning point, the musicianship of Webb’s band was first-rate—despite Ellington stealing away Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams.
But the biggest contributor to the band’s success, at this stage, was Edgar Sampson, whose behind-the-scenes work as composer and arranger helped energize the entire ensemble. Two of Sampson’s works from that period—”Stompin’ at the Savoy” and "Don't Be That Way"—are still part of the core jazz repertoire today, especially for swing bands playing for dancers.
But Ella’s arrival was something even bigger. She was the most fluid and poised young jazz vocalist of the era, and her rise to fame was rapid and irreversible. When she signed up for the Amateur Night competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, she was just 17—and still not sure whether singing or dancing would be her best bet. But we’re fortunate that she opted for the microphone—and the proceedings that night were broadcast live on NBC Radio.
Her victory at the Apollo Theater was followed, a short while later, by another triumph in a competition at the Harlem Opera House. The audience acclaim was so extreme that they had to bring the curtain back up, and allow Fitzgerald to sing several encores.
Webb had an engagement at the Harlem Opera House a few days later, and let Fitzgerald audition for him backstage. “When she sang about eight bars…you could hear a pin drop in the room,” claimed Bardu Ali, who arranged the meeting. Two days later, Webb put Fitzgerald in front of the band at a Yale fraternity dance, and her singing caused an immediate sensation. The band members also gave her an enthusiastic welcome—and it helped that she could read music, and had perfect pitch. “You could tune a band by her voice,” Ali bragged.
The next week, Ella was singing with the Webb band at the Savoy Ballroom—at first just a couple numbers at the end of the set. But audiences loved the new singer. And not just in the ballroom—Webb was now broadcasting on radio frequently, so Ella Fitzgerald soon became known far and wide.
The late 1930s were the glory days of swing big bands. Hot jazz was the most popular music genre in America, and Webb was now poised for superstardom. He had offers coming from every direction and was performing in the most unlikely venues, from the Metropolitan Opera House to Yankee Stadium. According to one source, his theme song “Stompin’ at the Savoy” was played on the radio 10,000 times in 1935 and 1936.
At this juncture, Benny Goodman allegedly offered Webb $5,000 to release Fitzgerald from her contract, so that he could hire her. Goodman had already integrated his band by adding Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, but featuring Ella in front of the big band would have been an even bolder move—significant both musically and socio-culturally
It never happened. Instead, Fitzgerald stayed with Webb, but the Decca label agreed to release records under her own name. The next year she won the poll as best female vocalist in both Downbeat and Metronome magazines.
The most tangible measure of success came from a simple nursery rhyme. Fitzgerald turned “A-Tisket, A -Tasket”—a children’s song dating back at least to the 19th century—into a huge swing hit. The song rose to the top of the Hit Parade in late 1938, and was a defining song of the era. Even Ella—who enjoyed another half-century of world-beating fame—would never record a bigger commercial track.
But the end of Chick Webb’s amazing run was already at hand. The bandleader’s health was deteriorating noticeably—and he even brought another drummer, Kaiser Marshall, to engagements to take the strain off his back.
In June 1939, Webb returned to Johns Hopkins Hospital for surgery. He died there on June 16—the cause, according to the death certificate, was intestinal obstruction and uremia, caused by tuberculosis. He was just 34 years old.
People in his hometown of Baltimore still talked about the funeral decades later. More than 20,000 fans lined the streets. Limousines had to be borrowed from every other funeral home in town, because of the number of V.I.P.s in attendance. By one account, the florists of Baltimore had never received so many orders for funeral wreaths in the city’s history.
The honorary pallbearers that day included Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Gene Krupa. Ella Fitzgerald sang “My Buddy,” but broke down in tears. Some 15,000 people passed by the bier, according to the Baltmore Sun. The crowds fought their way into the church, and even dozens of extra police officers sent to the scene couldn’t restrain the mourners—just taking care of the many people in attendance who fainted kept them busy.
But pop culture fame is fleeting. Few would recognized Chick Webb’s name nowadays. Even in jazz circles, his renown has been obscured by later superstar drummers. But they would be the first to tell you how important Webb was.
Chick Webb now has a first-rate biography—long overdue but effectively filling a gap in jazz scholarship. Perhaps that will send a few more listeners to the recordings. And they will be amply rewarded for their efforts—my considered opinion is that these tracks place Webb at the top of the swing drumming hierarchy of the pre-modern jazz era—alongside a small elite group of just a few names (Buddy Rich, Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, and not many others).
It’s hard to pick a favorite among this group of legends. But Webb left behind the fewest recordings, and is thus the most neglected name on the list. He deserves better.
But don’t listen to me—check out instead what other knowledgeable drummers say.
Drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, in his perceptive write-up on Crease’s bio, justifiably asserts that “Chick Webb might be the single most influential jazz drummer in history, even if the vast majority of listeners today don’t know his music.”
And many others have said much the same. “Anyone who heard Chick Webb would be influenced by him,” Max Roach asserted. “Chick Webb does everything there is to be done to a drum,” Dave Tough has added. Perhaps Buddy Rich put it best. Chick Webb, he declared, was “the total experience on drums” and “the daddy of them all.”