In a genre as widely popular and influential as Jazz, even some of the most well- respected musicians could fall through the cracks in terms of being a mainstream legend. This is not a revelation of a statement on its own, as this was the story for many a musician. The cause could be simply be a casualty of overshadowing during the jazz/swing craze, not being terribly Innovative, or not having a string of hits. Some of these causes even afflicted the subject of this paper. However, It was another factor that makes his story so interesting, yet tragic.
Not every artist could be etched In legend such as figures like Louis Armstrong and Duke Longtime, or have his music played all over like Benny Goodman. But Chick Web’s Impact on both the music, culture and technique regarding the drums were and still are well-respected In the Jazz scene, despite some of the factors that would hold him back from being a transcendent star. The story of Chick Webb has to begin with the factor that held him back the most and is also the first to afflict him.
Despite his disputed birth date, Chick was born in Baltimore, Maryland to William H. And Marie Johnson Webb. William Henry Webb, his birth name, was born with spinal tuberculosis, a condition that would negatively affect him his whole life and ultimately cost him his life. So how does one manage all this pain, let alone become the greatest jazz drummer in history? For starters, the idea of playing the drums came from his doctor. The intent was that the rapid movement of the limbs that is required by the drums would “loosen up” his stiff limbs and lessen the pain.
With the appeal of the instruments’ recreational and medicinal apparent, a young Webb would become a newspaper boy with the sole goal of saving up enough money to buy a drum set. Until then, Webb would settle for the bottom of overturned garbage cans to whet his appetite. By 1 1 years old, Webb would have his drum set and by 17 years old, he had moved to New York City to pursue his dream of being a player in the Jazz capital of the world. Chick Webb began playing in New York night clubs as soon as he arrived in 1924.
Clubs such as the Paddock Club and the Black Bottom took him in, reference by none other than Duke Longtime, who instantly recognized his talent. Longtime would become an Important figure in Web’s life, both as a mentor and a rival, further down the line. Noting his dominant skill and strong personality, Longtime would encourage Webb to form and lead his own small band. Webb would do Just that by forming the Harlem Stoppers, a quintet that would go on to supply the demand for swing music In the era known as the Harlem Renaissance.
HIS skills were rare, and considered Ideal to fuel the upbeat pace of swing music and provide a drive to the music that could rarely be matched. Naturally, this skill became quickly recognized all over the city, leading to the expansion of the Harlem Stoppers, who would now be known as the Chick Webb Orchestra. Web’s status as a successful musicals was cemented when his band was selected as the house band of the Savoy Ballroom, a legendary venue located In Harlem. He would be the face of the venue until his final years. Based solely off their own merits, the Chick Webb Orchestra was a highly regarded band.
But what made the band legendary in its own right was their willingness to accept challengers in what was known as “cutting’ sessions”, or battles of the bands. Many good, but be blown out of the ballroom. However, when then-“King of Swing” Benny Goodman and his band arrived to challenge Web’s, Chick began to finally get some acclaim room outside of New York. In New York, over 9,000 people came to see this historical event, 5,000 of them standing outside Just to have the chance of possibly hearing the monumental clash that was to take place. And when the opportunity arose for Webb and his band to make a statement, they did so in force.
Performing first, Goodman orchestra performed honorably as many expected from a unit of their stature. But when Web’s crew began, the outcome would become obvious. With the roar of the crowd Web’s orchestra, they would end up blowing Benny Goodman band out of he ballroom Just as he did all the other bands before him that challenged him. His driving sounds often over-powered other bands, playing into the hard swing of his orchestra. Gene Koura, a legendary drummer in his own right and drummer for Goodman band noted that “Webb cut me to ribbons! It was this moment where Webb was crowned “King of Swing” and undoubtedly “King of the Savoy’. Other legendary challengers such as Count Basis (who played Webb to a draw at the very least), Fletcher Henderson and Duke Longtime would test the mettle of the Chick Webb Orchestra, but none would diminish his status as one of the preeminent kneaders and musicians of the time. Like most famous musicians of the time, Webb began to record his work, beginning in 1927. However, his powerful sound was difficult to record cleanly without drowning out the full composition of the work.
This forced him to tone down his sound and let the rest of the music even out, possibly lessening his fame. However, in circles within the music industry, Web’s talent and influence did not go unnoticed. When Decca Records formed in 1934, Webb signed to the label and made his most famous recordings, almost all of which featuring Ella Fitzgerald as the singer. Webb initially discouraged the inclusion of Fitzgerald as she did not fit the image of the typical lead vocalist for a swing band. However, once he heard her voice, she would become the lead vocalist for Chick Web’s Orchestra.
This addition skyrocketed the careers of both artist, transforming Fitzgerald into a Boniface superstar following the success of their top hit together, Fitzgerald rendition of “A-ticket, A-Tasked”. As the quintessential swing artist, Web’s sound merged perfectly with Fitzgerald, so much so that she became known as the “First Lady of Swing”. Unfortunately, one could say the vast popularity of Fitzgerald would often overshadow Webb, especially true on recordings. What made it worse for Chick Webb, was the timing of his newfound popularity.