A new biography by Stephanie Stein Crease
Thanks to jazz historian Stephanie Stein Crease, we now have a comprehensive biography of William Henry (“Chick”) Webb (1905-1939), the Baltimore-born musical prodigy whose innovative drumming technique helped to perfect rhythmic “swing,” the defining orchestral aesthetic of the Swing Era: Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat That Changed America (2023).
Standing at a mere four feet tall (childhood afflictions also left him humpbacked), the dynamic bandleader was known as the “Savoy King” because of his group’s storied exploits as the Savoy Ballroom’s house band in 1930s Harlem, New York. By popular acclaim, Webb’s dance band topped (“cut”) nearly all “battle of the bands” competitors, including Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman.
Born in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital as racially segregated Baltimore entered the 20th century, Webb was a self-taught drummer who never formally learned to read music. In addition to health challenges, Webb’s early life was hardscrabble, but typical for Black people in the “Jim Crow” era.
Yet a “bootstrap” mentality seemed to prevail: obstacles were motivating as well as restraining. With money earned hawking newspapers (his preferred hustle), an adolescent Webb purchased his first drum set. With ears attentive to the “ragtime” rhythms popularized by fellow Baltimorean Eubie Blake, Webb anticipated a new twist on syncopation between musicians and dancers–The Lindy Hop and The Charleston– that awaited his stylized drum beats. Pursuing a dream, Webb followed pianist Eubie Blake’s trail to Harlem.
This detailed biography of Webb reminds us of a time when ballroom dancing was a “thing.” The bygone New Albert Hall, opposite the legendary Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, carried on the local dance tradition into the 1960s. Crease’s well-crafted rendering of Webb’s heroic triumph over life’s obstacles by “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (Webb’s signature tune) provides a window on a world where swing music was empowering. Nothing deterred Webb in his quest for stardom, not even what the book cites as the “drummer’s curse”– chronic hemorrhoids.
Webb arrived during the Savoy Ballroom’s inaugural year (1926) amid the Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming period for various forms of Black cultural expression, including theater, literature, and music. His talent was obvious to the likes of bandleader Duke Ellington: “Chick Webb was a dancer-drummer who painted pictures of dances with his drums,” he said. “The reason why Chick Webb had such control, such command of his audiences at the Savoy Ballroom, was because he was always in communication with the dancers and felt it the way they did.”
Webb’s impact on the music scene was profound. He put the drums front and center in jazz orchestration with a versatile style that expanded the percussive range of the drum kit by re-imagining the interplay between cymbals, bass, tom-tom, and snare drums. Also, he incorporated drum parts and solos into Big Band arrangements. Was Webb the first modern jazz drummer? That’s the verdict of jazz drum masters quoted in the book, including “Papa” Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, and Max Roach.
Of course, Webb’s legacy will always be associated with Ella Fitzgerald, the peerless jazz/pop singer whom Webb embraced as a teen-aged winner of a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. Under Webb’s tutelage, Fitzgerald became the “First Lady of Swing” as she fronted Webb’s Savoy band before breaking through “Jim Crow” bias (“jumping the fence,” in the idiom of the day) to mainstream American acclaim as the “First Lady of Song.”
Predating R&B, soul, or disco, Chick Webb reigned as the “Savoy King” of the dance music domain. This superb biography is a welcome addition to the historical record.
As an innovator, Webb understood the transient nature of popular music. The book recalls an incident where Webb and pianist “Jelly Roll” Morton, a noted ragtime composer, argued vociferously on a Harlem street corner. The bone of contention was summed up by guitarist Danny Barker: “Jelly’s music was considered corny and dated.” In the 21st century, that “corny and dated” gibe is also aimed at Chick Webb’s swinging rhythm. Every generation reserves for itself the right to determine what is “hip.”
However, Chick Webb’s name endures. After his untimely death at age 34, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz luminaries raised money to help build the trend-setting Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center near Webb’s childhood home in East Baltimore. Subsequent generations have associated that name with many notable basketball players who emerged from playground leagues sponsored by Chick Webb and later Eastside municipal rec centers.
Chick Webb’s inspirational story provides proof of the sportsman’s adage: “What counts is NOT the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
–by Gregory Lewis.
Gregory L. Lewis is a longtime Baltimore attorney whose jazz reflections frequently appear under the Caton Castle’s “show review” tab at catoncastle.com and at reflectionscatoncastle.blogspot.com.