Happy Feet - Part 1
Right from its opening in 1926, the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets in Harlem, earned a reputation as the nation’s greatest dance center. The ballroom’s highly appropriate publicity tag was ‘The Home of Happy Feet’, although the ballroom’s regulars, amateurs often more skilful than the best professionals and who included Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, referred to it affectionately as ‘The Track’.
Among the earlier bands that played at the Savoy was The Harlem Stompers, a medium-size group led by a diminutive drummer named Chick Webb. By 1931, now leading a big band, he had become a fixture at the ballroom and was soon regarded by the dancers as the undisputed King of the Savoy.
William Henry Webb was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1905 (dates as wide apart as 1902 and 1909 have been suggested but recent research suggests ’05 is correct). A sickly child, he developed tuberculosis of the spine and, crippled and destined for a life of pain and immobility, he underwent an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. Thereafter, he was able to walk but remained small in stature, hunchbacked, and incapable of free and easy movement in his legs and shoulders. Any one of these disabilities should have put a career as a drummer into the realm of dreams, but he was tough, energetic, and absolutely determined to fulfill his twin ambitions of becoming a drummer and a band leader.
By his early teens, he had shown enough promise to be hired by the Jazzola Orchestra, with whom he played on pleasure boats before heading for New York City where he first joined the Edgar Dowell band, but remained eager to lead his own band and the following year he formed a quintet for a residency at the Black Bottom Club, then the Paddocks Club before taking his Harlem Stompers into the Savoy. The next few years found Webb working only intermittently, although he did manage a brief gig at the Cotton Club. Then came the long residency at the Savoy and the days of scuffling were over. Apart from the financial stability this brought, Chick Webb also found popular and critical acclaim. From this point onwards, his was the band by which all others that came to the Savoy were measured. Most often, especially when matched with Webb in a band battle, the others were found wanting.
From the start of his band-leading career, Webb was always able to attract good musicians as sidemen. Their willingness to play with him derived from a combination of his infectious enthusiasm for his music and the fact that he was a kind and likable man. Among early sidemen were pianist-arranger Don Kirkpatrick and Don’s brother-in-law, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. A measure of Webb’s generosity can be gleaned from his encouragement when Hodges was offered a potentially more rewarding job with Duke Ellington. Among other early sidemen who stayed longer than most were trumpeter Bobby Stark and guitarist John Trueheart. The latter had been in Webb’s Jazzola Orchestra and remained a close friend to the end of the drummer’s life. Then there were trumpeter Louis Bacon and trombonist Jimmy Harrison, and saxophonists Benny Carter and Hilton Jefferson. Webb also hired Bardu Ali to front the band, baton in hand, but no one was ever in any doubt that the driving force was the little drummer.
Although it is possible to hear something of the magic in the band’s handful of 1931 recordings, it is from recordings of 1933 onwards that Chick Webb’s full flowering can be heard. By this time, the band was playing specially written arrangements, even though the cost to was sometimes disproportionate. In his memoirs, The Night People, Dicky Wells observes: ‘Chick went hungry a lot just to keep the band in music. He would live on hamburgers so he could buy arrangements.’ Don Kirkpatrick was still writing for the band (he was replaced on piano by Joe Steele and later by Tommy Fulford), although the principal contributor to the excellence of the band’s book was alto saxophonist-violinist Edgar Sampson. His scores for the band proved to be a great asset; direct and simple though they are, Sampson’s charts are imbued with great swing and have an enviable looseness that encourages the soloists to show off their paces. A good example is Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie!, which includes some searing trumpet from Taft Jordan, another new arrival whose solo skills became a highlight of the band (and somewhat inhibited Bobby Stark’s potential in this area). Sampson’s work for the band included arrangements of several of his own compositions, among them such soon-to-be jazz standards as Blue Lou, Don’t Be That Way and Stompin’ At The Savoy. The band’s 1934 recordings of these tunes are particularly rewarding, perhaps because they were fresh material and had yet to acquire a weary patina of overworked familiarity as many other bands picked them up. Taken at a relaxed tempo, Blue Lou has good solos from Sampson, Steele and trumpeter Mario Bauza; the up-tempo Don’t That Way has Williams, Sampson, Jordan, and trombonist Claude Jones; Stompin’ At The Savoy crackles with vibrant urgency and includes fine solos by trumpeters Bauza and Reunald Jones and tenor saxophonist Elmer Williams. Another arranger who served the band well was Charlie Dixon, and some of his charts are among the best of the band’s 1937 recordings. These include a dynamic Harlem Congo, featuring Taft Jordan, Williams and Louis Jordan on clarinet; a deceptively lazy version of Fats Waller’s Squeeze Me; and That Naughty Waltz, with fine solos by Chauncey Haughton on clarinet, and Taft Jordan. An occasional arranger for the band was Benny Carter, who was responsible for an outstanding version of George Gershwin’s Liza, recorded in 1938.
The regularity of the band’s work at the Savoy allowed Chick Webb to employ and keep top-flight soloists and sidemen and from around 1933 onwards the personnel was remarkably stable. Apart from those already mentioned, there were such sound performers as saxophonists Ted McRae and Wayman Carver. The latter joined fellow reed section member Chauncey Haughton in a ‘band within the band’, The Little Chicks, which employed the unusual instrumentation of flute (Carver), clarinet (Haughton), and rhythm section. The Little Chicks can be heard on such engaging excursions as I Got Rhythm and Sweet Sue, Just You.
For all the undoubted qualities of his sidemen and arrangers, however, on every instrumental number the band recorded, the importance of Chick Webb’s own instrumental contribution is never in doubt. On the evidence of records, whether from studio sessions or from the handful of radio remotes that are available, Webb was one of the best half-dozen big band drummers around at the time (other qualifiers would include Sid Catlett and Jo Jones). On slow and medium tempo numbers, Webb’s drumming is imbued with fluid grace, while on up-tempo tunes he drives the band with great flair and exuberance. When he takes solos, they are usually brief, to the point, and beautifully shaded. Such examples as Spinnin’ the Webb and In The Groove At The Grove (from 1938 and 1939, respectively), both of which number among his handful of compositions, demonstrate his ability to make a telling impact with much less fuss and drama than many more famous drummers. On his occasional extended solos, for example, on the unlikely My Wild Irish Rose, from a 1939 airshot, he displays with intelligence and wit, qualities in short supply among his contemporaries. In some instances, Liza and Harlem Congo among them, it is hard to imagine how Webb’s work, whether solo or in ensemble, could have been bettered. Indeed, Liza, which appears in the form of a small concerto for drums and orchestra, is exemplary and might well contain the best example of his drumming on record.
The high regard with which Chick Webb was viewed within the jazz world can be gleaned from comments made by musicians, especially drummers. Most often quoted is Gene Krupa, who consciously changed his own playing style after first hearing Webb. Given the number of big band drummers who subsequently copied Krupa, there must be many hundreds who, consciously or not, continued to develop the legacy of Chick Webb for many years after his death. Krupa, at least, gave credit to his idol, and for the rest of his life never tired of telling anyone that the little man from Baltimore was the finest drummer he had ever heard: ‘That man was dynamic; he could reach the most amazing heights.’ And Krupa was always happy to acknowledge that the best lesson in drumming he ever had occurred when he was with the Benny Goodman band which tangled with Chick Webb’s band at the Savoy on 11 May 1937, declaring, ‘I was never cut by a better man.’
For all his undoubted merits as a drummer and bandleader, however, to say nothing of the rapturous esteem with which he was regarded by the dancers at the Savoy, Chick Webb is almost forgotten today. When he is remembered it is usually for none of the reasons suggested above, but because of a young singer he employed in 1934 - Ella Fitzgerald.
Part 2 will follow shortly ...
Filmmaker Jeff Kaufman has recently completed The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America.
The preceding originally appeared in slightly different form in Jazz Journal in March 1989. If you are not already a reader, their website is where you can subscribe.