Happy Feet - Part 2
As Ella Fitzgerald’s fame grew, so there was a proportionate increase in the numbers of those claiming to have ‘discovered’ her. Among the claimants, and possibly more likely than most, is Bardu Ali, front man for the Chick Webb band. Whoever heard Ella first, Bardu Ali certainly took her along to meet his boss, who was impressed despite the fact that he didn’t need a singer, least of all one with no experience. But Ella's voice captivated him and everyone in the band, and she was hired, at first being paid by Webb himself because the band’s manager was notably unenthusiastic. Fitzgerald was only seventeen then and might well have considered herself lucky to have been hired by a man who was much more careful with her undeveloped talent than many other bandleaders might have been. Webb urged her to take things slowly, telling her. ‘There's lots to learn ... you never want to be someone who goes up fast, because you come down the same way.’ Under Webb’s tutelage, Fitzgerald carefully developed her latent talent and, under his watchful eye, the band learned to respect her. Later, when Fitzgerald’s mother died, Webb and his wife Sallye became close to the youngster although whether or not Webb became Fitzgerald’s legally-appointed guardian remains questionable.
Although Fitzgerald’s first recordings for the band, I’ll Chase The Blues Away and Love And Kisses, which came in June 1935, were an inauspicious debut, a session in October that same year brought Rhythm And Romance and other popular songs of the moment that were much better and by the following year, her contributions had become a significant part of the band’s recording sessions. One of these songs, If You Can’t Sing It, You’ll Have To Swing It (better known as Mr. Paganini), became very popular, as did A-Tisket, A-Tasket, a nonsense song for which the singer helped contribute the lyric. Apparently ATisket, A-Tasket was composed to bring some cheer to Chick Webb who was undergoing one of his periods of hospitalization; certainly, the boost the record gave to the band’s bank balance must have helped everyone. Recorded early in 1939, Undecided is a better song and is superbly performed by Fitzgerald while Webb boosts the band into a dynamic performance. By this time, almost every record the band made was a vocal (only In The Groove At The Grove from the band’s 1939 released output is an instrumental), and no one was in any doubt about Fitzgerald’s vital role in the band’s success.
Sadly, however, time was running out for the leader of the band; frail and constantly in pain, Chick Webb was often unable to play at dance dates and a stand-in drummer took his place although he always strove to come onto the bandstand before the night was over. Deputizing for a musician of such legendary status was difficult and much credit is due to Bill Beason who accomplished this task with considerable skill. Indeed, he remained the band’s drummer when it later continued to play under the nominal leadership of Ella Fitzgerald. His considerable ability is well demonstrated on 1939-1940 airshots broadcast from the Savoy. Fortunately, some of these have been released by Hep Records:-
Chick Webb took the band on tour in mid-summer 1939 but was rushed to hospital when he collapsed while playing on a riverboat near Washington. At Johns Hopkins Hospital, where, only three decades earlier, he had undergone the operation that had enabled him to walk, he was diagnosed as suffering from pleurisy and a resurgence of tuberculosis of the spine. Doctors decided that his condition was too grave to warrant further surgery, and he was taken to his parents’ home where he hung on for a week as friends and relatives gathered to support him in his last hours. On 16 June 1939, he asked to be raised up in his bed. He said, ‘I’m sorry. I gotta go,’ and died.
Assessing a musician’s place in jazz history on the basis of a few records and the reminiscences of not always impartial observers is difficult. It would be an overstatement to suggest that Chick Webb’s band was on par with those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Jimmie Lunceford, even though, on occasion, he matched and even defeated them in band battles at the Savoy. Nevertheless, a few such giants apart, there are not many bands that displayed so much uncluttered straight-ahead swing in performances that are liberally peppered with excellent hot solos. Undoubtedly, Webb’s was one of the best dozen or so big bands of its time.
As a drummer, Chick knew few peers, and even fewer betters. Listening to records in chronological sequence in an attempt to decide upon a drummer’s influence is a method of dubious accuracy, in part because the best jazzmen are always listening and sometimes pick up on ideas originated by their own followers. However, there is a noticeable change in big band drumming style in the mid-1930s that appears directly attributable to Chick Webb. By the end of the decade, another, perhaps greater, influence appears with the work of Jo Jones and, to some extent, this has obscured the importance of Chick Webb in the development of big band drumming.
Setting aside rank and status, there is no doubt about the vitality and excitement of Webb’s band, and there is much enjoyment to be gained from listening to the band's recordings. Certainly, for eight glorious years, Chick Webb, King Of The Savoy, ensured that Harlem’s greatest ballroom truly was the home of happy feet.
Built in 1947, the Chick Webb Recreation Center on Eden Street in Baltimore, reflects the city’s pride in its former resident. Chick Webb is buried close to Baltimore at Arbutus Memorial Park.
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.