Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and The Beat That Changed America

Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and The Beat That Changed AmericaOne of the most popular pastimes in jazz is debating a musician’s status in the jazz pantheon. There are some about whom there is little disagreement—Armstrong, Ellington, Morton, Waller, etc. For deeper analysis concerning a musician’s contributions, we look to histories that can provide context and insight or, at least, fodder for arguments. There was a 2014 biography Spinnin’ the Webb: Chick Webb, The Little Giant, by Chet Falzerano, but it was only 68 pages long and seemed to come and go without a lot of notice. The new biography about Webb by Stephanie Stein Crease has strengths. It digs deeply into Webb’s story and unearths details of his youth in Baltimore and his subsequent career in New York City. It gives a thorough analysis of the Savoy ballroom and its relationship to Harlem and to the jazz world in the 1930s and pays attention to the relationships Webb had with his musicians, many of which were long-term. However, Crease makes a number of claims about the drummer-bandleader, some of which I find plausible and some less so. I suggest that the book’s subtitle:…the Beat That Changed America, is symbolic of some of the hyperbole in which Crease indulges.

Born in 1905, Webb was afflicted with spinal bacterial tuberculosis, which ultimately led to his death at age 34. However, he got a drum set at age 11 and was able to begin gigging not long after. His disease led to serious physical deformity—he was quite short and hunchback—but his family was supportive of his music; most especially his grandfather Clarence Jones who, depending on Webb’s health, would carry him to and from gigs.

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In 1925, Webb followed other Baltimoreans, like Blanche and Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Elmer Snowden, to New York. It took him a couple of years to get noticed, but in the mid-1920s (date not given) Duke Ellington saw him at a session and asked him if he wanted to be a bandleader at the Black Bottom club, for which Ellington had booking responsibilities. While he continued to face lean times, this set in motion a series of gigs that in 1927 led Webb to the Savoy Ballroom—“Home of Happy Feet”—and in time, Webb became known as “King of the Savoy.”

Author Crease has a lot to say about the Savoy and about the interesting relationship between swing music and the development of the Lindy Hop and other dances. Her examination of the music business centers around ownership and staff at the Savoy, its relationship to Harlem and with its competitor the Harlem Theater. Ownership of the Savoy was in the hands of a Jewish family, the Galewskis, run by Moe, who changed his name to Gale. The manager Charles Buchanan was black, as was the staff. The fortunes of the Savoy were closely tied to Harlem. For years, it provided relatively well-paid, high-status jobs for the black community. The only group that was underpaid was the musicians. One assumes this was a function of the highly competitive nature of musical life in New York—a buyer’s marker. Webb’s orchestra struggled financially until the last couple of years when, after a lot of convincing, Webb brought Ella Fitzgerald on board.

The Savoy was one of the few integrated spots in New York and management knew that the club was under a civic and political microscope. The environment of this large ballroom was tightly controlled, with hostesses prohibited from dating customers and bouncers always ready to break up any potential trouble. The ballroom was the scene of many community events and benefits but is most well-known for its dancing and Battles of the Bands. Several of these are described in the book, including Webb’s orchestra facing off with Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Ellington’s was said to have been the only band that bested Webb’s.

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While Webb was active, there was a great cohort of drummers, including Gene Krupa, Sonny Greer, Dave Tough, Sid Catlett, Kaiser Marshall, Cozy Cole, and Zutty Singleton. The author’s contention is that Chick Webb was the best and most innovative of the swing drummers. He could not read music, but had big ears, picked up things quickly, and knew when anyone played a wrong note. He inspired a lot of loyalty among his musicians, many of whom stayed with him through bad and good times, including Bobby Stark, Edgar Sampson, Taft Jordan, and Sandy Williams. The respect he was accorded by other drummers is worthy of notice and there are testaments in the book to Webb from Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Max Roach, and others. The gist of what they purport made Webb special was his ability to lock in with dancers and inspire them; also, his prodigious power and the clarity of his playing. Webb took advantage of drum equipment innovations by Frank Wolf of Frank Wolf Drummer Supplies and drummer-inventor Billy Gladstone, and other swing drummers followed his example. Webb was an early spokesman for Gretsch drums.

One reason the author’s claim that Webb was the best and most innovative swing drummer is open to debate is that Webb did not record prolifically until the last few years of his life. In his first seven years in New York, Webb and his band had only four recording sessions and Webb played only a few sessions apart from those. Between 1927 and 1939, I counted 50 sessions and only 17 of those sessions were before 1937. Also, as live radio sound checks affirm, Webb was at his best in live, dance situations, not on recordings, with their three-minute per side time limitation. On top of that, Webb was intent on “jumping the fence”—appealing to a broad crossover audience, so that many of his late recordings were designed to piggyback on the huge success of Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket A Tasket.” This infusion of pop sensibility didn’t endear him to the jazz establishment of the day; chiefly, writers John Hammond, George Simon, and Helen Oakley, who was also Webb’s sometime publicist and producer. This critical response may have affected how Webb has been dealt with—or not dealt with—in jazz historiography.

Other claims that Crease makes about Webb are more tenuous. She calls him an “avant-garde modernist,” an overdrawn statement by any measure I can conjure up. She also says he was “the first drummer who created a drum part for the entire arrangement, and the first drum soloist.” On Webb’s recorded work, the only two relatively extended drum solos I know of are on “Harlem Congo” from 1937 and “Liza” from 1938 (and they are dazzling). Yes, recorded drum solos were pretty rare until Krupa’s work with Goodman opened things up, but there were a number of drum solos prior to Webb. As far as being the first one to have a complete drum chart, that’s not true, either. Large ensembles like James Reese Europe’s, going back to the early 1910s, had through-composed drum parts.

The author sporadically tries to bring us closer to Webb the man, who is described at various points as being “generous,” “moody,” “quixotic,” and “superstitious.” I don’t find these apparent contradictions hard to accept. That’s people for you. What is more problematic is that Crease means for us to understand that Webb’s mental states and the musical decisions he made were influenced by his financial status at any given point, but her information about that is spotty. She gives a few specific figures of Webb’s fees for gigs, but it’s hard to get a sense of his overall income for a given time, say a one-year span. Along with this, the contradictory testimony she quotes from musicians on how the Depression affected their incomes inspires more questions than answers. I’m not sure there was any solution for the author to redress this problem—what information she got, she got. But it may have made for a less bumpy read if she had addressed the limitations caused by the difficulty of tracking down definitive information, so that readers could adjust their expectations accordingly.

These critiques not withstanding (and one more: Gene Krupa was Catholic, not Jewish), Crease does a credible job. Webb was an important musician with a unique story and many facts about that story are laid out here (And some other choice bits. Did you know that Dizzy Gillespie was a member of the Savoy’s elite dance group the 400 Club?). So, read the book in conjunction with listening to Webb’s recordings and you can decide for yourself where he stands in the jazz drumming pantheon.

San Diego

Rhythm Man:
Chick Webb and The Beat That Changed America
by Stephanie Stein Crease
Oxford University Press; 360 pp.; $34.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: ‎978-0190055691

Steve Provizer is a brass player, arranger and writer. He has written about jazz for a number of print and online publications and has blogged for a number of years at: brilliantcornersabostonjazzblog.blogspot.com. He is also a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild.

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