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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Some serious swingin' on a Tuesday morn......Chick Webb!!

Chick Webb


Chick Webb represented the triumph of the human spirit in jazz and life. Hunchbacked, small in stature, almost a dwarf with a large face and broad shoulders, Webb fought off congenital tuberculosis of the spine in order to become one of the most competitive drummers and bandleaders of the big band era. Perched high upon a platform, he used custom-made pedals, goose-neck cymbal holders, a 28-inch bass drum and a wide variety of other percussion instruments to create thundering solos of a complexity and energy that paved the way for Buddy Rich (who studied Webb intensely) and Louie Bellson.

Alas, Webb did not get a fair shake on records; Decca's primitive recording techniques could not adequately capture his spectacular technique and wide dynamic range. He could not read music, but that didn't stop him either, for he memorized each arrangement flawlessly. Although his band did not become as influential and revered in the long run as some of its contemporaries, it nevertheless was feared in its time for its battles of the bands in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom; a famous encounter with the high-flying Benny Goodman outfit at its peak (with Gene Krupa in the drummer's chair) left the latter band drained and defeated.

William Henry Webb bought his first set of drums with his earnings as a newsboy, and he began playing in bands on pleasure boats. After moving to New York in 1925, he led bands in various clubs before settling in for long regular runs at the Savoy beginning in 1931. Although Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges played with the band early on, the Webb band was oddly short on major soloists during its heyday from the mid-'30s onward; the young alto sax player Louis Jordan made the biggest impression after leaving the band. But the band made up for it with a crisp ensemble sound, Webb's disciplined, ferociously driving drum pyrotechnics, trumpeter Taft Jordan's impressions of Louis Armstrong, and most of all, a series of strong compositions and charts by Edgar Sampson ("Blue Lou" and "Stomping at the Savoy" among them). In 1935, Webb hired the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald after she won a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre, became her legal guardian, and rebuilt his show around the singer, who provided him with his biggest hit record, "A Tisket-A-Tasket," in 1938. The band's fame continued to grow, fueled by its reputation as a giant-killer in the Savoy battles and a continuous string of Decca 78s that featured such irresistible numbers as "T'aint What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)" and the B-side of "Tasket," "Liza." But Webb's precarious health began to give way, and after a major operation in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he died (his last words reportedly were, "I'm sorry, I've got to go."). After Webb's death, Fitzgerald fronted the the band until it finally broke up in 1942.


"Stompin' At the Savoy"
by Christopher Popa   August 2005

 "I guess it was about 1936.  A lot of us teenagers at that time used to frequent a place in Harlem called the Savoy Ballroom and Chick was sort of the house band there," Van Alexander recalled to me recently.  "And I was, at the time, interested in arranging - I was studying arranging.  After going there quite a few times, I had what we call a 'nodding acquaintance' with Chick.  He'd shake his head and say, 'Hi, kid.'  And I'd say, "Hi, Chick.'"

 "And one night, I got up a little nerve and I said, "Chick, I've got a couple of arrangements at home that might fit your band, if you're interested.  Would you like to hear them?'  He said, 'Sure, bring 'em down to my rehearsal a week from Friday.'  Well, I was bluffing, I didn't have any arrangements [ chuckles ].  I went home and did them and I brought 'em down, and that was my introduction to Chick Webb."  

Early in his life, Webb had been accidentally dropped on his back, smashing several vertabrae.  Because of this, he became a hunchback and never fully grew.  Playing drums helped to strengthen his body.   "He was a genius because of his small stature," Alexander observed.  "He was a little hunchback. . . [and] . . . the people loved him."    

"He didn't read music at all," Alexander pointed out.  "Chick didn't read music, but all he had to do was hear an arrangement once, and he memorized it and through his own ingenious ear, he amplified what I would write.
In fact, I don't remember ever writing anything [a drum part] for him, 'cause he couldn't read." So how did Alexander know what to write for the other instrumentalists? "Well, I was familiar with his band.  As I say, we went there to dance, but I was always listening to the great arrangements of the black bands that played at the Savoy.  There were bands like Lucky Millinder and Teddy Hill [and] Willie Bryant and Erskine Hawkins," he explained.  "So I was interested in the arranging.  I had been studying arranging with a man in New York City by the name of Otto Cesana.  I experimented in high school with a few little bands, so I just stuck my neck out and it turned out to be pretty well.  Chick liked the arrangements and he paid me $10 each for them.  I went home and I was on 'cloud nine,' having sold my first arrangement and realizing that that's going to be my career."

 Ella Fitzgerald, at age 17, had joined the Webb band in 1935, and quickly become one of its featured performers.  "He was giving me assignments to do, mostly Ella's early Decca records.  I didn't do very many instrumentals, outside of the first two things I wrote for him, Keepin' Out of Mischief Now and That's a-Plenty," Alexander said.  "He was on the air so much from the Savoy and then, later on, from Boston, where A-Tisket, A-Tasket happened.  He was loading me up two and three weeks ahead.  I was doing three arrangements a week for the band.  He had to please the publishers -- or try to please them, anyhow -- [who tried]
. . . to get their tunes played on the air.  And they were contacting him.  Many times, they paid for some of the arrangements."
Though he's told it many times before, Alexander kindly related, once more, the story of how A-Tisket, A-Tasket came about.
    "Yes, of course, from the horse's mouth, so to speak," he quipped to me.  "Chick and his band were playing in Boston, at a place called Levaggi's Restaurant.  And they were broadcasting, coast-to-coast, about three or four times a week."
    The engagement in the Flamingo Room at Levaggi's began on February 7, 1938.  
 "My assignment was to do three arrangements a week for the band, mostly Ella's things," he continued.  "They were there for about five weeks at this place, and in the basement, there was a group called The Ink Spots, the first Ink Spots group. They were handled by the same manager that handled Chick and Ella.  So, anyhow, one day I got to Boston, Ella says to me, 'I got a great idea for a song.  Why don't you try to work up something on the old nursery rhyme A-Tisket, A-Tasket?'  And I said, 'Gee, that is a great idea, Ella, lemme think about it.'  Well Chick, as I said, had given me assignments for the following two weeks -- that would be six tunes -- and so I just didn't have time to think about A-Tisket, A-Tasket.  She said, 'Did you think about [it]?'  I said, 'I thought about it, Ella, but I just didn't have the time.  The following week, the same thing happened, I didn't get to it, and this time, Ella got a little testy (which she'd never done).  She said, 'Well, look, if you don't want to do it, I'll ask Edgar to do it, 'cause I think it's too good an idea to... "  'Hold the phone!  I'll get to it next week, I promise ya.'  Now, you gotta realize, the old nursery rhyme A-Tisket, A-Tasket  was in [the] public domain.  There was never really a song, it was just a little rhythm thing that the kids used to sing.  What I did was to put it into form, a 32-bar song.  I put the release, the bridge to it, and all the novelty things to it ('Was it red?  No-no, no-no.  Was it blue?' and so forth).  And I brought it up to Boston, and Ella and I went over it and she changed a lot of the words.  I had written, in the middle part, I said [sings] 'She was walkin' on down the avenue, without a single thing to do,' and Ella said, 'Let's say she was truckin' on down the avenue.'  Not walkin, truckin', 'cause that was a big word in those days, you know.  So I said, 'Yes, great!'  And she changed a few other lyrics also.  Well, they put it on the air that night, and somebody telephoned Robbins Music in New York and asked them to take [an acetate] off the air.  And they did, and they got excited about it, and two weeks later, [the band] went to New York, to Decca Records, and recorded it -- on my birthday, incidentally -- May 2nd, 1938.  It was a big hit that summer, and on the Lucky Strike 'Hit Parade,' which was the big radio program in those days, it stayed #1 for 19 weeks."  

"You know, if you listen to some of Chick's records today, some of the old records, you've got to realize that this was before stereo and reverberation and all the techniques that went into later recordings," Alexander reminded me.  "So that when you listen to his records today, they're a little flat-sounding.  But when you heard them in-person, they were exciting!  He had five brass; that is, three trumpets and two trombones, and he used to call them 'the five horsemen.'  And just four saxophones, and rhythm.  When I started my band, and all the later bands -- the Glenn Millers and Goodmans and so forth -- had eight brass.  You know, like four trumpets and four trombones and five saxophones.  So, the later bands always sounded better to me than the Chick Webb band."     

Although Alexander studied with Cesana, a classical musician, and his mother was a concert pianist, he didn't incorporate any classical sounds in his charts for Webb.
    "Not really, no.  They were two different things," he explained.  "My mother's tuition of me at the piano was really invaluable, though I didn't realize it at the time.  When all the other kids were out playing stickball or baseball, I wanted to be out playing ball, too.  But thank goodnesss I stayed with it, and learned the fundamentals of the piano, and proper harmony, and how to read, and so forth, and that held me in good stead when I went into orchestrating.  The classical music didn't enter into it at all.  As a matter of fact, Cesana, who was a pretty serious composer, as well as a teacher, used to look at some of the scores that I did for Chick Webb, and didn't quite understand.  'Why did you do this?' he would say.  'And why did you do that?'  And I explained it to him, and then I had the records of the arrangements that I did for Ella and for Chick, in the early days."  So the student was teaching the teacher.  "When it came to jazz and popular music," he agreed.  "What I learned from Cesana was the full symphony orchestra - strings and woodwinds and percussion and so forth, which I used later in life when I came to California."

 I asked Alexander to comment on one of his colleagues in the Webb band, fellow arranger Edgar Sampson.  "He was there before I started with the band," he said.  "He was the true writer of Stompin' At the Savoy, although it came out written by Edgar Sampson, Benny Goodman, and Chick Webb, who had nothing to do with it, outside of recording it.  But Edgar was a great contributor to the band, and they loved him.  They had a nickname for him, called him 'the lamb' because he was so mild-mannered and gentle.  He was a gentleman of the old school.  And I corresponded many years later with Edgar, before he passed away, and he and I were pretty close friends."

 "All the guys in the band," Alexander went on, "you gotta realize, I was the only, they used to call us 'ofays.'  Did you ever hear that expression?"   "White person, yes," I answered.  "Did you ever hear the derivation?" he wondered.  "It's pig Latin for foe, f-o-e.  Not too many people know that.  So I was the only 'ofay' in and around the band, outside of his manager, who was a man by the name of Moe Gale.  I traveled with the band, on occasion, in the bus, and I got quite an education, I must tell you."  Did things ever become uncomfortable?  "No, not really," he claimed.  "We never thought about it.  It was never discussed.  I must tell you, my parents weren't too happy about it.  But when they saw that I had a future, they sort of came over to my side.  No, but there was no... either I was not cognizant of it, or I never felt any racial divide at all.  As a matter of fact, the guys were really wonderful to me, and I have some wonderful memories and pleasantries in being with the guys and having a glass of wine with them, and so forth, after rehearsals.  So it was a little unusual, there's no doubt about it -- a white kid just spending so much time in Harlem.  At the first rehearsal, which didn't start until after the dance session was over (the place closed up at 1 o'clock, and then the guys in the band would go and have something to eat and then a little Muskatel wine or something).  And then they started the rehearsal about 2, and Edgar Sampson had an arrangement there to rehearse... and another fellow by the name of Charlie Dixon... and a baritone player in the band, his name was Wayman Carver.  So, by the time they got to my arrangement, it was after 4 in the morning, and my mother called the police.  She said, 'My son is in Harlem.  My God, what can he be doing at 4:30 in the morning?'  But [chuckles] that's the way it was."

The Savoy, located at 596 Lenox Avenue near 140th Street, hosted many "battles" between the big bands.  Webb's band, for instance, played against Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.  Perhaps the most famous "battle" took place on May 11, 1937, when the challenger was Benny Goodman's orchestra. "That was quite a night.  I was there that night," Alexander boasted.  "The Savoy Ballroom was up on the second floor and there were so many people standing in front of the bandstand.  They must have had two or three thousand people.  Everybody was swinging and I thought the floor was going to collapse at one point.  Thank God it never did.  But it was a night to savor, it really was."  Who came out on top?  "Well, it was a toss-up," he told me.  "It was really a battle of the two drummers, Gene Krupa with Benny, and Chick Webb.  In later publications, Gene said, 'The little man really cut me that night.'  He was honest."

Webb had the respect of other musicians, who knew they were in for a fight when they ventured into the Savoy, which was his territory.  Yet once A-Tisket, A-Tasket became a hit, he modestly turned the spotlight over to Fitzgerald.  "Chick saw the commercialism, and the applause that Ella got for the band, so he did, more or less, concentrate more on her than he did the band.  You're right, there," Alexander confirmed.  "He featured her, and she did guest spots with Benny Goodman... guest spots on different shows while she was still with the band.  He did feature her more than the instrumentals."

 But for Webb himself, the rewards didn't last long, because his health began to diminish by 1939.

 "Well, shortly after A-Tisket, A-Tasket, Chick died.  Unfortunately, he wasn't able to reap some of the benefits, if he had lived a little longer," Alexander said.  "So, for a while, Ella took over the band, and it was Ella with the Chick Webb band.  But that was, sort of, short-lived.  And then it, sort of, I don't know, just dissipated.  Nothing much happened with it, after that at all.  And then, Ella went out on her own, and you know the story there."

At the end of his life, Webb was in John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD.  It was said that he was at death's door for two or three days, but was fighting bravely.  When his passing became inevitable, he was said to have asked his mother to raise him up.  He faced the relatives and close friends in the room, announcing "I'm sorry I got to go!" and died then and there.  

Hey,'s a few tunes to start your swingin' Tuesday!

Don't be that way
Blue lou
Don't worry 'bout me
Down home rag
Love and kisses
I may be wrong
Facts and figures
Go Harlem
Love marches on
Gee, but you're swell
Rusty hinge
It's swell of you
Clap hands! here comes Charley
In a little Spanish town
I got rhythm
I ain't got nobody
Are you here to stay
Moonlight and magnolias
Harlem congo
Midnight in a madhouse
Spinnin' the Webb
Liza (all the clouds'll roll by)
The dipsy doodle
Keepin' out of michevus
If it ain't love v-Charles Linton
I want to be happy
Oh, Johnny Oh
v-Ella (radio)
The darktown strutters ball
v- Ella

Stompin' at the Savoy
A tisket a- tasket
v- Ella  
v- Ella
When I get low I get high
There's a frost on the moon
Wake up and live
Wackey dust
That naughty waltz
Strictly jive
Sweet Sue, just you
Squeeze me
Tain't whatcha do it's the way that cha do it
v- Ella  
You'll have to swing it
v- Taft Jordan

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