While writing a bio-musical play about Ella Fitzgerald's rise from homelessness to stardom, I became more and more captivated with the biography of the drummer and bandleader Chick Webb.
When Ella began her tenure with the Chick Webb Orchestra, she was unknown and fresh off the streets, while Chick was famous. Today, however, Ella is famous and Chick is in danger of being forgotten. Many of the early recordings of Chick Webb and His Orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald have been retitled as simply "Ella Fitzgerald." All of the Jazz History courses I have taken have either neglected Webb or have given him only a cursory mention. If you assemble a top ten list of the best drummers in jazz, Chick might miss the list, but if you could ask each drummer on that list who they thought were the best drummers in jazz, inevitably they will all mention Chick Webb. In the highly publicized Battle of the Bands, Chick Webb reigned, defeated only by Duke Ellington.
Chick Webb held court as the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem throughout the 1930's. Like Chick Webb, the Savoy Ballroom is another important jazz icon that is not as well remembered. The Cotton Club seems to have eclipsed the memory of the Savoy Ballroom in terms of jazz hotspot imagery, partially because of the numerous movies about the Cotton Club and the radio shows broadcast from there.
But the Savoy Ballroom was more important for several reasons. The Cotton Club was a expensive white club that seated between 500-700 patrons. Black performers graced the stage, but the audience was comprised of whites with money, a demographic that became auspiciously smaller during the 1930's due to the Depression. The nature of the shows were strictly circumscribed with little artistic freedom; the music and themes favored "jungle" and the dancer's complexions all had to be lighter than a paper bag. In comparison, the Savoy Ballroom had as many as 4,000 patrons, it catered to the common people, there was more artistic freedom for the band and the floor show, and the patronage was integrated: white and blacks, dark-skinned and light-skinned. That meant that not only was Chick Webb being heard 6 nights a week by a larger audience, but all the musicians in town at the time could stop in on their breaks or after their gigs. It was THE scene.
Chick, himself, was a very enigmatic and contradictory character. He was widely regarded as the Real King of Swing (Benny Goodman was called the King of Swing by white audiences and the press), however his style of drumming was so furious that the tempos were faster than many of the early bebop recordings. The Savoy Ballroom was the home to the best dancers in the world, and swing dancing or Lindy Hop evolved symbiotically to Chick Webb's playing. Film footage from "Hellzapoppin'" (1941) or "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers" showcases frenetic high-energy dancing to a blazing musical number with a tempo of over 300 beats per minute, yet the dancers display an ease and smoothness honed from years of dancing at the Savoy Ballroom.
Watch a video clip from "Hellzapoppin'"
Chick Webb's "bring the house down" number, "Harlem Congo," habitually kicked off at over 300 BPM. In comparison, many Charlie Parker tunes clock in around 200 bpm with "Now's the Time" at only 180 bpm. Clearly, Bop was not a simply a response to keep dancers from dancing by playing faster tempos, because ground zero for dancing, the Savoy Ballroom, already had the dancers moving to fast tempos.
And so this fast and furious style of drumming — punctuated by decorative 2-4 bar fills, cymbals crashes and intricate temple block percussion — was executed by a man who required a prosthesis in order to reach the kick and high hat pedals. Described as a hunchback dwarf, Chick was born with spinal tuberculosis, was not expected to be able to walk, and took up drumming initially only to strengthen his limbs. This little giant ruled his bandstand with an iron fist, yet was too humble to take a leader fee. He didn't read music, yet committed arrangements to memory perfectly and threaten to fire anyone that missed a single note during important shows. He was abrasive and initially thought Ella was too ugly, dirty and disheveled to put on his bandstand. Yet her talent and intelligence won him over and he showed kindness to her, advancing her name and career over his own name at times, making her bandleader upon his death bed.
When staging my play, it was hard to not portray Chick as an asshole. He was prone to using colorful language, such as "I don't give a good goddamn what them raggedy ass Lindy Hoppers say or do. They can all go to hell. And their mammies too!" But the words sound differently coming from the mouth of the very attractive and able-bodied dancer-actor Robert Henry Johnson. He managed to contort his body to graceful perfection so that it was not necessary to use a fake hump, yet I know that quotes such as "I don't want that old ugly thing!" in regards to Ella probably had a different weight coming from the real Chick Webb. A gravity that I caught a glimmer of while watching Verne Troyer's character in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Troyer is 2' 8" tall and his acerbic testiness provides realism, like-ability and balance to his character. In the same way Chick's larger than life personality balances his diminutive stature.
While issues of race were barriers enough, Chick Webb's looks most likely prevented him from being immortalized in film and photographs. And so his while his musical legacy is as important as Count Basie, his legacy is not as well remembered. And so this little giant who gave everything he had to the audiences, frequently collapsing the second he got backstage, died at age 30, handing over his legacy to his protégé, the rhythmically silver-tongued scat-mistress and First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.