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Chick Webb

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William Henry (1909 - 1939) Drummer and bandleader

Audio sample Harlem Congo
Recorded November 1, 1937
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)

Chick Webb
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Chick Webb moved to New York around 1925 and from January 1927 led a group at the Savoy Ballroom that later became one of the outstanding bands of the swing period. Although the group did not include any prominent soloists during its years of prolific recording activity (Benny Carter, Jimmy Harrison, and Johnny Hodges had played with the band early on), it developed a distinctive style thanks in part to the compositions and arrangements provided by Edgar Sampson (e.g., Blue Lou, Stomping at the Savoy, and Let's Get Together) and especially to Webb's forceful drumming.

In 1934, Ella Fitzgerald was engaged as the band's singer, and it soon achieved popular success with performances of such tunes as A-tisket, A-tasket (1938). Webb's band remained at the Savoy intermittently during the late 1920s and held long residencies there in the 1930s, regularly defeating rival bands in the ballroom's famous cutting contests. After Webb's early death, Fitzgerald led the group until 1942, when it disbanded.

Webb, a diminutive hunchback, was universally admired by drummers for his forceful sense of swing, accurate technique, control of dynamics, and imaginative breaks and fills. Although he was unable to read music, he committed to memory the arrangements played by the band and directed performances from a raised platform in the center of the ensemble, giving cues with his drumming. Using specially constructed bass drum pedals and cymbal holders, he could range effortlessly over a large drum set that offered a wide selection of colors. Unlike drummers of the 1920s, he used the woodblocks and cowbell only for momentary effects, and varied his playing with rim shots, temple-block work, and cymbal crashes. In his celebrated two- to four-bar fills, he abandoned earlier jazz drumming formulae for varied mixtures of duple- and triple- meter patterns. Webb was seldom given to long solos, but his style is well represented on Liza (1938), a superior response to Gene Krupa's solo performance with Benny Goodman's band on Sing, Sing, Sing.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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