• You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: Chick Webb

    August 31, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This blog, on swing drummer Chick Webb, the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.


    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    Episode Nine: Slap-Tonguing

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Jazz Drumming: Chick Webb’s Legacy

    Let’s talk about Chick Webb. Webb is one of the all-time legendary jazz drummers, who is always praised by contemporaries, like Gene Krupa and Sid Catlett, as well as younger drummers, like Max Roach, Buddy Rich and Art Blakey.

    We know Webb had a huge impact, especially on those who saw him perform live. Everyone says, “Chick Webb, he’s amazing, so exciting, he was so dynamic.”

    And he was.

    But too many accounts of Webb, even eyewitness ones, describe his playing only in vague terms, like “spectacular” or “powerful,” which are not very helpful to us as listeners today.

    And what these accounts don’t tell you about Chick Webb is that on most of his records, you simply can’t hear him. You cannot hear the drums! Maybe you hear the brushes, but he doesn’t do anything fancy with them on most of those recordings.

    Even on one of his most famous recordings, “Stompin at the Savoy,” recorded in May of 1934, all you can hear throughout is brushes on the quarter notes with no accents or audible fills:

    We can hear a lot more of Webb on a live version he recorded of the same song in January of 1939 with his “Little Chicks,” a smaller group from his main band. This clip is also interesting in that it features Wayman Carver on flute, an instrument which is rare in jazz until the 1950s.

    What I’d like to point out here is that most people talk about Chick Webb without actually having any listening they can point to and say, “There’s an example.” So what I’d like to do is offer some specific observations about Chick’s playing, and examples you can listen to and hear how great he actually is.

    Let’s listen to a clip from “Undecided,” which he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald in February of 1939. One thing you’ll notice is that Webb’s playing is, indeed, very dramatic, very bold.

    One thing Webb likes to do is set up the rhythmic attacks in the band. So, as in this example, when the horns pause during the melody, he fills in that space: “ba doom, bam!”

    Setting up rhythms in this way is now an important part of every jazz drummer’s toolkit, and I don't know that anyone was doing this before Chick. I certainly do know that it’s something he was well known for.

    The reason I want to bring this up is that usually nobody tells you what Webb was known for specifically, they just say, “Oh, he was great, he was dynamic.”

    All of that is fine, but let’s be specific! How was he dramatic? In the way he set up his band by filling in those breaks.


    The other thing that you’ll notice in this clip is that by today’s standards, Chick was not a technical wizard. After his breaks, he ends awkwardly, so there’s not a clean break when Ella enters.

    But to be fair, most of the old-time drummers were not overly technical. It’s not until Buddy Rich – who, by the way, adored Webb – that we start to hear this kind of technical mastery. Even by today’s standards, Rich is a wizard: he plays things that are just impossible for others to play.

    But even if, to contemporary ears, Webb’s playing may lack polish, that obviously doesn’t lessen the value of his playing. The value is in his dynamism, the excitement, and the way he drives a band.

    Unfortunately, you cannot hear these qualities on most of Webb’s recordings. Outside of a handful of studio sides which capture his dynamism, the best place to hear what Web is actually doing is on radio broadcasts.

    Here’s one, "Liza," which he recorded live in August, 1938:

    Here’s another, "Harlem Congo," which he recorded in the studio in November, 1937:

    In examples like this we can clearly hear the reasons listeners loved, and still love, Chick Webb: he takes dynamic solos, and in general he played with a remarkable sense of drama and flair.

    One final note: there’s been a lot of confusion over Webb’s age. His birth year is usually given as 1909, including on his death certificate and tombstone.


    But perhaps because 1909 seems late for someone who became a professional drummer around 1925, Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s influential encyclopedia of jazz, first published in the 1950s, cites his birth year as 1902. Burt Korall’s book Drummin’ Men gives it as 1907.

    Two U.S. Census reports identify a Webb family living in Baltimore in 1910 and 1920; both of these state a boy named William H. Webb was born in 1905. You might think that settles the issue. But a major difficulty when using census data is being sure you have the right family! In this case, I don't think it is.

    There was only article written about Webb during his lifetime, a three-part profile published in Down Beat with the horrible title “The Rise of a Crippled Genius,” in December of 1937 through February of 1938. Click here to download the first part.


    This article says he was born on February 10, 1909, which confirms the date on his tombstone. So all this controversy may be for naught — after all, according to the author, Chick was supposedly interviewed for this piece.

    Join us next time as we take a closer look at another widely misunderstood drummer, Gene Krupa!



    This clip from Episode 6 of Ken Burns’ Jazz series of documentary films does a nice job of recreating Webb’s famous “battle of the bands” with Benny Goodman’s group at the Savoy Ballroom in 1937, with clips of both bands playing the same arrangements:

    Jeff Kaufman’s new documentary film The Savoy King, which premiered at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, features testimonials from many drummers and others who saw Webb play in person.

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