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Chick Webb: The Savoy King

Tom Reney blogs about one of the greatest drummers in jazz history

Chick Webb

Chick Webb’s early death has tended to obscure the status he enjoyed among his peers during his lifetime. Best known for discovering Ella Fitzgerald, who recorded about 50 sides with Webb’s orchestra, including “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” it was actually Webb’s drumming and the precision swing of his orchestra that made him a household name during the Swing Era. Art Blakey, Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich and other drummers who emerged in the early’40s spoke of him with reverence; Stan Levey, who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1945, called him “my first hero.” Gary Giddins celebrated him as “an absolutely brilliant drummer,” and in the documentary series, Ken Burns Jazz, Giddins exclaims over the force with which Webb’s foot pedal work required nailing his drum kit to the stage of the Savoy Ballroom.

Webb’s accomplishments were made all the more remarkable by the spinal tuberculosis that caused him to develop a hunchback, plagued him with pain and fatigue and led to his premature death in 1939 at the age of 34. (Webb’s birthdate was never firmly established, but most sources cite February 10, 1905.) Webb’s diminutive size only added to his larger than life stature among musicians and the thousands of jitterbuggers who packed the dance floor of the Savoy to hear him throughout the ’30s. While Webb’s recorded legacy is muddied by the aural quality of the recordings he made for Decca, and his band lacked for household-name soloists, he remains a compelling historical figure largely because of his association with the Savoy.

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