In a genre as widely popular and influential as jazz, even some of the most well-respected musicians could fall through the cracks in terms of being a mainstream legend. This is not a revelation of a statement on its own, as this was the story for many a musician. The cause could be simply be a casualty of overshadowing during the jazz/swing craze, not being terribly innovative, or not having a string of hits. Some of these causes even afflicted the subject of this paper. However, it was another factor that makes his story so interesting, yet tragic.
Not every artist could be etched in legend such as figures like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, or have his music played all over like Benny Goodman. But Chick Webb’s impact on both the music, culture and technique regarding the drums were and still are well-respected in the jazz scene, despite some of the factors that would hold him back from being a transcendent star. The story of Chick Webb has to begin with the factor that held him back the most and is also the first to afflict him. Despite his disputed birth date, Chick was born in Baltimore, Maryland to William H. and Marie Johnson Webb.
William Henry Webb, his birth name, was born with spinal tuberculosis, a condition that would negatively affect him his whole life and ultimately cost him his life. So how does one manage all this pain, let alone become the greatest jazz drummer in history? For starters, the idea of playing the drums came from his doctor. The intent was that the rapid movement of the limbs that is required by the drums would “loosen up” his stiff limbs and lessen the pain. With the appeal of the instruments’ recreational and medicinal apparent, a young Webb would become a newspaper boy with the sole goal of saving up enough money to buy a drum set.
Until then, Webb would settle for the bottom of overturned garbage cans to whet his appetite. By 11 years old, Webb would have his drum set and by 17 years old, he had moved to New York City to pursue his dream of being a player in the jazz capital of the world. Chick Webb began playing in New York night clubs as soon as he arrived in 1924. Clubs such as the Paddock Club and the Black Bottom took him in, reference by none other than Duke Ellington, who instantly recognized his talent. Ellington would become an important figure in Webb’s life, both as a mentor and a rival, further down the line.
Noting his dominant skill and strong personality, Ellington would encourage Webb to form and lead his own small band. Webb would do just that by forming the Harlem Stoppers, a quintet that would go on to supply the demand for swing music in the era known as the Harlem Renaissance. His skills were rare, and considered ideal to fuel the upbeat pace of swing music and provide a drive to the music that could rarely be matched. Naturally, this skill became quickly recognized all over the city, leading to the expansion of the Harlem Stoppers, who would now be known as the Chick Webb Orchestra.
Webb’s status as a successful musician was cemented when his band was selected as the house band of the Savoy Ballroom, a legendary venue located in Harlem. He would be the face of the venue until his final years. Based solely off their own merits, the Chick Webb Orchestra was a highly regarded band. But what made the band legendary in its own right was their willingness to accept challengers in what was known as “cuttin’ sessions”, or battles of the bands. Many good, but ordinary jazz bands attempted to challenge the great Chick Webb Orchestra, only to be blown out of the ballroom.
However, when then-“King of Swing” Benny Goodman and his band arrived to challenge Webb’s, Chick began to finally get some acclaim from outside of New York. In New York, over 9,000 people came to see this historical event, 5,000 of them standing outside just to have the chance of possibly hearing the monumental clash that was to take place. And when the opportunity arose for Webb and his band to make a statement, they did so in force. Performing first, Goodman’s orchestra performed honorably as many expected from a unit of their stature.
But when Webb’s crew began, the outcome would become obvious. With the roar of the crowd Webb’s orchestra, they would end up blowing Benny Goodman’s band out of the ballroom just as he did all the other bands before him that challenged him. His driving sounds often over-powered other bands, playing into the hard swing of his orchestra. Gene Krupa, a legendary drummer in his own right and drummer for Goodman’s band noted that “Webb cut me to ribbons! ” It was this moment where Webb was crowned “King of Swing” and undoubtedly “King of the Savoy”.
Other legendary challengers such as Count Basie (who played Webb to a draw at the very least), Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington would test the mettle of the Chick Webb Orchestra, but none would diminish his status as one of the preeminent bandleaders and musicians of the time. Like most famous muscians of the time, Webb began to record his work, beginning in 1927. However, his powerful sound was difficult to record cleanly without drowning out the full composition of the work. This forced im to tone down his sound and let the rest of the music even out, possibly lessening his fame. However, in circles within the music industry, Webb’s talent and influence did not go unnoticed. When Decca Records formed in 1934, Webb signed to the label and made his most famous recordings, almost all of which featuring Ella Fitzgerald as the singer. Webb initially discouraged the inclusion of Fitzgerald as she did not fit the image of the typical lead vocalist for a swing band. However, once he heard her voice, she would become the lead vocalist for Chick Webb’s Orchestra.
This addition skyrocketed the careers of both artist, transforming Fitzgerald into a bonafide superstar following the success of their top hit together, Fitzgeralds rendition of “A-tisket, A-Tasket”. As the quintessential swing artist, Webb’s sound merged perfectly with Fitzgerald, so much so that she became known as the “First Lady of Swing”. Unfortunately, one could say the vast popularity of Fitzgerald would often overshadow Webb, especially true on recordings. What made it worse for Chick Webb, was the timing of his newfound popularity. In 1938, not too long after the instant success of “A-tisket, A-tasket”, Webb’s health began to fail.
Webb had been playing through pain his entire career, often leaving the stage exhausted. But this time, his spinal condition became more serious and restricted him from playing to a standard that he deemed fit for his fans. Seeking relief, Webb would return to Baltimore for a major operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sadly, Webb would never leave the hospital, dying at just 34 years old. Reportedly, his last words were to his mother, saying “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. ” The respect the jazz scene had for Chick Webb was obvious at his funeral, where the top musicians of the time all came to pay their respects.
The general public also came in full force, so much so that the church where the services were being held could not contain them all, and the procession was composed of almost 80 cars. As one of the few prominent drummer-led swing bands, Webb’s impact is almost always understated. Be it because his lack of hit records as the frontman, a result of Ella Fitzgerald’s popularity or the era’s inability to properly record his talent, or his shortened lifep, Chick Webb has become a somewhat forgotten name to the mainstream, despite his legendary status within the jazz culture.
But due to his influential style, and his battles against some of the more marquee names in jazz/swing, Chick Webb will never be forgotten. Works Cited Fritts, Ron, and Ken Vail. Ella Fitzgerald: The Chick Webb Years & beyond. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2003. Print. McDonough, John. “CHICK WEBB: THE MATRIX. ” Down Beat 77. 8 (2010): 37. Downbeat. com. Down Beat, Aug. 2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2012. <http://www. downbeat. com/digitaledition/2010/db201008/_art/DB201008. pdf>. Sandler, Gilbert. “Webb Won the Battle of the Bands. ” Baltimore Sun.
N. p. , 28 Apr. 1992. Web. 26 Oct. 2012. <http://articles. baltimoresun. com/1992-04-28/news/1992119136_1_chick-webb-gene-krupa-benny-goodman>. Teichroew, Jacob. “Artist Profile: Swing Drummer and Bandleader Chick Webb. ” About. com Jazz. N. p. , n. d. Web. 26 Oct. 2012. <http://jazz. about. com/od/classicjazzartists/p/Artist-Profile-Swing-Drummer-And-Bandleader-Chick-Webb. htm>. Turner, Nathaniel. “Chick Webb Bio. ” Chick Webb Bio. N. p. , n. d. Web. 26 Oct. 2012. <http://www. nathanielturner. com/chickwebbbio. htm>.
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