Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Chick Webb: "The Daddy Of Them All"

Rock 'n' roll is really swing with a modern name. It began on the levees and plantations, took in folk songs, and features blues and rhythm. It's the rhythm that gets to the kids - they're starved of music they can dance to, after all those years of crooners.

Legendary disc jockey Alan Freed speaking to NME - February 1956

As a guitarist who has been fortunate enough to play live music with some very talented musicians I feel I am in a position to say that the drums, and good drummers, kick ass. Playing a guitar solo knowing that your bottom is being held up (so to speak) by the combination of solid bass and snare drums accompanied by a driving ride cymbal is very comforting. And so it is with great interest that I approach the work of Chick Webb, "the daddy of them all!"

The quote comes from none other than the legendary Buddy Rich, who along with Gene Krupa formed the sum total of my knowledge of jazz drummers, prior to beginning this blog. However it was Webb who was to prove to be one of the catalysts in promoting the drums as a bona fide jazz instrument.

There were of course other jazz drummers prior to Chick Webb, perhaps most notably Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton, who both played with Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong in the 1920's. However due to the primitive recording techniques of the time their true mastery could not be heard and the rhythm section of the Hot Five and Seven recordings consisted of rudimentary cymbals and blocks. Advancements in recording technology in the 1930's would allow artists like Chick Webb and Jo Jones to be heard, even down to faint brush strokes.

We are however talking about the early 1930's! The Great Depression was raging and recording jazz artists was not a lucrative business. As such, Chick Webb's recorded output remains slim. What is available is remarkable and you can see how he paved the way for the likes of Krupa, Rich and Max Roach to follow him. He was also a renowned band leader and his reputation at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York was second to none. Friendly "cutting contests" were frequent, where a battle of the bands style scenario saw Chick Webb's band up against the like of The Count Basie Orchestra and Benny Goodman's Orchestra. Webb's band always won. He was also the person who saw the full potential of a young Ella Fitzgerald, who became the singer of the band post 1935 and who was to give them their first hits. Unfortunately, he was to die young as a result of the spinal tuberculosis that he had contracted at a young age, and would not live to see out the decade.

Some of the stuff recorded by Chick Webb and his orchestra is superb. The music is remarkably tight with more than a hint of what was to come out of the rock n roll era twenty years later. (In fact I was struck by the lyrics in the song "Rock It For Me", where Fitzgerald sings "Won't you satisfy my soul with the rock n roll". ) Check out "Harlem Congo". Played at breakneck speed but with a fluid yet mesmeric solo from Webb towards the end. (Taft Jordan's trumpet solo also practically jumps out of the record). Webb's solo never takes away from the song at any time and cements the drums as a legitimate jazz instrument.