Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Savoy Ballroom Swing - Chick Webb And His Orchestra

The Swing Era of the 1930s emerged with the rise of big bands in the USA. Harlem in NYC had opened the Savoy Ballroom late 1920s, it was the hot spot of the city for dancers to meet and have a great time, both coloured and white people were allowed to attend and dance to music by popular swing orchestras.
Dancing couple at the Savoy Ballroom
Harlem and the Savoy attracted dancers and an audience eager to find amusement, the house orchestra of the Savoy accordingly encouraged the public to Go Harlem

This great swing music was of course played by Chick Webb and his orchestra, Go Harlem was recorded June 2nd 1936 
Chick Webb at the drums
Chick Webb had come to NYC in 1925, he led bands in various clubs before settling in for long regular runs at the Savoy beginning in 1931.
Chick Webb and his Savoy orchestra recorded the original version of Stompin' at the Savoy on May 18 1934, a swing tune composed and arranged by Edgar Sampson and since then a standard recorded by numerous other jazz artists

Chick Webb's big band was characterized by a crisp ensemble sound and the leader's disciplined, ferociously driving drum pyrotechnics and further a series of strong compositions and charts by Edgar Sampson. Although the orchestra did not become as influential and revered in the long run as some of its contemporaries, it nevertheless was feared in its time for its battles of the bands at the Savoy Ballroom. A famous encounter with the Benny Goodman orchestra at its peak (with Gene Krupa in the drummer's chair) left the latter band drained and defeated.
Benny Goodman's signature tune at the time was Don't Be That Way (- you can listen to a recorded version by the BG orchestra with arrangement by Edgar Sampson at YouTube, here), however, here's the version by Chick Webb and his orchestra -  Webb's orchestra introduced the Edgar Sampson arrangement with this version from November 1934

The Savoy often featured Battle of the Bands where Webb's orchestra would compete with other top bands from opposing bandstands. By the end of the night's battles the dancers seemed always to have voted Chick's band as the best. As a result, Webb was deemed the most worthy recipient to be crowned the first King of Swing. 
Although a judge declared Webb's band the official winner in 1938 over Count Basie's, and Basie himself said he was just relieved to come away from the contest without embarrassing himself, surviving musicians continued to dispute the ruling for decades to follow.
Chick Webb and his orchestra
Chick Webb became one of the most competitive drummers and bandleaders of the big band era, his playing technique at the drumset later inspired Buddy Rich and  Louie Bellson. Below I'll insert a couple of examples featuring great work at the drumset by Chick Webb. - Here is the Chick Webb orchestra's recording of Clap Hands, Here Comes Charley from March 23 1937

Next follows Chick Webb and his orchestra with their version of Liza, recorded May 1938; the drum solo introducing the well known standard is said to be the leader's "answer" to Gene Krupa's contributions to the Benny Goodman orchestra's famous version of Sing, Sing, Sing 

In 1935, Chick Webb hired the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald after she won a talent contest, he became her legal guardian and rebuilt his show around the singer.
In 1938, Chick Webb's orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald as solo vocalist had a big hit with the tune A Tisket-A-Tasket, and this was followed by another hit in 1939 with a recording of Undecided 

Sadly, Chick Webb died from spinal tuberculosis on June 16, 1939. After his death, Ella Fitzgerald led the Chick Webb band until she left to focus on her solo career in 1942 and caused the band to disband.
Chick Webb and his orchestra's contributions to great big band jazz of the Swing Era will remain, although his band did not become as influential and revered in the long run as some of its contemporaries. Nevertheless, the inserted audio examples above are proof that Chick Webb's band provided us with excellent swing of lasting quality, I think.

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