“Spinnin’ the Webb”
Composed by Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald. Arranged by Wayman Carver.
Recorded by Chick Webb and His Orchestra on May 3, 1938 for Decca in New York City.
Chick Webb, drums, directing: Mario Bauza, first trumpet; Bobby Stark and Taft Jordan, trumpets; George Matthews, Nat Story and Sandy Williams, trombones; Garvin Bushell, Louis Jordan, alto saxophones; Teddy McRae, Wayman Carver, tenor saxophones; Tommy Fulford, piano; Bobby Johnson, guitar; Beverly Peer, bass.
William Henry “Chick” Webb (1905-1939) was a phenomenon. (See the birth certificate of Chick Webb below.) He was injured as an infant due to a fall down several steps, damaging a number of vertebrae in his back. After back surgery, he never regained full mobility. This tragic situation was further complicated by tuberculosis of the spine. He never exceeded four feet one inch in height, had the appearance of a hunchback, and lived with constant pain. Nevertheless, from childhood, he demonstrated iron willpower which eventually allowed him to overcome not only his physical disabilities, but to succeed as a musician and bandleader in a society where he had to contend with racism, Jim Crow segregation, and the worst economic depression in American history.
A physician suggested that to strengthen Webb’s upper body, he play the drums. Although it would be some time before Chick could afford drums, from early childhood he was drumming on anything and practically everything in the Webb home. As a boy, he busked on the streets of Baltimore, his hometown, performing flashy drumming tricks on anything close at hand. He also sold newspapers to raise the money needed to buy his first set of used drums, which he was able to do at age eleven. Soon he was working at any job he could find with bands in Baltimore. By age fifteen, he decided to move to Harlem, and see how he would fare there in an atmosphere of almost nonstop music. His rapidly developing skills as a drummer, his driving intensity as a performer, and his tenacity moved him steadily up the pecking order of Harlem drummers in the late 1920s. By starting to appear at jam sessions with other young Afro-American musicians, he eventually formed associations with men who would become legendary in jazz, including alto saxophonists Johnny Hodges (his first cousin), Benny Carter, and bandleader Duke Ellington. (At left: Chick Webb and Duke Ellington.)
It was through the intervention of Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges that Webb was first persuaded to front his first band in 1926 for a gig that lasted five months. Another Ellington secured gig followed. By 1927, Webb had developed a strong enough band to be offered an opportunity to play at the newly opened (on March 12, 1926) Savoy Ballroom located on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st in Harlem. Lenox was the “main stem” of upper Harlem. On it were many entertainment venues in addition to the Savoy. The Savoy would be Webb’s base of operations for the next ten-plus years.
The Savoy was developed by four men: Jay Faggen, an entrepeneur who owned among other things, the Roseland Ballroom in midtown Manhattan; Moses Gailowski, known professionally as Moe Gale; his cousin Charles Gailowski; and Charles Buchanan, who was in charge of day-to-day operations at the ballroom. Buchanan was an Afro-American who was born in the British West Indies. It was the stated intent of these men to make the Savoy not only a classy ballroom and respectable place (order was enforced by well-muscled bouncers, and no alcohol was served or allowed there), but to make it a center of Afro-American music and Harlem social life. They succeeded for over three decades.The 50 by 200 foot dance floor, which was on the second floor of the building, could accommodate 4,000 dancers. The Savoy was demolished shortly after it closed on July 10, 1958. A housing complex now stands on the site of the Savoy. (At left: Moe Gale and Chick Webb.)
Even though the vast majority of dancers at the Savoy were Afro-American, there was no taboo on whites coming there. Indeed, white celebrities flocked to the Savoy to be seen there.
Chick Webb was obsessive about practicing his drumming and rehearsing his band, especially when there was an upcoming “battle of music,” which would pit some usually well-known or better-established bands against his band at the Savoy. Early on, Chick cut a number of these intruders on what he now regarded as his turf. His reputation among other musicians and the dancers at the Savoy was enhanced by each of these triumphs. By the dawn of the 1930s, Webb’s drumming had evolved to the point where it was explosive, propulsive, and dynamic. As Artie Shaw, who first heard Webb around 1930 said, “The guy was a force of nature. He came at you!”(1)
“Spinnin’ the Webb” is a 32 bar tune, with the standard AABA structure. This performance starts with a bright four bar introduction which leads into the first eight bar “A” segment with the saxophones stating the minimalist melody with strong brass antiphonal punctuations. This scheme is repeated for the second eight bars. The brass take the melodic lead in the third eight bars, the “B” segment (or “bridge”), playing against reed backgrounds. For the final “A” section of the first chorus, the brass, led by first trumpeter Mario Bauza, whose playing is not only bright-toned and rhythmically alive, but swaggering, carries the ensemble. Bauza continues swaggering through the next transitional interlude, which leads up the the centerpiece of the performance, trumpeter Bobby Stark’s superb, romping jazz solo. By any measure, Stark’s playing here is great jazz. His use of the contrasting high and low registers of his trumpet, his smears and growls, his strutting use of rhythm, all delivered with a powerful, brilliant tone — this is truly what swinging, colorful jazz is all about. Trombonist Sandy Williams provides a contrast to what Stark had played just before in his improvisation on the bridge. Stark returns playing the final eight bars of the second chorus with undiminished gusto, building to a climax.(Pictured above left L-R: Bobby Stark, Edgar Sampson, Sandy Williams, Wayman Carver, Mario Bauza, Taft Jordan, a girlish Ella Fitzgerald, who was the Webb band’s featured vocalist, and Fernando Arbello. Bobby Stark is shown at left.)
The final band segment, after an upward modulation supported by Webb’s snare drum rattles, is ensemble swing at its best. The full band is now roaring, led once again by first trumpeter Mario Bauza. But in this finale, Webb takes charge at the drums, pouring his cymbals into the explosive sonic mix. This kind of music was what people from far and wide came to the Savoy to hear, and dance to and be exhilarated by. It is also a quintessential example of magnificently performed music in the swing idiom.
This recording was digitally remastered by MIke Zirpolo.
Here is a copy of Chick Webb’s birth certificate. He was born on February 10, 1905. I am indebted to Webb aficionado Con Chapman for accessing this document and making it available for all who are interested in the history of the swing era to study and learn from. The name of child as “Johnson” means Chick wasn’t named at birth so they used his mother’s maiden name. It was apparently common for births to be recorded before a name had been decided on.
For those who are interested in learning more about Chick Webb, check out the Chick Webb Appreciation Group Facebook page:
(1) Artie Shaw The Trouble With Cinderella, Farrar, Straus and Young (1952) p. 230.
I am also indebted to Chet Falzerano, whose fine booklet Spinnin’ the Webb–Chick Webb–Little Giant of the Drums, Centerstream Publishing, LLC (2014) was the source of some of the information set forth above, and of the image below.
I also recommend Burt Korral’s wonderful book Drummin Men…The Heartbeat of Jazz…The Swing Years, Schirmer Books (1990) as a source of more information about Chick Webb.