Chick Webb, The King of Swing

Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra performing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. (William P. Gottlieb/Wikimedia Commons)

It is important to acknowledge that Black people, wherever they are located in the world, are of African origin because, in Western history and practice, there has been a coordinated, concerted and ongoing effort to separate the two. This practice of disconnecting Black people in the Diaspora from their African origin was evident during the Holocaust of Enslavement when Black people in America were forbidden to speak their own languages, practice their traditional cultures and religions, and, among many other prohibitions, were banned from playing the drum. The term, “Holocaust of Enslavement” is used here as developed by Maulana Karenga to define a “morally monstrous act of genocide that is not only against the targeted people themselves but also a crime against humanity.” The term asserts that enslavement was more than “trade.” Black people in America are not new people, as some would assert, they are the descendants of the oldest people on earth, the Africans. This essay asserts that one such descendant, the celebrated drummer, Chick Webb, followed the unbroken tradition of ancient African drummers.

Jazz historian Stephanie Stein Crease provides a comprehensive biography of Chick Webb in her 2023, Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America. Drum historian, Chet Falzerano published Chick Webb – Spinnin’ the Webb: The Little Giant (a much shorter and less comprehensive Chick Webb biography) in 2014. In 2021, Moira Rose Donohoe published an illustrated children’s book, Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums. These authors detail much of the life, work and artistry of Chick Webb. They recognize his contributions to jazz, his strength and strong will against both racism and severe physical ailments, and even recognize him as the King of the Savoy and the King of Swing, yet none of them fully explore (or even consider) his African connection. Though they all discuss race, it is limited to acts of racism and resistance (racial inequities, boundaries, divisions, etc.). With no African cultural connection beyond the mention of the “African wild man” in Crease’s text, explorations of Chick Webb and his legacy remain incomplete and detached. When discussing a Black man and his drum, consideration must be given to what the drum symbolizes in Black culture, and that goes far beyond music and entertainment.

Though there is diversity in the cultural practices of Black people (on the African Continent and throughout her Diaspora), the drum acts as a form of unifying communication used in a variety of rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, resistance efforts and war. Drums have a spiritual connection and are commonly used to call on the ancestors and to drive out evil spirits. Some, like the karyenda from Burundi, are kept in guarded drum sanctuaries to be used only for the most sacred of ceremonies. Some, like the djembe from West Africa, call for the peaceful gathering of people. Some, like the African war drums, are used on the battlefield. During the Holocaust of Enslavement, Black people were prohibited by law from playing the drum because enslavers recognized its power to communicate quickly over large areas and to summon the masses. Chick Webb had the ability to summon the masses.

Chick Webb, born William Henry Webb, was a celebrated drummer, composer, and bandleader during the Harlem Renaissance. He was hailed as the “King of Swing,” the “Drum King,” “King of the Savoy,” the first true drumming idol, and one of the “Immortals of Jazz.” His most famous recordings include “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (1934) and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (1938) with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan.

Webb was born on February 10, 1905, in Baltimore, Maryland. There are some discrepancies surrounding his actual birth year, which has been reported both as 1905 and 1909. Census records report the year as 1905, while Webb’s death certificate and grave marker both read 1909. He was the only son and second of four children born to William H. and Marie Johnson Webb. William H. Webb passed away when the younger Webb was thirteen years old, and to date, not much is known about the senior Webb. After his father’s passing, Webb moved with his mother and sisters into the home of his maternal grandparents. He showed interest in drumming as a toddler, initially using pots and pans, then different surfaces found around his neighborhood to drum out rhythms. As a young boy, he performed odd jobs and sold newspapers to earn money for his first set of drums that he purchased at the age of eleven. He worked as a street musician before joining the Jazzola Orchestra, which performed aboard the Chesapeake Bay steamers. Considered a virtuoso drummer with no equal, Webb never learned to read music. He had dropped out of school at an early age yet thrived as a musician by memorizing all of the band arrangements. He moved to New York in 1924, and two years later, formed the Jungle Band. In 1927 Webb formed the Harlem Stompers, an eight-piece band that eventually expanded to eleven pieces before being renamed the Chick Webb Orchestra.

In 1929, Webb’s Jungle Band recorded “Dog Bottom” and “Jungle Man” with Brunswick Records. During this time, Webb alternated between tours and residencies, performing at numerous venues including Howard University’s Howard Theatre, Yale University, the Harlem Opera House, the Apollo Theater, the Palace Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom-Chicago, the Savoy Ballroom-Harlem, Radio City Music Hall, and the Cotton Club. That same year Webb was featured in the short film, After Seben. In 1931, Webb began his residency at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

Though Harlem was considered the mecca of Black jazz musicians and the world capital of swing, Jim Crow laws, racism, and segregation prevailed. Many New York venues catered to white clientele only and would only hire all-white bands. Webb broke through those barriers and paved the way for drummer-led bands. He was the leader of the most popular house band at the integrated Savoy Ballroom and consistently drew crowds of thousands. He was credited with discovering and mentoring Ella Fitzgerald, who he hired as his lead vocalist, and who would soon be known as the First Lady of Swing. In 1935, the Chick Webb Orchestra was featured on NBC’s national radio program, “Good Time Society.” He became one of the first bandleaders to sign with Decca Recording Company and was the first jazz artist to be featured at the Metropolitan Opera House. The Chick Webb Orchestra was the first Black band to host a national radio show and the first Black band to play at the Park Central Hotel in Harlem. On May 11, 1937, the Chick Webb Orchestra won the Savoy Ballroom’s battle of the bands, coined the “Battle of the Century,” against the Benny Goodman Band. Close to 5,000 people crowded inside the Savoy and thousands more waited outside to witness the historic battle. White audiences had previously crowned Goodman the King of Swing. Webb, however, proved that he was the true King.

By the night’s end, with no real voting process except the crowd’s applause, Webb was declared the winner. Frankie Manning, one of the Savoy’s most innovative dancers among its gravity-defying Lindy Hoppers, remembered: “I saw guys [in Goodman’s band] just shake their heads.” Goodman’s own sensational drummer Gene Krupa physically bowed down to Webb in tribute. “I will never forget that night. Chick Webb cut me to ribbons,” said Krupa.

On January 16, 1938, the Chick Webb Orchestra won the battle against the Count Basie Orchestra. The Savoy was so crowded that night that hundreds of fans of both bands had to be turned away at the door. That same year, Webb was awarded an honorary doctorate by Yale University.

Webb was renowned for his showmanship, positivity, and high energy, despite being in constant pain. During tours with his orchestra, he would periodically return to Baltimore for hospitalization and treatment for his ongoing ailments. Though he was considered a giant of jazz, Webb was small in stature, standing only four feet one inch tall. He walked with a limp, and his curved spine and short torso—the result of spinal tuberculosis shortly after birth—gave him a hunched-back appearance. Further injury occurred after he was dropped on his back as a child, smashing several of his vertebrae.

In physical appearance, Webb represented the divine. In Kemet (ancient Egypt), disabilities were sometimes considered divine, and the disabled (or differently abled) population was included in all segments of society. In fact, two ancient Kemetic gods, Ptah and Bes, were identified as dwarfs, a condition that affected Webb. These struggles did not prevent him from following his passion or fulfilling his purpose. In fact, as an innovator, he modified his console and bolted the bass drum on his drum set to fit his needs.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Webb continued an ancient, African and powerful practice. The drum is one of the oldest and most widely used instruments in the world. In Kemet, thousands of years ago, drummers played the Tabla drum (also known as the Darbouka drum, a form of goblet drum) in temples, festivals and ceremonies. The ancient Kemetians also played a variety of percussion instruments, some of the same types of instruments played by Webb in the early 20th century. The cymbal, for example, was reconfigured by Webb as the hand sock, two cymbals connected with tongues and played by hitting against the leg or hand (in a way similar to musical spoons). In ancient Kemet, cymbals accompanied the Tabla drum, and Webb was known to demonstrate this type of interplay between his multiple drums and percussion instruments. He also played the cowbell, another ancient, African instrument, which is seen as early as Kemet’s 5th Dynasty (the 25th century BC) where bells were played in religious ceremonies, strung around the neck as protective amulets and used in rituals for Osiris.

In 1938 Chick Webb’s health further declined. He collapsed several times after shows, and in June 1939, collapsed while playing on a riverboat in Washington, DC. He was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and underwent spinal surgery, from which he never recovered. On June 16, 1939, Chick Webb succumbed to his illness. He was survived by his wife, Martha Loretta (“Sallyee”) Ferguson. They had no children. On the day of his funeral, over 1,000 people filled Waters AME Church, and an estimated 10,000 more lined the streets to pay homage to Webb. Shortly after his death, his close friends and fellow musicians held a benefit concert to raise funds for the Chick Webb Recreation Center in Baltimore. The center was created to serve Baltimore’s disadvantaged and historically excluded youth. In 1985, Webb was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, and on November 17, 2017, the Dunbar Coalition and Change4Real Development Corporation, along with the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks designated the Chick Webb Recreation Center as a historical landmark.

Black scholars and those with an interest in Black history and reality are urged to center phenomena (including people, ideas and practices) in Africa, and to look for the origins and connections of these things from the perspective of the African. This Sankofic recovery and reconnection to Black history is an ongoing and important process with many challenges, yet it affords great value to the understanding of Black people. Chick Webb was both African and American. The power of his drum (and drumming) broke through racial barriers in formerly all-white spaces. It moved people, shifted energy and made history in Harlem and throughout the world. Most importantly, Chick Webb continued an ancient and unbroken African tradition.

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Alice Nicholas

Alice Nicholas, Ph.D. is an Africologist and Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). She teaches classes in Africana Studies, Africana Literary Traditions and Africana Womanism. Her research focuses on Africana liberation, culture and cultural production. At CSULB, Dr. Nicholas serves on the Executive Committee of the College of Liberal Arts Faculty Council and is the Faculty Advisor for the Africana Studies Student Association (ASSA). She has presented at numerous conferences and is a lifetime member of both the National Council for Black Studies (NCBS) and the Diopian Institute for Scholarly Advancement (DISA). She has self-published 10 volumes from her 10 Million Stories series and has had essays and poetry published in various scholarly and creative publications, including African American Review, Voices From Leimert Park: Redux, Sage Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage, and Imhotep: Graduate Student Journal (Temple University Department of Africology).

Comments on “Chick Webb, The King of Swing

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    Very good read. I formative. I hadn’t heard of him. Thank you for sharing.

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    I thoroughly enjoyed the article by Dr. Nicholas, and I agree that all scientific inquiry about any human phenomena of African people in the global world must be connected to ancient African practices, rituals and traditions of healing and being. I grew up listening to Mr. Webb, because my parents had albums of the swing era. Indeed he was such an inventor and creator of sounds and melodies that were enticing to where you were held in wonderment as to where the song would go. He continued such a rich tradition, followed by Art Blakey, Cozy Cole, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown, Russell Batiste, Clyde Stubblefield, Patrice Rushen, I could go on, and so many others.

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    Three things I learned.
    This article is truly Sankofic. Black people have drum rhythm and other African tradition running through their veins. Looking at Chick Webb’s life and contributions makes me think of my own talent and how it is connected to my ancestral inheritance. This article helps me understand the practice of Afrocentricity a lot better. Dr. Nicholas weaves the story of Chick Webb with the cultural practices of Africa. She informs us of ancient practices in the Kemet tradition which centers the perspective and provides an enhanced Afrocentric lens.

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    This article brings to light so many things for me. Dr. Nicholas insights of Africana traditions, the spirituality of music, the love and need of community. I so appreciate her centering Chick Webb as a person with a disability (differently abled) he was front and center on his drums leading his band. With in African World View, Chick Webb is cherished for his spirit, leadership, and passion.

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