Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stompin' at the Savoy

Geithner’s and Obama’s plan for disbursing the final $350 billion of the TARP money richly deserves a full excoriation—Obama’s hundred days is more and more seems to be like that of Napoleon, rather than that of FDR. But this will have to wait for another day. This a big week for bicentennials, with Darwin’s and Lincoln’s coming up on Thursday, but today is a centennial worthy of note, the 100th birthday of the great big-band leader and drummer, Chick Webb.

Chick Webb was born in Baltimore, and it was a difficult birth. He was born with tuberculosis of the spine, was short and hunchbacked, and various illnesses led to his death at the tragically early age of 30. He was one of the large number of Baltimoreans, black and white, who had a major impact on New York City in first half of the 20th century (Billie Holiday, Babe Ruth, H.L. Mencken, for starters.) Few loomed larger.
By the mid-1920s he was in New York City, already attracting attention for his drumming prowess, and by the end of the decade he had one of the best swing bands in the city. The Chick Webb band will always be associated with the Savoy Ballroom, Harlem’s famous dancehall, immortalized in their best-known recording, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and where they were the house band from 1933 until Webb’s death. The Savoy Ballroom was a place of display and contest, where jitterbuggers and lindyhoppers would strut and jump their stuff, and where huge crowds would listen to various bands battle for audience acclaim, battles that Chick Webb’s band invariably won.
Chick Webb was a marvelous drummer; lithe, supple, and precise. His bands embodied the mysterious quality that came to be prized during the 1930s as “swing,” the ability to play with energy and propulsion while retaining a certain lightness, music of rhythmic precision married to a playfulness and unexpectedness. Chick Webb had in it spades. Perhaps no New York City band of the 1920s and 1930s, at least until Count Basie arrived from Kansas City in 1936, could rival Chick Webb in the essential, fundamental quality of their swing. Chick Webb did not live long and did not make that many records, and many of those, after 1935, very devoted to displaying the vocal talents of his discovery and protégé, Ella Fitzgerald, but if you listen to his early recordings, you can hear a true master. (The Decca collection “Spinnin’ The Webb,” if it still available, is a great place to start.) The Savoy Ballroom was famous for many things, and one of those was its function as one of the few generally open meeting place (and occasional trysting place) for blacks and whites. Chick Webb had a symbiotic relation with the Savoy’s dancers, each feeding off the others energy, and the energy was about more than just happy feet; it was about the propulsion of racial change, the gathering challenge to the post-Reconstruction order, and the hipness of integration. Chick Webb’s music, was in the best sense, if I may borrow a phrase from Rob, the sound of the city. Happy 100th.

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