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UPDATE: As a continuation to my post below. Here is an article posted in a 1938 issue of Downbeat magazine recalling the January 16th Battle of Bands at the Savoy that featured Chick Webb (with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald) and Count Basie (with vocalist Billie Holiday). This night was exceptionally memorable as Benny Goodman’s band, including drummer Gene Krupa, arrived after playing their own concert at Carnegie Hall. Duke Ellington also arrived and wound up swinging along with Basie on the piano after being persuaded to play. Both bands brought the roof down but Webb’s orchestra came out on top.
You know somethin’, man? Some day I’m gonna be walkin’ up the street one way and you’re gonna be comin’ down the other way, and we’re gonna pass each other and I’m gonna say ‘Hello, best white band in the world’ and you’re gonna say ‘Hello, best colored band in the world.’ – Chick Webb
No one studying the history of drums could dispute the remarkable influence and legacy left behind by the amazing Chick Webb. Despite having physical limitations from contracting spinal tuberculosis shortly after his birth Chick stood out as one of the greatest drummers of his era. His keen ability to swing in a way that truly complimented the other musicians or singers around him was second to none. Chick knew when to play time and when to stand out. Many drummers today could take a lesson from listening to the remarkable “Stomping at the Savoy” or “Blue Lou.”
The Savoy (where Chick led the house band) regularly featured battles between the name big bands of the day, with Chick Webb’s band taking on the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Chick usually came out on top and is said to have put Gene Krupa in his place. Over the course of his career Chick spread the popularity of contemporary big band music among the black community by becoming their champion. His inspirational story of a man who rose above his physical limitations to become one of the best big band drummers of all time is an amazing story in itself, but the music he left behind is just as remarkable.
It never seemed more unlikely that a child would grow up to become a star than it did with the birth of Chick Webb. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, to William H. and Marie Webb, Chick was born with a deformed spine due to tuberculosis which caused him to appear hunchbacked. It also stunted his growth which made him appear much shorter than those without his affliction. It is said that his doctor first suggested that he take up a musical instrument to help “loosen up” his spine. Chick took his advice to heart and delivered newspapers in order to save up enough money to buy his first set of drums. Showing an aptitude for them he was playing gigs on pleasure boats by the age of 11. Realizing that in order to support himself he had to go where the music was Chick moved to New York, Harlem to be exact, when he was 17. Jazz drummer Tommy Benford began giving Chick drum lessons upon his arrival and Chick started leading his own band. Chick was unable to read music, and instead memorized the arrangements played by the band and conducted from a platform in the center. The year was 1926.
Chick quickly established a name for himself and often sat in on sessions with players like Duke Ellington. Shortly after he formed his own quintet, and played for five months at the Black Bottom Club. He then formed an eight piece band called the Harlem Stompers who played the Paddock Club, moving next to the Savoy, and setting up there in 1927. This band grew to eleven members, and by the end of the 20’s they were gigging at all the major jazz clubs in the city as the Cotton Club, the Roseland, and the Strand Roof. In 1930 they toured with the “Hot Chocolate Revue”. By 1931 the band was made the house band at the Savoy, which would last for the next five years. They also did road tours and other dates at clubs such as the Casino de Paris, but it was the Savoy where they would be called the Chick Webb Orchestra. According to Cootie Williams, Chick was “perhaps the greatest natural bandleader jazz has ever known…Any musician that worked with Chick…became a great musician.”
By then Chick had become a well-known drummer enough to endorse the custom made instrument that was constructed to counter his affliction. According to a blog post at Gretch.com titled “Chick Webb the Savoy King” Chick was probably the first real drumming star to be promoted as a Gretsch artist. The Gretsch catalog features a great photo of Chick—touted as “the king of the drums”—enthusiastically swinging behind a Gretsch-Gladstone drum kit. “If Gretsch-Gladstone drums were unusual, Chick’s kit was downright unique. It was a combination of drums and “traps”—percussive sound effects including temple blocks—all mounted on a rolling console frame. The bass drum was 28” in diameter; the “rack” tom was 9×13, and the floor tom was 14×16. Zildjian cymbals–one large on Chick’s right and one small on his left–were hung on loop hangers from gooseneck stands attached to the bass drum. The drums were covered in a striking oriental pearl finish inlayed with contrasting green sparkle “chicks” around the center of each drum.”
“Battle of the Bands” was a huge crowd-draw during this time. Two bands would take turns on the bandstand playing their hottest arrangements with the dancefloor crowd acting as judges and picking the winner. Chick’s band was considered to be among the best. One such battle inspired a Down Beat critic to write, as quoted in the book Ella Fitzgerald, “Chick had such amazing musicians in his band and they played with so much feeling and fervor that they swung the crowd right over to them, astounding everybody.” They competed against the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra beating them both but they lost to the Duke Ellington in 1937. In 1938 Chick’s band was declared the winner over Count Basie who said he was relieved to come away from the contest without embarrassing himself. Gene Krupa was also bested by Chick’s band and was left drained and defeated. Krupa, years later recalling the event, wrote, “I’ll never forget that night. Webb cut me to ribbons!”
The band was to enjoy a long run at the Savoy then when things couldn’t seem to get better, he replaced his longtime vocalist with a young Ella Fitzgerald. She had won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. This move took the band to a whole new level. Ella would captivate the Swing Era of jazz with hits such as “A-Tisket a Tasket.” In 1937, they got a regular radio spot on NBC. They played at the prestigious Lowe’s State Theater and at the Paramount, and, in December, became the first Black band to be hired at the Park Central Hotel.
Life and Legacy
In November of 1938, Chick’s health began to decline. Despite this he continued to play, refusing to give up touring so that his band could remain employed during the Great Depression. Chick disregarded his own discomfort and fatigue, which often found him passing out from physical exhaustion. Finally, he had a major operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1939. Webb died from Pott disease on June 16, 1939, in Baltimore. Reportedly his last words were, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” He was roughly 34 years-old. Chick was buried in Baltimore County, in Arbutus Memorial Park, in Arbutus, Maryland. On February 12, 1940 a crowd of about 7,500 people attended a Chick Webb Benefit in Baltimore, Maryland.
Following Chick’s death, Fitzgerald led the band until she left to focus on her solo career in 1942. The band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra with Fitzgerald taking on the role of bandleader. She recorded nearly 150 songs with Webb’s orchestra between 1935 and 1942.
Chick Webb was a major inspiration for all the drummers in that era, including rivals Art Blakey and Gene Krupa, and would go on to influence drummers as Buddy Rich, who studied Webb intensely, and Louie Bellson. He was the consummate showman and with his rhythmic style, was perfectly suited for the swing era. He raised the standard for drummer awareness, and paved the way for drummer led bands. Perhaps Krupa best summed up his mentor when he exclaimed in Modern Drummer, “He had style!”
Today is the anniversary of the death of Tony Thompson. (November 12, 2003). Whether in the studio or on stage his pocket was second to none. He is truly missed. Here’s a post featuring Tony from a while back.
“Progressive” is a word that is often thrown around for music that is indescribable. “Unique” and “Avant-garde” also come to mind. It’s a definition for music that challenges the listener to open up their ears and their minds. Such is the case with Hepcat Dilemma’s latest release Art Imitates Life. The album, released on vinyl, is the first record from the band in 17 years and it is well worth the wait.
How would one describe Hepcat Dilemma? An incredibly original band from their music, to their look, to their branding. Hepcat has crafted a truly unique style and presentation. How do they sound? It’s hard to describe but the easiest way would be a cross between King Crimson and Frank Zappa. They live in the world of odd time signatures and thought-provoking lyrics. Founding member Bob Loiselle (guitar), drummer E Hood, and Chris Colpo (bass, vocals) have crafted arrangements that take the listener on a musical journey. The Chauffeur Will Have the Last Word, Night of the Spiders and Blindsided in Aisle 12 are as distinctive as their titles.
I grew up with the band’s drummer E Hood and he is one of the best I’ve ever heard. His command of the odd time signature would make Terry Bozzio proud and he is the driving force behind Hepcat’s sonic “weirdness.” (I use that term in a good way). I’ll be interviewing Eric in an upcoming post. Hood introduced me to his band through live performances posted on YouTube. Each one showcased the band’s ability to play in another realm while not losing the audience. That takes skill.
Recorded at Hollywood Studios their presence translates on each song and one can get a feel for what the band sounds like live. Hepcat fancy themselves a Rock band but this release shows that they are much more. Art Imitates Life is an excellent example of what can happen when a band refuses to compromise and puts themselves out there. For more information, visit https://hepcatdilemma.com/.
Today I want to rundown my current rig. For practice purposes, that is, being able to practice whenever I want, I stacked the Ludwig Breakbeats kit in the corner of the drum room and set up my Yamaha DTXPLORER electronic kit and PercPad. The DTXPLORER is a fantastic and affordable e-kit that comes loaded with all the features.
It features 214 high-caliber Yamaha drum and percussion voices, 22 preset songs, 32 preset drum kits and digital effects. The high-impact rubber pads feature a natural feel and rebound. The preset kits are Rock, Funk, Jazz, Reggae, Latin Percussion and more. You can also create your own customized kit and store up to 10 drum kits.
There is a metronome included. You can combine clicks at the exact timing as you want to customize your own click patterns. Up to 30 patterns can be saved into the memory area. You can assign a different drum voice like a kick or a snare to each of five click value types (quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note, or triplets). Moreover, individual volume levels for each of the five click beats can be adjusted.
The DTXPLORER comes with 22 preset songs. You can either mute the drum track or play the bass part only to play along with the songs in a virtual session. “Groove Check” function allows you to check on your playing accuracy (timing of hitting pads and how hard you hit pads). I particularly like jamming to the funk and blues songs. You can also connect a CD player, MP3 player, or other external audio device and play along with your favorite recordings.
On the side I am using an Alesis PercPad. This pad enables you to add four drum pads and an optional kick trigger to your acoustic or electronic kit or percussion setup. Its compact, fits on a snare stand, is easy to use, and it contains 25 sounds that are perfect for accessorizing standard drum sets. I primarily use it for auxiliary percussion. I also like the old school sounds it provides. I can program the DTXPLORER as a Hip Hop kit and add 80’s effects on the PercPad.
Obviously playing on an electronic kit is different from playing on an acoustic one, but it allows me the freedom to play whenever I want. I have a drum room but it isn’t sound proof. I do enjoy the flexibility to program whatever kind of kit I feel like playing and it’s a lot of fun to play along to the tracks. If you are interested in getting into electronics I cannot recommend the DTXPLORER and PercPad enough.
I plan on putting together some videos in the very near future featuring this setup. Stay tuned.
“A studio drummer plays a song for the first time like he’s played it a thousand times. A live drummer plays a song a thousand times like he’s playing it for the first time.” – Rich Redmond
No truer words have been spoken in regards to professional drumming. The first statement applies to the studio drummer while the latter speaks to the stage musician. The challenge with both of these applications is to keep things fresh and to pursue them with the same vigor as the situation calls for. In the studio, a drummer is called upon to play the song as tight as possible within the least amount of takes. On the stage the drummer is called upon to play the same song over and over and over while maintaining the same level of enthusiasm. Both instances require patience and proficiency.
Studio musicians are hired because they can deliver a product in the shortest amount of time. Stage musicians, or “sidemen” are hired because they can entertain an audience. Bernard Purdie is a perfect example of a studio musician. He has played on over a thousand recordings. Kenny Aronoff is the perfect stage drummer and has performed with countless entertainers on television. Both understand the requirements of their position and deliver consistently when called upon.
You don’t have to be at the same level as a Purdie or Aronoff. Cover and wedding bands are often required to repeat the same mind-numbing set list. Original bands often record their own amateur CDs. Both situations mirror the ones mentioned above. Maybe you are a professional. Either way, are you in this situation? How do you cope? Leave a comment below.
It’s been a while since I’ve spent any time with an instructional book. I simply haven’t taken the time because nothing has piqued my curiosity. That was until I was introduced to a highly original and intelligent book by Gary Leach titled Beats Exotiques: Drum Grooves for Independence. Gary is a talented drummer and percussionist in the UK who, in addition to writing and teaching, plays for dance studios such as DanceEast and The Royal Ballet School’s Regional Dance Program. Leach’s diverse knowledge of styles to include cultural grooves drawing from Africa, Brazil and Cuba shines through in his work both on the stage and in the classroom. I was impressed with Leach’s skill set as a player and a writer.
Beats Exotiques is extremely well organized with Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced examples consisting of over 800 rhythms and ostinatos that Leach has collected over the last ten years. The variety of cultural grooves provides the user with such an array of examples there is something for players at every age and stage. The book also uses a custom tablature system that helps non-readers to work through the music. This consists of “colored-in” horizontal bars that are presented in a table format below the music. (We use a similar system in our own book FUNdamentals of Drumming For Kids and have found it to be a successful way to present music to those who are still learning to read.)
I really enjoyed downloading MP3 examples from the book (every-one is available). This enabled me to listen to how each groove was intended to be played. My familiarity with these cultural styles was not that solid but after spending some time with the book I began to feel more comfortable with them. I believe it made me a more well rounded player. Leach has done a tremendous amount of work with this book and it is evident that he really knows his stuff. If you are interested in learning about playing grooves from around the world get yourself a copy of Beats Exotiques: Drum Grooves for Independence.
For more information, or to purchase the book, visit:
Those of you who frequent this blog know that I’m not in the habit of reviewing products that are “gimmicky.” I simply am not impressed by them. However, I am in the habit of reviewing ideas that are ingenious and often so incredibly simple, you wish you would have thought of them yourself. Such is the instance with ToneAlly, winner of the Editor’s Choice Award at NAMM 2019. This device provides the user with a friendly device that is guaranteed to positively affect their stick height and striking precision.
According to their website “’ToneAlly’ is the world’s first percussion teaching tool which focuses on the vertical movement of the drum stick. ‘ToneAlly’ trains your drum stroke to follow the correct trajectory, something that would normally take many years of practice to develop.” Dom Famularo, drumming’s global educator touts the benefits of the product. He said “It guides you to be aware of muscle memory for your hands and teaches accuracy. I wish I had this when I was first learning!”
I had the choice of testing out the ToneAlly Design 5. The device comes with three columns with spacing in between that is designed to support multiple grips, both matched and traditional. It also includes a rubber pad insert for a responsive striking surface. The pad is removable so you can place the device on a snare drum for more of a realistic feel. The curved shape of the base fits right up against the rim. An insert with exercises is also included. The Design 5 is well made. The solid wood construction and appearance show that there is a lot of pride that goes into constructing this product.
Grabbing a pair of sticks I immediately felt the challenge of maintaining an even stick height between both hands and it reminded me of my marching days on the snare line. It was also difficult not to hit the side of the columns. Staring out slow, as we should in all things drumming, it took intentional movements to maintain any level of precision which I assume over time will develop muscle memory. I also tried to play in between each column with slightly modified the grips. This heightened the challenge but I imagine would keep things fresh.
Despite the difficulty I had when I first started after spending about 15 minutes I was able to play a double stroke roll (very slowly) between the columns. Obviously the more you practice the better you get. The Design 5 could be incorporated into your practice routine and take it to the next level. Clearly the ToneAlly is a viable tool that given time, will help improve your trajectory.
I echo Dom’s sentiment. I wish I had this when I was first learning. I know I’m going to spend some time with it. The benefits will be felt both on a stand alone snare and on the drum set.
For more information, or to order this product, go to: https://www.toneally.co.uk/
I just read that Frankie Banali is battling Stage Four Pancreatic Cancer. Frankie was one of the drummers that inspired me to take up drumming in the first place and he was the first drummer that I ever saw perform live in concert. I was fortunate enough to interview Frankie a while back and it was one of my most enjoyable talks. You can read the entire interview here: Frankie Banali . I wish Frankie a complete recovery and hope to see him sitting behind his Ludwig kit in the very near future.
I’ve shared some of my other “non-drumming” writing projects here before. My latest assignment is an exciting opportunity to work with the Washington National’s farm team, the Fredericksburg Nationals. Our community is ecstatic to have a minor league baseball team call our little town home and of course history will play a big part in the team’s persona. (The team’s secondary logo features a cartoon George Washington swinging an axe like a baseball bat.) I’ve written extensively on the origins of baseball, especially during the Civil War: Emerging Civil War: Part 1: Baseball in the Blue and Gray – Emerging Civil War: Part 2: Baseball in the Blue and Gray . I was asked by the team owner’s son and a group made up of a local sports writer, museum curator and preservationist to provide research and writing for a timeline that will be featured behind home plate in the new stadium. I’m really looking forward to watching this project progress and learning about the history of baseball in the ‘Burg. Now that the Nats are going to the World Series interest in the team will be at an all-time high. This should trickle down to their farm team. I look forward to taking my son to some games as it will be a real treat to have professional baseball right in our backyard.