Supporting the Big Band Revival: Chick Webb

Breakin' 'Em Down live stream screenshot
Screenshot from the Lindy Focus livestream of the Chick Webb night

Happy New Year everyone! We’re excited to start the year with a new website (soft launched Nov. 2016) and to report the wonderful opportunity our organization had to support the resurgence of live vintage jazz music.

Also, just so you don’t worry, we are in the process of finalizing contracts for our new venue space. Stay tuned to this website, our Facebook page, and our Facebook group for more information.

Reviving Lost Big Band Music

When the general public thinks of swing music, it’s easy to default to “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” right? But you know, having danced at our events, that the range of swing jazz is far more grand. For instance, we are lucky to have recordings of the great bandleader Chick Webb, who suffered an untimely death (more on that later). What we don’t have are his music charts so we can listen to his music live as he would have led it.

As said by our Music Coordinator, Mark Calkins, on our Facebook group:

Chick Webb was one of the predominant big band leaders during the swing era, and sadly most of his music has not been performed live for about 80 years. Organizers of the premiere swing dance event known as Lindy Focus announced a crowd funded project (Big Band Revival: Chick Webb) last year to fund transcribing Chick Webb’s charts. A year later many of Chick’s charts have been transcribed and were performed for the first time (at Lindy Focus). SwingColumbus sponsored all parts of the song “Breakin’ ‘Em Down” to be transcribed.

Each chart (song) cost between $350-450 to get transcribed from beginning-to-end. These dollars allowed professional transcribers listen to the recordings and notate everything on the original record, putting it into sheet music form for other musicians to play. The project not only hired some of the best transcribers in the business, they also chose master swing musicians who understand the swing style. These transcribers are literally the “best people on the planet to tackle the historical nature of this project.”

Read more at the official Facebook page.

The SwingColumbus Mission: A Reminder

SwingColumbus is a not-for-profit educational organization dedicated to the preservation, study, teaching, enjoyment, and continuing evolution of all forms of swing dance. When we say “swing dance,” we mean the group of American Rhythm dances that developed with the swing style of jazz music in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. We are volunteer-run, and our hearts thrum to 6-beat and 8-beat patterns.

SwingColumbus dedicates your dance and lesson admission dollars not only to keeping our dance community alive here in Central Ohio, but also to similar non- and not-for-profit projects that align with our mission statement. When the SwingColumbus Board heard about an opportunity to support the transcription of legendary bandleader Chick Webb’s music, we knew we had to jump in line.

Who Was Chick Webb?

Chick Webb, drummer and bandleader
Chick Webb, drummer and bandleader

If you had to pick two kings of vintage swing music, one would be Benny Goodman and the other, Chick Webb. While Benny helped spread swing jazz across the United States and revolutionize it with his cameo musicians, Chick brought the soul of the dancer’s swing band to life. Chick Webb and His Orchestra was the house band for the Savoy Ballroom, where Whitey’s Lindy Hopper’s (including Ambassador of Swing, Frankie Manning) practiced and performed. Chick’s music grew with the dance of lindy hop itself. It’s hard to say where one would have gone without the other.

Chick began playing the drums at the suggestion of his doctor, who said playing an instrument might “loosen his bones” after contracting tuberculosis of the spine. Due to his illness, he was short and appeared hunchbacked. He couldn’t read music, but had the ability to memorize the band arrangements.

In 1935, Chick discovered a teenage Ella Fitzgerald and made her the orchestra’s vocalist. Her scat style combined with his energetic drumming made the orchestra a dancer favorite year after year. During the Great Depression, Chick led his orchestra on tour despite his failing health. By June 1939, Chick died from complications after a surgery for his tuberculosis. Ella took over the band for him, and the group remained together (for the most part) until 1942 when Ella left to work on her solo career.

Because of his untimely death and inability to read music, we could hear his recordings but not use his charts for 80 years, until today…

Lindy Focus Premiere

Photo collage courtesy Mark Calkins

Lindy Focus is the trendsetter regarding lindy hop swing dance events in the United States. Every year, they change something to make their event bigger and better than the year before. This year was their second attempt at bandleader theme nights: Count Basie; Artie Shaw; Chick Webb; Benny Goodman.

Two of our SwingColumbus members who contribute a great deal of their personal time and energy to ensuring you have amazing music week after week, whether live band or DJ’d, were given the opportunity to hear the dress rehearsal of the Chick Webb charts.

Mark Calkins (left) has been our Music Coordinator since 2012. Stanley Steers (right) has been his right hand man since 2014. If you see them at one of our dances or lessons, please thank them for their contributions to our dance scene!

As Mark mentioned, SwingColumbus sponsored the transcription of 1939’s “Breakin’ ‘Em Down.” We chose this song because it has the quintessential Chick Webb/Savoy Ballroom sound, with a steady, driving back beat, a jam (improvisation) session, and is concluded with an instrumental volley. This song makes it really obvious why dancers want to SWING OUT.

Chick Webb’s music has not been heard live in his style for 80 years. The energy on the dance floor for the Chick Webb night at Lindy Focus cannot be replicated, but luckily, the event live streamed the premiere.

Jump to 1:44:39 in the video below to hear about the song from bandleader Jonathan Stout, followed by the song itself.

All Because of You

Thank you to our members and regular dance and lesson attendees for continuing to support SwingColumbus so our organization can support projects like this. We’ll see you soon on the dance floor!

1 thought on “Supporting the Big Band Revival: Chick Webb

  1. Misti Happney

    Thank you so much Mark and Stanley for all you do! I moved to Newark four years ago from Florida and don’t have much of a social life, so the lessons I have taken over the past year or so have really opened up a new world to me. I just love it. Need to do a lot more, though! So happy and relieved to hear a new venue is in the works. See you guys soon! Happy New Year!!!
    Misti Happney

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