Sunday, April 10, 2011

James Price Johnson and William “Chick” Webb

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

From time-to-time, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles likes to give a quick nod to some of those who made the music during its formative stages.

Its our small way of remembering their contributions and it is a always great fun to compare what was happening in Jazz, then and now.

At times, even with the “distant” sound that characterized the audio of many of the earlier recordings, it can be quite startling to hear the improvised ideas and technical mastery of these early Jazz musicians.

Two such musicians that have always impressed us in this manner are pianist James P. Johnson, who died in 1955, and drummer Chick Webb, who died in 1939.

We have brought together video tributes to each of them as developed by the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and coupled them with short portraits by notable Jazz writers.

© -Len Lyons and Don Perlo, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“In the hands of James Price Johnson [1894-1955], ragtime piano developed into "stride," a more boldly imaginative style characterized by a left hand that constantly strides from the lower to the middle register of the keyboard. Johnson played in a looser, more blues-based style than the classically oriented rag-timers. Though he was always drawn to composing orchestral works, he will be remembered most for his solo-piano playing and for his timeless composition "The Charleston" (1923). He was a profound force in the development of jazz piano, tutoring Fats Waller and influencing the piano styles of Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and countless stride players.

Johnson began learning classical piano from his mother. When the family moved to New York in 1908, he was exposed to ragtime and blues at rent parties and in Long Island resorts during the summer. He studied classical piano as well as harmony and counterpoint with Bruno Giannini and he developed a superb, almost athletic technique, which set a standard that other stride pianists were expected to emulate. He would often introduce paraphrased passages from the classics into his own blues, shouts, and rags. Johnson also learned the repertoires of the eastern ragtime players like Abba Labba (Richard MacLean) and Eubie Blake. Johnson was known for his playing at a club called The Jungle, where poor laborers from the South danced to his solo-piano shouts. One can easily imagine from listening to his recordings decades later the relentless rocking rhythms he must have generated in that environment.

In 1917, Johnson began recording rolls for the Q.R.S. company. His original “Carolina Shout” [1921 and the audio track to the above video] became a standard for the era for East Coast pianists: [Duke] Ellington and [Thomas “Fats”] Waller, for example, learned it by ear.” Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters [New York: William Morrow/Quill, 1989, pp.307-308].

© -Burt Korall, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Buddy Rich. ‘Until the mid-1930s, I had never been any place where jazz was played. I was in another world, a world called show business that really had nothing to do with music. I lived in Brooklyn with my family when I was becoming involved with jazz. One Wednesday night in '35, a bunch of my friends took me to the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem for the amateur night thing. That was the first time I dug Chick Webb.

He was the total experience on drums. He played everything well. A little later, about the time I joined Joe Marsala at the Hickory House in 1937,1 went up to the Savoy to check him out again. What I remember most distinctly was that he was differ­ent and individual—not like Cozy Cole or Jimmy Crawford or any of the other cats. Even his set was different. He had cymbals on those gooseneck holders, the trap table, a special seat and pedals made specifically for him because he was so small.

Chick was hell on the up-tempos. He kept the time firm and exciting, tapping out an even 4/4 on the bass drum. That was something in the 1930s. Most of the guys downtown could hardly make two beats to the bar; they were into the Chicago style— Dixieland.

Chick set an example. He was hip, sharp, swinging. You know, only about a half-dozen of the top drummers since then, including today's so-called "great" drummers, have anything re­sembling what he had. If he were alive now, I think most drum­mers would be running around trying to figure out why they decided to play drums. That's how good he was!

As a soloist, Chick had no equal at that time. He would play four- and eight-bar breaks that made great sense. And he could stretch out, too, and say things that remained with you. It's dif­ficult to describe his style and exactly what he did. One thing is certain, though; he was a marvelous, big-band, swing drummer. Gene [Krupa] got to the heart of the matter when he said, after the Goodman-Webb band battle at the Savoy in '37, "I've never been cut by a better man."’ …

Webb in action made quite a picture. When swinging hard, he brought the entire drum set into play as he proceeded, moving his sticks or brushes across, around, up, and down the hills and valleys of the set. He choked cymbals, teased sound out of them, or hit them full; he played time and variations on the pulse on his snare, high-hat, cymbals, tom-toms, cowbell, temple blocks (often behind piano solos), and, of course, on the bass drum. He had facility to burn; fast strokes, with diversified accents, most often were played to forward the cause of the beat.” Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Swinging Years [New York: Schirmer, 1990. pp. 19-21].

Glasses lifted to the early guys: no them – no Jazz.