BATTLES of the big bands are making a comeback.
Popular in the 1930s and 1940s, the big band battles are playoffs to see which of two or more competing bands can be the first to drive an audience crazy. You can attend 1992 versions of these swinging free-for-alls at Hunt Valley and other locations (usually promoted by WITH, the big-band station in Baltimore).
But there was an historic, definitive and positively Olympian battle of the big bands in New York in 1937. It was staged before thousands of fans who came from all over the country just to see and hear it. The winner was a Baltimorean.
His name was Chick Webb. He was black and crippled, and as a child he sold newspapers on the streets of East Baltimore. To while away the time, he played at being a jazz drummer, using the bottoms of overturned garbage cans for his drums. Before he died in 1939, Webb's band was sitting close to the top of the list of big bands, and Webb himself was recognized as one of the great jazz drummers of all time.
At 16, he ran away to New York to try his luck. It was good. At 17, he was leading his own band. By the age of 18, Webb was known as the "King of the Drums." And so it was that on the night of May 11, 1937, in the famous Savoy Ballroom in New York, the little drummer from Baltimore was in a battle with none other than the "King of Swing," Benny Goodman. Goodman's drummer, going one-on-one against Webb, was the formidable Gene Krupa.
Hours before the scheduled battle, the police had thrown a cordon around the stage. New York riot patrolmen were at the ready -- just in case the 4,000 people inside and 5,000 outside got out of hand.
According to jazz historian George Simon, "Benny's band played first and made a great impression. But then the Webb boys got into it. They blew the roof off the Savoy! The crowd screamed and whistled with delirium. The Webb band easily toppled Goodman's that night."
Krupa, years later recalling the event, wrote, "I'll never forget that night. Webb cut me to ribbons!"
Webb died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in June 1939. His funeral was one of the biggest events in many a Baltimore year. Attending were Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford and Ella Fitzgerald, who sang, in dirge tempo, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (the song she and Webb had made famous). Webb's services began at his home on Ashland Avenue and continued at Waters African Methodist Episcopal Church on Aisquith Street near Jefferson. Hundreds of mourners filled the church and every available perch outside.
Chick Webb is buried in Arbutus Memorial Park on Sulphur Spring Road.
It takes nothing away from the battles of the big bands you see in Baltimore these days to suggest that the mother of all big band battles was at the Savoy Ballroom in New York in 1937. The contestants were the mighty Benny Goodman (and Gene Krupa) and a small, crippled drummer from the streets of East Baltimore.
The Baltimorean won.