IF YOU HAPPEN be in the area of Howard and Pratt streets early on one of these summer evenings, keep an eye out for a street act that fits squarely into the continuum of Baltimore history. That's the area where a young black man frequently plays a set of "drums" -- actually the bottoms of overturned garbage cans. If you don't believe that this street musician may eventually have a promising career as a jazz drummer, you may not know or may have forgotten the story of William Henry "Chick" Webb.
Let's flashback to June 20, 1939. 1300 block of Ashland Ave., East Baltimore:
"A-tisket, A-tasket, a green and yellow basket,
I bought a basket for my mommie, on the way I dropped it . . ."
It was a fitting day for a funeral, with overcast skies and a slow drizzle dampening the mourners gathered by the thousands in front of the tiny rowhouse where Chick Webb was born, and where a memorial service was held for him that day. Chick Webb, by consensus of his peers, was the greatest jazz drummer ever.
A barely 4-foot-tall disabled black youth, Webb sold newspapers on the streets of Baltimore for years, and to while away his time he played at being a jazz drummer on the bottoms of overturned garbage cans.
After playing on Chesapeake Bay boats, at 16, he went to New York City, where he lived with one of his sisters, to try his luck. It was good. Within two years, he was leading his own band; he soon became known as "the King of the Drums." In 1937, in a spectacular show promoted as the "Battle of the Bands" (Benny Goodman vs. Chick Webb) in the famous Savoy Ballroom, no less than Gene Krupa, the next best drummer in America after Webb, said of Webb's performance that night, "He just cut me to ribbons. The man was dynamite. He could reach the most amazing heights."
George Simon, jazz historian, wrote of Webb, "Chick had himself one helluva fine band." Its sparkle, he said, was Webb himself, a "hunchback who could barely reach the foot pedal of his bass drum."
Chick was left partially disabled by a fall down the steps of his family home at the age of 4; by the time the family discovered that he was seriously hurt by the fall -- a spinal injury -- even several operations at Johns Hopkins Hospital couldn't totally reverse the damage. After a brief, exciting career, he died at age 37 of tuberculosis.
But back to Chick Webb's funeral: After a brief service at his home., the casket was taken to the Waters African Methodist Episcopal Church, 417 Aisquith St., where an unbroken line of rich and poor and black and white people filed past the coffin to pay their respects; Baltimoreans were proud of their native son. In the line, too, were such jazz luminaries as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, Fletcher Henderson and Jimmy Lunceford. The service took more than two hours.
According to the police, at least 20,000 people packed the church and poured out onto the surrounding streets. After the service, the funeral procession moved to Arbutus Memorial Park on Sulphur Spring Road where "the King" was laid to rest.
"Was it red? . . . No! No! No! No!
. . . Just a little yellow basket . . ."
In 1937, Ella Fitzgerald, who was discovered by Chick at a Harlem talent show, helped write the words and music of that song, which is based on an old nursery rhyme. A recording of her singing it with Chick Webb's band soared to the No. 1 spot on Billboard charts and stayed there for weeks. It was written and always sung as a light bit of innocent nonsense. But it turned out to be the funeral dirge for the little drummer who had gone from the streets of East Baltimore to the top.
So, when you see that young man "playing drums" downtown, remember, he could be headed for stardom. It has happened before in Baltimore.