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The band played on


Thousands of mourners turned out at Waters African Methodist Episcopal Church at 417 Aisquith St. on a warm summer's day in 1939, to say farewell to Chick Webb, the famous jazz-era band leader and East Baltimore native who had died earlier that month.

Born and raised near Madison Street and Ashland Avenue, Webb sold newspapers as a boy and taught himself to play the drums in his spare time.

Despite physical deformity, which resulted from a childhood fall down a flight of steps and left him in constant pain throughout his life, Webb went on to become a popular band leader and drummer whose popularity was rivaled only by that of Gene Krupa.

Webb went to New York in 1924 after playing on Chesapeake Bay steamers and started his first band, called the Jungle Band. Their first recording for Brunswick in 1929 featured two of their hits, "Dog Bottom" and "Jungle Man."

By 1934, Chick Webb and his orchestra were performing in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom and such famous New York clubs as Roseland and the Casino de Paree.

That same year, he began recording for Decca and hired a struggling young singer from Newport News, Va., Ella Fitzgerald. Then the band's popularity really soared.

On coast-to-coast radio broadcasts and in ballrooms and clubs throughout the nation, Ella Fitzgerald in her own inimitable style popularized such songs as "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "F.D.R. Jones," "I Want To Be Happy" and "Organ Grinder's Swing."

Even though he became very successful and a celebrity, Webb never forgot the poor children of the East Baltimore slum where he had grown up.

He was planning to build a recreation center in East Baltimore when he collapsed in June 1939, while playing with his band on a steamboat near Washington. Taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, Webb died June 19 of tuberculosis.

In February 1940, more than 50 famous black entertainers gathered on a cold winter's night at Baltimore's Fifth Regiment Armory to finish the work that Chick Webb had started.

A group of the country's leading entertainers -- including Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington, Taps Miller, the Ink Spots, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, the Nicholas Brothers, Claude Hopkins and Ella Fitzgerald -- were determined to fulfill Webb's dream. They gave a benefit concert to raise funds for the Chick Webb Recreation Center Memorial Fund. Even Joe Louis, the heavyweight fighter, made an appearance.

The show began with Ella Fitzgerald standing onstage.

"Ella said a few words over the microphone," reported The Sun, "then she gave the down beat for 'Royal Garden Blues.' She led with her hands and her head. So the program went on and on and on."

The day after the performance, which was attended by more than 8,000 people, The Sun said, "Everybody was there because Chick, just before he died last summer, had said he wanted to do something for the Negro children of East Baltimore. He wanted to build them a recreational center such as he never had when he was a little boy peddling papers. He wanted to make things easier for other youths so they wouldn't have to struggle so hard as he did."

Another seven years would pass before the recreation center was built and dedicated in 1947.

Jazz historian Leonard Feather wrote of Chick Webb: "Surmounting the handicaps of Jim Crow and his own physical deformity, Webb rose to become one of the most dynamic figures in jazz, a powerful, pulsating drummer whose magnificent control of bass drum and cymbals lent the band much of its personality."

Today, the Chick Webb Recreation Center is as busy as ever, the result of one man's concern and love for others.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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