Chick Webb was born William Henry Webb on February 10, 1905 in Baltimore, Maryland. Suffering from tuberculosis of the spine as a child, it left him short of stature and with a badly deformed spine, causing him to appear hunchbacked. His doctor suggested playing an instrument would loosen up his bones and after saving up his newspaper boy money bought a set of drums and was playing professionally by age 11.
At the age of 17 Chick moved to New York City, took drum lessons from Tommy Benford and by 1926 was leading his own band in Harlem. He alternated between band tours and residencies at New York City clubs through the late 1920s and by 1931 his band became the house band at the Savoy Ballroom. He became one of the best-regarded bandleaders and drummers of the new swing style.
Webb couldn’t read music but memorized the arrangements played by the band and conducted from a platform in the center. Although his band was not as influential and revered in the long term, it was feared in the battle of the bands, with the Savoy often featured “Battle of the Bands” where Webb’s band always came out on top over Goodman’s or Basie’s band. He was crowned the first King of Swing and didn’t lose until 1937 to Duke Ellington.
In 1935 he began featuring a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald and the two electrified the Swing Era with hits like Van Alexander’s A-Tisket A-Tasket. By 1938, Webb’s health began to decline; for a time, however, disregarding his own discomfort he continued to play, refusing to give up touring so that his band could remain employed during the Great Depression. Finally, following a major operation at John Hopkins Hospital, drummer and bandleader William Henry “Chick” Webb passed away from spinal tuberculosis at age 34 on June 16, 1939, in Baltimore, Maryland.
His death hit the jazz/swing community very hard and after his death Ella Fitzgerald led the band until it disbanded when she left to focus on her solo career in 1942.
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Blanche Calloway was born Blanche Dorothea Jones Calloway on February 9, 1902 in Rochester, New York. Her mother was a music teacher and gave her children a passion for music. The older sister of Cab Calloway, she was a successful singer before her brother.
Influenced as a youth by Florence Mills and Ida Cox, she was encouraged to audition for a local talent scout and dropped out of Morgan College in the early 1920s to pursue her music career. Blanche made her professional debut in Baltimore in 1921 with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s musical Shuffle Along but her big break came two years later on the national tour of Plantation Days. With the tour ending in Chicago, she decided to stayand gained popularity on the town’s jazz scene.
By 1925 she recorded two blues songs accompanied by Louis Armstrong and Richard M. Jones that became the first inception of her Joy Boys orchestra. She would perform with Rueben Reeves and record for Vocalion Records, work with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, and worte and recorded three songs of which her theme song would emerge, I Need Lovin’. Calloway would go on to form another Joy Boys big band with Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Andy Kirk, Chick Webb and Zack Whythe, making her the first woman to lead an all-male jazz orchestra.
She struggled in the racially segregated and male-dominated music industry of the period, frequently played to segregated audiences and arrested for using white only restrooms on the road. While sitting in a Mississippi jail a band member stole the group’s money and she had to sell her yellow Cadillac to leave the state. Though an exceptional musician, she received few opportunities outside singer and dancer due to gender roles of the time. By the mid-1930s Calloway began to struggle to find bookings, just as her brother’s own career grew in popularity.
After years of struggling for major success, in 1938 she declared bankruptcy, broke up her orchestra and a couple of yeas later put together a short-lived all-female orchestra during World War II. Struggling once again for bookings she moved to the Philadelphia suburbs and became a socialite, served as a Democratic committeewoman, moved to Washington, DC and managed the Crystal Caverns nightclub. She hired Ruth Brown to perform and gained credit for discovering her and getting her a record deal with Atlantic Records.
In the late 1950s she moved to Florida and became a deejay for WMBM in Miami Beach, then became the program director for twenty years. She became the first Black woman to vote in Florida, was an active member of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and served on the board of the National Urban League.
Vocalist, composer and bandleader Blanche Calloway, whose flamboyant style was a major influence on her brother Cab, eventually moved back to Baltimore, and married her high school sweetheart, passing away on December 16, 1978, from breast cancer, aged 76.
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Joe Maini was born on February 8, 1930 in Providence, Rhode Island. Early in his career he played alto saxophone in the big bands of Alvino Rey, Johnny Bothwell and Claude Thornhill. He moved to Los Angeles, California and found work as a session musician and continued working in big bands, usually holding the lead alto chair.
Some of the leaders Joe worked with over the course of his career were Terry Gibbs, Onzy Matthews, Gerald Wilson, Bill Holman, Louis Bellson, Jack Montrose, Dan Terry, Johnny Mandel and Shelly Manne. He recorded in small group settings with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Zoot Sims, Jack Sheldon, Red Mitchell, Lin Halliday, Kenny Drew and Jimmy Knepper. He also worked with his close friend, comedian Lenny Bruce.
Alto saxophonist Joe Maini passed away at age 34 in Los Angeles on May 7, 1964. History states it was while playing Russian roulette as the cause, but family and witnesses contend it was simply a firearms accident. Forty-four years after his death, Lone Hill Jazz issued a four-CD set with many of his small group recordings.
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Ray Alexander was born on February 7, 1925 in Lynbrook, Long Island, New York. His mother was a concert pianist who began him on the instrument as a very young child. Asthma ended his ambitions to be a trumpeter but after hearing Gene Krupa his interest turned towards drums. He education also came from listening to Big Sid Catlett, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the clubs.
Ray started his musical career as a drummer, playing with Claude Thornhill, Bobby Byrne, the Dorsey Brothers, Stan Getz, Joe Venuti, Mel Torme, Johnny Smith, Chubby Jackson, Stuff Smith and numerous others. Switching to the vibraphone he worked with George Shearing, Charlie Barnett, Bil Evans, Anita O’Day and Mel Lewis, as well as his own quartet.
In the early ’70’s he joined with Mousey Alexander and formed the Alexanders the Great quartet which was booked frequently at the new Half Note uptown, as well as gained notoriety and bookings through the city.
By 1983 Ray put out an album called “Cloud Patterns“, recorded live at Eddie Condon’s featuring Albert Daily on piano, Harvie Swartz on bass, Ray Mosca on drums and Pepper Adams on baritone saxophone. He would go on to work with Kenny Barron, Warren Vache Jr., Bob Kindred, Harvie Swartz, Oliver Jackson, Mac Chrupcala, John Anter and Marshall Wood, tour England and nearby European countries. Vibraphonist and drummer Ray Alexander passed away on June 9, 2002 in new Hyde Park, New York as a result of complications from elective surgery.
Calvin Keys was born on February 6, 1943 in Omaha, Nebraska. Getting caught teaching himself how to play on his uncle’s Gibson got him the gift of the instrument. By 16 he was playing pop and blues gigs professionally
In 1961 he teamed with organist Frank Edwards and after hearing Calvin play with Ahmad Jamal, Charles Earland invited him to play a special New York City performance.
By 1969 he was in Los Angeles, California gigging in the Persia Room with Red Holloway, co-led a band with Blue Mitchell and played the Doug/Jean Carn project Adam’s Apple. He went on to play with Oscar Brown Jr. at the Memory Lane club and began his association with Ray Charles.
In 1974 he began his musical relationship with Ahmad Jamal the lasted twenty years. He would go on to perform and record with Donald Byrd, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Marshall, Sonny Stitt, Pharoah Sanders, Leon Williams, Jimmy Witherspoon, Stanley Turrentine, George Coleman, Hadley Caliman, M.C. Hammer, Carmen McRae, Gloria Lynne, Woody Shaw, Jackie Ivory, Luther Vandross, Jackie Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Denise Perrier, James Van Buren, and many others.
As a leader and composer he has released a dozen albums for Black Jazz, Silverado, Wide Hive, Olive Branch, Life Force Jazz and Ovation Records, been a sideman on another nineteen and appears on three compilations. Guitarist Calvin Keys continues to compose, record and tour.
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