Posts Tagged ‘Chet Falzerano’

Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Chick Webb: The Little Giant

by Fred W. Gretsch

The inaugural article in this new series featured Tony Williams, who was indisputably one of the most innovative and influential drummers in jazz. This time, we’ll take a step further back and examine the career of Chick Webb, who, as the editors of Modern Drummer stated in 2006’s The Drummer: 100 Years Of Rhythmic Power And Invention, “set the standard for how a drummer should drive a band.”

William Henry “Chick” Webb was a small man who possessed an unconquerable spirit and an astounding musical talent. For many jazz fans, he remains arguably the greatest swing drummer to have ever played the instrument. His accomplishments as a musician are all the more impressive because he had to overcome significant physical handicaps in order to achieve them. A childhood accident crushed several vertebrae in his back, and he never grew to full size. He also suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, which left him a hunchback, with a large face and broad shoulders.

Chick was born in 1909 in Baltimore, Maryland. He bought his first set of drums with his earnings as a newsboy there, and he began playing in bands on pleasure boats at the age of eleven. After moving to New York in 1925, he led bands in various clubs before settling in for long regular runs at Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom, beginning in 1931.

Chick powered that band ferociously from behind a custom-made Gretsch-Gladstone drumkit that’s depicted on the cover of the 1939 Gretsch Drums catalog. It was a console-type kit that moved on wheels. A trap table, including temple blocks, was set in the center across the bass drum. Surrounding the table were his snare (with wooden rims) made personally by Billy Gladstone, a 9×13 tom-tom on the bass drum, and a 14×16 floor tom. The striking finish featured a white pearl covering inlayed with green-sparkle “chicks” around the center of each drum. The bass drum head was painted with a massive crown, depicting Chick’s status as “The Savoy King.”

Chick used this unique setup to create complex and thundering solos that paved the way for later drum greats like Buddy Rich (who studied Chick intensely) and Louie Bellson. He couldn’t read music, so he memorized each high-energy arrangement flawlessly. Those arrangements, along with a crisp ensemble sound and Chick’s drum pyrotechnics, became the band’s signature style. In 1935, Chick hired a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald and rebuilt his show around her. In return Ella provided Chick with his biggest hit record, “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” in 1938.

How important is Chick Webb to drumming history? According to drum historian Chet Falzerano in his book Gretsch Drums, The Legacy Of That Great Gretsch Sound: “Webb’s prowess as a big band drummer during the 1930s was best summed up by Buddy Rich. ‘He represented true hipness. His playing was original, different, completely his own. Only about a half-dozen of the top drummers since then have anything resembling what he had.’”

Falzerano goes on to describe a legendary battle of the bands at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom between Chick’s band and Benny Goodman’s, when drum superstar Gene Krupa was playing for Goodman. “Gene got to the heart of the matter when he said, after the battle, ‘I’ve never been cut by a better man.’ Before the night was over Gene stood up on Benny’s stand and bowed to Chick, as if to say, ‘You’re the king.’”

The band’s fame continued to grow, fueled by its reputation as a giant-killer in the Savoy battles and a continuous string of Decca 78s that featured such irresistible numbers as “T’aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” and the B-side of “Tasket,” titled “Liza.” But Chick’s frail health began to deteriorate, and in 1939 he passed away at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. After his death Ella Fitzgerald fronted the band until it finally broke up in 1942.

Regrettably, the primitive recording techniques of the 1930s could not adequately capture Chick Webb’s spectacular technique and wide dynamic range. Still, some re-mastered recordings and radio broadcasts do exist to help us appreciate the talent of the man who was one of the first Gretsch drumset endorsers—and who indisputably earned his nickname of “The Little Giant.”

Here are a few YouTube links to check out:

A classic recording of “Stompin At The Savoy”.

A performance of “St. Louis Blues” taken from a radio broadcast from the Savoy Ballroom in early 1939.

A 1937 recording of “Harlem Congo” (from The Smithsonian Collection/Big Band Jazz [From The Beginnings To The Fifties] Volume ll).

Chick’s importance to jazz history is also made clear in a feature film titled THE SAVOY KING: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America. Check out the full film if you can. In the meantime, watch an excerpt clip.

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Celebrating The Career of An Explorer

Monday, January 20th, 2014

On The Passing of Chico Hamilton

by Fred W. Gretsch

Chico Hamilton

If I was asked to describe jazz drumming great Chico Hamilton-who died this past November 25th at the age of ninety-two in one word, that word would be “explorer.” Throughout his long and stellar career, Chico consistently explored new musical territory, new concepts in drum sounds, and new approaches to the design of the drumkit itself. And I’m proud to say that most of that career saw Chico on Gretsch drums.

Of course, there are lots of other words that can–and should–be used in connection with Chico. “Innovator,” “composer,” “teacher,” “leader,” and “pioneer” all come to mind. And I’m sure that those who knew and appreciated Chico’s gifts could add many more.

As a young drummer in the late 1940s and early ’50s Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton gained experience (and early recognition) as a sideman. Even then his versatility and creative nature was displayed, as he worked in a wide variety of musical situations. Those included serving as the driving force in sax great Jerry Mulligan’s quartet (which also featured a young trumpeter named Chet Baker), and spending eight years backing singer Lena Horne.

But it was with his own quintet, which he founded in 1955, that Chico first made his mark on the jazz scene. This was where his “explorer” nature came to the fore, as he put together a decidedly non-traditional group consisting of drums, bass, guitar, cello, and flute. Featuring compositions by all the members of the group combined with collective improvisation, the sound came to be known as “chamber jazz.” The experiment had its fans and its detractors, but no one could deny that it was totally original. In fact. The Chico Hamilton Quintet made such a name for itself that it was featured in the 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

But it was a different kind of movie–a documentary titled Jazz on A Summer’s Day–that cemented Chico as a jazz star. Filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1958, it captured performances by jazz legends including Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Stitt. Chico and his group added their unique sound and style to the mix of more “traditional” jazz, to wide acclaim.

Based mainly in Los Angeles for most of his career, Chico was a pioneer of what was dubbed “West Coast” jazz, also known as the “California cool” sound. But he never focused on one style for long. After establishing the “chamber jazz” style with his early quintet, he took a harder-edged direction in the 1960s. In 1966 he recorded a funky, soul-leaning jazz album called The Dealer, which introduced guitarist Larry Coryell. (Other bands led by Chico featured such future jazz stars as Ron Carter, Paul Horn, Gabor Szabo, and Arthur Blythe.)

From that time right up until his passing, Chico never stopped creating. He played and toured with a group called Euphoria in the 1980s and ’90s, and he was appearing with them at a monthly New York City residency at the time of his death. He also continued to record up until his ninetieth birthday, when he released a 22-track CD called Revelation.

Many drummers might say that Chico wasn’t a skilled technician on the drumset, in the manner of contemporaries like Max Roach or Art Blakey. But few would deny his contributions as a drumming innovator. The late Phil Grant, long-time artist relations manager for Gretsch, said of Chico, “He had a style of playing drums that was completely different from anyone else. He used timpani sticks on the drumset before anyone else. He was an individual, and his playing was unique.”

Chico also had very specific ideas about drumset design, as described by Chet Falzerano in his book Gretsch Drums: The Legacy of “That Great Gretsch Sound”: “Chico had some progressive ideas of his own for his drumset. He wanted his toms without bottom heads. Gretsch was accommodating and built him a custom set without bottom heads [in 1958) long before it became the rage in the 1970s.” (Interestingly, it was another great Gretsch drummer–Phil Collins–who helped promote that rage.) Chico continued to play his signature drumkit design throughout his career, often removing the front bass drum head as well.

In addition to sharing his musical ideas as a performer, Chico also shared them as an educator. He was part of the faculty at the Parsons New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, as well as the Mannes College of Music at the New School University, both in New York City. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004. This led to a visit to the White House, where Chico was both an honoree and a featured performer.

In a 2008 interview in the magazine Jazz Times, Chico said, “I can play all over the world, and I don’t have to play anybody else’s music. That’s my reward. I’ve been blessed because I’ve been able to make music, and I make music for music’s sake.”

Checking Out Chico

A clip of a young Chico Hamilton in a battle with drumming legends Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton is posted on Drummerworld.com at http://www.drummerworld.com/Videos/genekrupachicolionel58.html.

You can hear the unique sound of Chico’s unique “chamber jazz” quintet featuring cello, bass, guitar, and sax playing “The Wind” (1956) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_8uztsWTOo.

In contrast, check out the high-energy title track from Chico’s 1966 album The Dealer, which introduced a young guitarist named Larry Coryell. It’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDPmO1VNVJI.

When he visited the White House in 2004, Chico demonstrated his signature mallet-on-toms style in a solo that can be enjoyed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzJ1Pls0n5Q.

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Happy Birthday Bill!

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

by Fred W. Gretsch

This coming July 13th is an important date to me. It’s the 90th birthday of Bill Hagner—a gentleman who figures highly in the history of Gretsch musical-instrument manufacturing. In fact, for many years Bill was personally responsible for seeing that that manufacturing was conducted smoothly and efficiently.

Bill started working at Gretsch on December 1, 1941—six days prior to Pearl Harbor day. In a 2009 interview with Gretsch Family publicist Rick Van Horn, Bill recalls, “I had just finished high school, and I answered an ad in the paper for someone to work in the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. I was essentially a clerk. One day I went in to the office of Phil Nash, who was a vice president, and he said to me, ‘I want to tell you something right from the start: Someday this is going to be big company. So I advise you, if you have any interest [in a career], learn what you’re doing and stay with it.” Bill took Mr. Nash’s advice to heart.

Because he was working for Gretsch in 1941, young Bill had the opportunity to interact with my grandfather Fred Gretsch Sr. during the last year that Grandpa was running the company. In that same 2009 interview Bill tells the following story about one such interaction: “Fred Gretsch Sr. came in one day and showed me a little piece of chrome-plated metal, about three inches long. He said, ‘I took this off of a can opener. Some day you’re going to need a piece just like this to use as a throw-off for a snare strainer.’ That’s the foresight this man had.”

One of Bill’s early jobs was to prepare the payroll for the factory workers. All jobs were done as “piece work” at the time, and Bill had to review and approve individual pay slips for each job. When he didn’t understand an operation that was being paid for, he’d go to the worker and say, “Explain what you’re doing to me.” In that way he eventually became knowledgeable about every operation taking place—preparing him to become plant manager down the road.

During World War II American industry turned much of its efforts toward war-related production, and Gretsch was no exception. Speaking of these days in Chet Falzerano’s Gretsch Drums, The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” Bill recalls, “We manufactured musical instruments during the day, till 5:00 p.m. Then I set up a night shift to work till 1 a.m. making wooden parts for gas masks. We made one-inch-wide hoops, like for a bass drum, but only ten to twelve inches in diameter. They were used in the bottom and top sections of the gas mask. Those were the only war products that we made. We also manufactured musical instruments for the government.”

Bill remained with Gretsch after the war, eventually becoming plant manager at the Brooklyn factory at 60 Broadway. The 1950s and early 60s were heady days for Gretsch drums, with great endorsers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams on the jazz side, and future superstars Charlie Watts and Phil Collins on the rock side. Those drummers would visit the factory, and Bill would give them the grand tour, showing them every detail of how their drums were made.

When my uncle, Fred Gretsch Jr., sold the company to Baldwin in 1967, Bill stayed on. He eventually moved to Booneville, Arkansas when the drum factory was relocated there. But after operations were established by Baldwin, they brought in their own people to run things. Bill found himself transferred to Baldwin’s Cincinnati, Ohio headquarters as Sales Manager.

Bill Reading Gretsch Drums, The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound” by Chet Falzerano

In Chet Falzerano’s book Bill recalls, “[Baldwin] really didn’t have anybody familiar with the drum situation. From there on it went downhill. About a year later Baldwin’s vice president in charge of all their factories came to me in Cincinnati and said, ‘You know Bill, I have to apologize. I should have let you run [the Booneville factory] the way you ran it in Brooklyn.’ It was really a nice thing to say, but it was too late.”

Bill eventually left the Baldwin Company, and for a short time he manufactured his own line of drums. But marketing problems impeded his start-up efforts, and his venture was not successful. So for a while he took his talents out of the music business completely.

Meanwhile, under Baldwin’s management Gretsch’s fortunes continued to decline. By 1983 they were looking to sell the company altogether. Baldwin’s loss became my gain in January of 1985, when we formally closed a deal that returned the Gretsch Company to family ownership. This was the realization of a dream for me.

Shortly thereafter I wanted to move drum-making operations out of Arkansas and into Ridgeland, South Carolina—where the Gretsch USA drum factory is still located today. Who better to help me in that effort than Bill Hagner? I got in touch with Bill, who was living in Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the time. He offered his services to help in the move of both machinery and inventory. That help proved invaluable in getting the drum-making operation up and running in its new home.

All in all, Bill Hagner spent fifty-eight years associated with Gretsch. His contributions over those years are a significant part of the Gretsch legacy. So, on behalf of the Gretsch Family and all Gretsch fans everywhere, I want to say, “Thanks, Bill…and Happy Birthday!”

Fred W. Gretsch

Bill Hagner

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