Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums

Sleeping Bear. Jan. 2021. 32p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781534110977.
K-Gr 3–William Henry “Chick” Webb, a Black drummer born in the early 1900s in East Baltimore, MD, had spinal tuberculosis, but his rhythmic skills carried him to the heights of jazz music. Called “chicken” for his posture, Webb embraced the epithet, turning it into his lifelong nickname, “Chick.” When he was a child, Webb fell down the stairs and needed an operation. Following the surgery, a doctor instructed Webb to practice drumming to strengthen his arms. He practiced with wooden spoons because his mother couldn’t afford to buy drumsticks. When Webb was nine or 10, he sold newspapers on the street and was eventually able to pay for his own sticks, and later a drumset. As a teenager, he was hired to play in bands, though he couldn’t read music. On the advice of Duke Ellington, he formed his own band and hired Ella Fitzgerald as lead singer. Shortly, he was performing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem where thousands danced to his swing beat. He competed in band competitions, losing to his old friend Ellington but besting Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing.” Webb became the “King of Drums.” Donohue tells this inspiring story smoothly and succinctly, with lively language. Freeman’s animated digital illustrations are filled with musical symbols. Integrated crowds watch the young newsboy twirling his drumsticks; years later Black and white club patrons dance to his beat at the Savoy. An author’s note explains more about swing jazz and Chick’s physical issues and short life.
VERDICT An upbeat addition to biographical picture book collections.

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