Near the end of his eight years as a recording-session musician, tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry landed a short-lived spot with Count Basie’s orchestra. Standing in for one of the Basie band’s two tenor giants, Herschel Evans, who had developed a heart ailment, Berry took a lead solo on “Oh, Lady Be Good,” the 1924 Gershwin song that Basie had played for years. In the 28 seconds that the solo lasted on February 4, 1939, we are treated to no less than the musical personification of mind and body working together in divine tandem. When you hear the recording for the first time, you’re likely to wonder why you’ve never heard of Chu Berry before.
At the time, Berry, 31, was also a member of Cab Calloway’s band, a group that increasingly favored novelty numbers. Working in an act helmed by Mr. Hi De Ho, he had not been given particularly generous solo time. During numbers like “Penguin Swing” and “Peck-A-Doodle-Do,” a place at the far back of the stage wouldn’t have been out of order for Berry.
Nineteen thirty-nine was also the year that Coleman Hawkins, every tenor player’s idol, would cut a signature performance of “Body and Soul.” Together, Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” and Berry’s “Oh, Lady Be Good” made 1939 the year the tenor sax came into its own.
Berry was on the rotund side. He wore his pants ridiculously high, as if he’d acquired his fashion sense from Oliver Hardy. We can see this in the photographs in a booklet that comes with the recently released seven-disk collection Classic Chu Berry Columbia and Victor Sessions (Mosaic Records). The Basie band recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good” isn’t included in the Mosaic set, but it’s easy to find—you can buy Basie at Starbucks these days. However, you will discover most of Berry’s other important recordings, the music that rescues him from the era’s morass of ensemble hackwork.
Why you’ve never heard of him is pretty simple: a lot of hard-core jazz buffs don’t know much about him. Berry was a solid session player who turns up on recordings with Basie, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, and Billie Holiday. But he did not cut many sessions himself as a leader, and when he soloed, he worked within the recording constraints of the era and the swing genre—fast-moving 78s with solos often lasting for a mere 32 beats.
The people who loved Berry were, not surprisingly, other tenor players, a situation leading to the dreaded “musician’s musician” tag. But that’s not nearly praise enough to describe Chu Berry, who, when given opportunity, displayed a musical dexterity that would be envied by future generations of horn men with unlimited solo time at their disposal on LPs.
Berry faced the lot of other horn players: having to grind it out long and hard until something memorable burst through; the horrible sound of shellac disks; the prejudices and expectations of the listening public; and the accepted wisdom of what is and isn’t art in a given medium. In this case, swing was fodder for dance parties, not music worthy of study.
Oddly enough, Berry’s geniality might help explain his failure to court history’s favor: it wasn’t in his nature to call attention to himself or his playing. Born in 1908 into the black middle class in Wheeling, West Virginia, the laid-back, affable Berry was one of the few black jazz musicians of his era to go to college. He attended West Virginia State in Charleston, where he switched from alto sax to tenor and exhibited the willingness to fit in that characterized his presence in so many dance bands. He was the rare artist who refused to put his interests above those of the band, even if that meant playing ensemble passages rather than taking a healthy allotment of solo breaks.
College proved a training ground for Berry the bandsman, as he teamed up with a number of amateur outfits. He never played simply to show off. Instead, he tried to bring out the positive attributes in any given situation or setting. Later, when Berry is performing with the Calloway ensemble, we hear some ragged, out-of-tune playing until Berry’s first few solo notes emerge. The other players, no longer languidly blowing through their charts, immediately surge up behind him, all fighting-fit. Once Berry finishes his solo, the shenanigans resume.
After making his way to New York, Berry immediately became a presence and soon was in demand. The great jazz orchestras of the swing era were fronted by musical directors/arrangers—Duke Ellington was preeminent—who drew the acclaim. The sidemen were musical traveling salesmen who sold someone else’s wares in the best style they could manage. Fletcher Henderson was a wreck as a businessman and could be a mess as a bandleader, but it was with Henderson that Berry began to ditch some of the sideman’s subservient trappings. For starters, Henderson wrote in keys that were rare for the jazz orchestras of the day, and his somber, indigo-inflected voicings were ideal for a player of Berry’s introspective approach to his instrument: Berry sounds as if he’s being swallowed by his sax. “Blues in C Sharp Minor,” for instance, is odd, haunting, and ultimately relaxing, once you let it cast its spell. A Berry solo in it is slightly off mike, making the listener feel as though he’s been playing for some time before we finally hear him. The effect is unnerving, as if we weren’t playing close attention.
Bandleader “Wingy” Manone sometimes saluted Berry midsong. On Manone’s 1939 recording of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” for instance, the leader yells, “Here comes that Satan with that saxophone; blow it out there, boy!” prompting Berry to tear it up in the honking, jive-crazy style that hard blower Illinois Jacquet would soon make popular. Berry was no mere balladeer—no style was beyond his ken, a trait that doubtless appealed to a future Berry aficionado like John Coltrane as he embarked on his own grand musical quest.
Berry died in 1941 while on the road. Sixteen months earlier, in June 1940, Calloway granted Berry a showcase piece, “A Ghost of a Chance,” the sole recording in Berry’s career to feature him from start to finish. It was his “Body and Soul,” a response to Hawkins’s famous recording, intended not as a riposte to a rival, but as the other half of a dialogue. Its rubato lines are disembodied from the music meant to accompany it, which is spartan to begin with. This may be Berry’s one and only instance of indulgence on a record, a cathedral of a solo in its flourishes, angles, ornamentations, reflexivity. If sunlight could pass through music, “A Ghost of a Chance” would funnel it out in the broadest spectrum of colors.
Berry was a leading practitioner of what was often thought a lost cause because of the sheer difficulty of getting beyond the genre trappings of swing—or at least what record buyers of the era expected. If he painted on a large canvas mostly covered by the work of others, the small space that was his was marked with an artistry that managed to redeem the whole.
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