Chu Berry: forgotten sax giant

May 10, 2014 at 11:39 am (jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy)

My old friend Michael Steinman (at Jazz Lives) reminds us of a nearly-forgotten giant of the tenor sax, Leon ‘Chu’ Berry:

Above: ‘Sittin’ In’, 1937, with spoken intro from Chu and his friend, trumpeter Roy Eldridge. The chord sequence is, of course, that of ‘Tiger Rag.’

Chu arrived in New York in 1930, and acquired his nick-name (it’s said) because his goatee beard made him look like Chu Chin Chow. His tenor playing was clearly based upon that of Coleman Hawkins, but he had his own variation on the style. Digby Fairweather (in Jazz: The Rough Guide) gives a good description of the Berry variation:

“Berry’s sound was in some ways different from his rival’s [ie Hawk’s -JD]: blowsier, fuller, with a more emotive vibrato and a strange crying sound in his frequently used upper register.”

It has been suggested that Chu isn’t remembered today because he didn’t work regularly with top-class bands (he turned down an offer to join Duke Ellington). I’m not so sure: after all, he worked for a couple of years with Fletcher Henderson’s great band, and made some fantastic records with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday and Count Basie. When he joined Cab Calloway in 1937, he immediately set about transforming the band into a top-flight jazz outfit and was responsible for the recruitment of young Dizzy Gillespie. As a member of the Calloway band, Chu recorded a classic ballad version of ‘Ghost Of A Chance’ (1940):

Chu died, aged 33, on 30 October 1941, having suffered severe head injuries in a car smash on his way to a Calloway gig four days earlier. Calloway described it as “like losing a brother, someone I had joked with and hollered at. There was quiet around the band for weeks and we left his chair empty”

As well as being a human tragedy, Berry’s death was a musical one too. His (never to be heard) best work was undoubtedly ahead of him: with his advanced harmonic sensibility and prodigious technique, he would almost certainly have adapted to bop and, like Hawkins and Webster, have become a modern-mainstream elder statesman of the 1950s and ’60s.

Happily, he was extensively recorded in the course of his short career, and his playing still amazes, as in this 1939 recording of ‘Limehouse Blues’ with Wingy Manone’s band:


  1. tomgeorgearts said,

    Thanks for this post, I hadn’t heard of him. He has an almost clarinet-like tone…btw whoever uploaded “Ghost of a Chance” has put a picture of somebody else on it. I’ve looked at several pictures of Berry online and it’s definately not him, plus the guy has an alto sax not a tenor.

    • Jim Denham said,

      I agree about the “almost clarinet-like tone” which has led earlier commentators to compare him to Bud Freeman and /or Eddie Miller.

      You’re also right about the photo accompanying ‘Ghost Of A Chance’: I too thought it didn’t look like Chu, judging by the few photos I’ve seen of him (like the one accompanying ‘Sittin’ In’.

      Yet the mystery photo looked strangely familiar…

      …thanks to Stuart Elliot for identifying the mystery alto player as Cannonball Adderley!

  2. Chu Berry: forgotten sax giant | OzHouse said,

    […] May 10 2014 by admin […]

  3. Stuart Elliott said,

    Great stuff. I’ve been aware of Chu Berry, but have not listened to his music in a systematic fashion. BTW, I think the photo in the second video, is Julian “Cannonball Adderley.” The alto, not a tenor, is a clue.

    • Matthew Thompson said,

      He was on the first track played on Jazz Record Requests last night, playing with Teddy Wilson in 1937.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Anyone who’s interested in Chu’s music and career should watch this:

    I hadn’t seen it when I wrote the post above.

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