Chick Webb’s drumbeats resonate through much of James McBride’s fast-paced new novel The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. McBride, one of America’s most beloved authors today, weaves Webb into this story early on. One of the main characters, Moshe Lublow, a Jewish immigrant theater owner in Pottstown, a Pennsylvania backwater, hires Chick Webb’s band for his All-American Dancehall and Theater. This is no transient visit. Instead, McBride, a noted musician himself, conjures up Webb’s “masterful drumming, a thunderous band shaking the floor with rip-roaring waves of gorgeous sound,” and paints Webb as a “joymaker” in this wild tale of cross-cultural mayhem and a rescue mission.
I was riveted. Not just by McBride’s description of Webb’s mesmerizing performance to a packed house, but as Webb’s biographer. Rhythm Man, the first full-length biography of the innovative Swing-era drummer/bandleader who died age 34 in June 1939, at the height of his band’s fame, came out in April 2023. Just a few months later, here comes Chick Webb, a key fictional presence in McBride’s thrilling book. These two books came out—somewhat literally—on each other’s dancing heels, though Webb hasn’t been a headliner in jazz, or pop music and dance cultural circles, for years.
This publishing coincidence posed a big question: where does fiction meet reality and why? Why is the fictional Chick even here? The main reason becomes clear soon enough. The Heaven & Earth Grocery is run by Moshe’s wife Chona, disabled since childhood from polio, with a deformed foot and lifelong limp, and Chona and the store are neighborhood lifelines. Meanwhile the real-life Chick Webb, only four feet tall with a deformed spine, was partially disabled from childhood due to spinal tuberculosis. He was a different kind of lifeline. His band was a training ground for emerging musicians at their home base at Harlem’s world-famous Savoy Ballroom, and he, like Chona, took chances on all kinds of people. They were both dynamic and compelling, and were also people with disabilities, a major theme in the novel. McBride is a master at creating characters, as well as using now-unmentionable words: “Cripples, Moshe thought, have brought me fortune: Moses, Chona, and Chick.”
In McBride’s first few chapters Webb’s role is vital for other reasons, too. He is the first Black bandleader whom Moshe hires for his dancehall/theater, an unprecedented move that engages the town’s Black residents. McBride’s descriptions of Webb’s orchestra in action with dancers are spot on, and the fictional Webb is true to life: his small stature, curved spine, white suit, and transportive drumming. While this makes Moshe’s business thrive it also stirs up trouble with the town’s white patriarchy.
Some of McBride’s jazz timeframe and details make the story a little farmisht, (Yiddish for confused or mixed up). Webb first comes to Moshe’s dancehall/theater in Pottstown in 1924, followed by other top Black big bands soon after. Historically, that’s 12 years before the big swing bands took over America’s airwaves and dance floors. Webb’s bandleading career didn’t begin until 1926 and he didn’t have a “roaring 12-piece big band” until the early 1930s, and added more horns when he could afford them. As McBride’s novel develops, 1936 is the key year in Heaven & Earth’s major storyline, when Swing really is a pop cultural force. Suddenly I was suspended between fact and fiction.
“Where does fiction meet reality and why?”
Meanwhile, there really is a Pottstown, PA, an hour’s drive northwest of Philadelphia. It’s also true that Chick Webb and his band crossed the color line numerous times in a variety of segregated and/or mixed-race venues, en route to fame, when Webb’s band with a young Ella Fitzgerald became one of the biggest acts in the country. Curiously, Ella doesn’t enter the story, though Webb helped set Ella and several other key musicians—like Louis Jordan and Mario Bauza, who do appear in this book—on their paths as musical giants and “influencers.” For McBride, the fame belongs to Chick.
Yiddishisms are sprinkled throughout Heaven & Earth, in which Jews, Blacks, and the microcosmic melting pot of Pottstown’s Chicken Hill neighborhood struggle for pieces of the American pie. McBride knows these people, places, and pastimes. He portrays Moshe as one of the most benign and conflicted Jewish entertainment “gatekeepers” that Webb ever had to negotiate with in real-time.
Webb’s presence ebbs as the novel’s main plot picks up. The story now focuses on Chicken Hill’s neighbors as they join forces to save Dodo, a deaf Black boy— another resilient and smart “cripple”—from a notorious state-run institution. I was heartbroken when Chick disappeared. McBride’s earthy magic realism had Webb popping off the pages into my head. Fortunately, he is too important a character to vanish entirely.
Webb reappears mid-way through the book. Moshe calls Chick for help when Louis Armstrong cancels a date as headliner. Moshe had heard rumors that Webb was sick. So is Chona, who is lying in a coma in the nearest hospital. Chick is happy to help Moshe out and suggests another band since his can’t fill in. Now. Moshe is heartbroken when he realizes that Webb, “his old pal… the wonderful hunchbacked musical genius, was very ill. ‘Get Mario Bauza and his Afro-Cubans,’ Webb croaked over the phone. ‘They’re fantastic.’”
Once again, McBride derails jazz history with fictionalized backstage scenes that are still true-to-life. Bauza accepts Moshe’s last-minute gig, but just before show-time has a screaming argument with Gladys Hampton, Lionel Hampton’s wife and manager, over whose band was supposed to be the main act. In “reality,” Hampton didn’t start his own band until 1940, encouraged by Gladys, a tough business woman but no tempest. Bauza, one of Webb’s key sidemen from 1933-38, didn’t become the leader of the Afro-Cubans, featuring famous Cuban vocalist Machito, until the early 1940s, after Webb passed away. By then, Afro-Cuban jazz was becoming a musical force.
Reading on, I no longer care who plays with whom, or what year it is. McBride captures the personalities, conflicts, rivalries, and stakes of the music world, and crams these Webb-related musicians under the same fictional roof. This was liberating for me, after studiously “mapping” Webb’s itinerary by poring over hundreds and hundreds of newspaper ads and entertainment columns for years. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store hurtles to its finale and Dodo escapes to safety. Though some real-time jazz-historical details go off the rails, it’s a powerful novel, true to Webb’s powerful life and spirit.
Featured image by John Matychuk on Unsplash (public domain)