LEON “CHU” BERRY (1908-1941)

A holy artifact from the Larry Rafferty Collection:


I can’t write the dialogue here, “Mister Berry, could I have one of your used reeds and could you autograph it for me?” but it obviously happened and it feels sacred to those of us who understand the power of Chu.

Because he has been gone nearly seventy-five years (victim of an automobile accident in 1941) Chu has been eclipsed.  But Charlie Parker named his firstborn son Leon in Chu’s honor, and Sonny Rollins has told young musicians asking for advice on tenor players, “Listen to Chu Berry!”

We can still do that: SITTIN’ IN, recorded for the Commodore Music Shop in November 1938, with Chu, his friend Roy Eldridge,trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Sidney Catlett, drums.  It’s based on a strain from TIGER RAG and — although very brief — allows us to hear Chu’s speaking voice as well as his energetic tenor style:

To think of his early death is so sad. Yet he left us so much, if we can only hear it.

May your happiness increase!

22 responses to “LEON “CHU” BERRY (1908-1941)

  1. Chu’s legacy lives on also in the nickname for the Conn tenor sax he favored. The mid 1920s-early 30s model horn with “elephant ear” keys (one on each side of the bell) is best known today as the Chu Berry tenor.

  2. I hope the people who see this listing on eBay (as I have) find out for themselves who Chu Berry is!

  3. Joanne Horton

    Speaking of the wonderful Chu-Bob has finally giving up on tenor & is ready to sell his gold plated ‘Chu Berry’Conn tenor .Bob also wrote a tune dedicated to him on his ‘Four Tenors’ album-‘Bean’ (A tribute to Coleman Hawkins!!)

  4. Pingback: LEON "CHU" BERRY (1908-1941) | Jazz P...

  5. I’ve always considered CB a true TITAN among tenor-types… a first-generation Synthesis of two of the Tenor Fundamentalists, of which there are 3: Hawkins, Teschmacher, and the nearly forgotten Bud Freeman. Chu Berry is probably the only successful, recorded exponent of a hybridized Hawkins-Freeman soloist– and one of my very favorites. Elephant ears and all!

  6. Michael Burgevin

    Thank you… been so many years since I heard this record… nice to know the details of the Chu Berry tenor as well.

  7. I love this recording by Chu – but have never been able to understand what he actually says at the beginning of the track: Can anyone help ?

  8. Very approximately, because Chu wasn’t concerned about an actor’s enunciation. I’d guess it was Milt Gabler’s little script:

    Chu: “Me and Horace worked tonight, I ain’t tired. Let’s go and play some [more].”
    Roy: “Where you want to go, Chu?”
    Chu: “Go down to the Subway.”
    Roy: “Who’s working down there?”
    Chu: “I’s working down there. Man you know . . . hours [?]. That cat’s swinging out already. Come on, Jazz, get your horn out. Let’s go.”

  9. It isn’t “I’s workin’ down there….”
    it’s: “CLYDE’S….”
    Meaning Clyde Hart…. Get it together!

  10. I knew someone would leap to the cause of Accuracy. Thanks, Dennis.

  11. Thanks Michael! Chu Berry was “the Sax man”. His recordings w/ Bunny Berrigan and Fletcher Henderson Orchestras are timeless. My G
    Grandpa performed with him too!
    Love the autographed reed!

  12. Don’t forget Chu’s great work with Wingy Manone in 1939, especially his heroic solo on Limehouse Blues (an interesting comparison with his 1937 version with Lips page: this was obviously a developing routine). Best of all, though, must be his July1941 recording of Ghost Of A Chance, wiih Cab Calloway’s band – a virtuoso ballad performance to rival Hawkins’s Body And Soul. Too bad that Chu was killed just three months later in a car crash. Had he lived, think what Norman Granz would have done with (and for) him, and he’d now be remembered alongside Hawkins and Webster. As the hawk said, “Chu was about the best.”

  13. Matt Glaser

    I always thought it was “as hard as we worked tonight,i ain’t even tired”

  14. Makes sense. I always puzzled over “Horace,” myself. Thanks, Matt. We know Gabriel likes Chu’s music . . .

  15. Thanks for all replies to my question: Chu’s first sentence is the one that is very hard to understand. I think it could end with “…let’s go (followed by one word/verb I don’t understand) to a place to swing” before Roy’s question.
    Not that it matters, really – the music does and it is just marvelous. Mentioning fine recordings with Chu Berry, his two extended tracks with Charlie Ventura should not be forgotten: They show just how much Ventura owed to Berry !

  16. Pingback: Chu Berry: forgotten sax giant | OzHouse

  17. Chu Berry was born and raised in my home town, Wheeling,W.Va.His name and reputation certainly bares repeating for his short span. Thanks,
    Doug Wayt

  18. matt glaser

    “let’s go someplace and swing”

  19. Pingback: LEON “CHU” BERRY (1908-1941), Sonny Rollins music

  20. His last name of Berry is not African. His ancestors took the name from slaveowners. His real African name is lost.

  21. Pingback: The "Mabel Files": Part 6 - Weelunk

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