LEON “CHU” BERRY
by Loren Schoenberg
“Chu was a big guy and he sometimes wore glasses that hung on the end of his nose. His suits never quite fit him right and he had a way of half-smiling and looking down his nose at you through those glasses. And when he got up on that bandstand and opened up on that horn. Lord.”
“He’s one of the fastest, most inventive and creative minds that has ever been in my band. He doesn’t set his choruses, he continually bobbing up with something he hasn’t done before.”
“What you must realize, John, is that he was so young when he died, we’ll never know just how great he might have become.”
Roy Eldridge (to John Chilton)
“Chu was a genius.”
Coleman Hawkins (to Dan Morgenstern)
Chu Berry died young, and he died before great attention was being paid to jazz musicians, so there is far less data about his early years than there is about the great majority of his contemporaries who lived longer lives. All we have are a handful of contemporary newspaper pieces and the various interviews with and articles written about the people he was associated with. Leon “Chu” Berry was a large man, a Southern man born into a world that offered diminished opportunities for African-Americans and yet here is a collection of his work being issued over six decades after his death early one morning on an Ohio highway. Why? Because Berry mastered an instrument and, through the tenor saxophone, speaks not only to us today but also takes us right back to the 1930s, a time of momentous change in the world and in jazz, which was evolving at an exponential rate. Young musicians had the opportunity to excel as improvisers, expand their technical and musical mastery, AND to be rewarded in a commercial context.
Leon Berry hailed from Wheeling, West Virginia where he was born on September 13, 1908, within a year of his peers Lester Young and Ben Webster. His parents, Brown Berry and Maggie Glasgow Berry, nurtured a musical environment at home; one of Leon’s half-sisters played the piano in a jazz trio, and this is said to have helped spur young Leon’s appetite for music. But it was hearing Coleman Hawkins (who came from a similarly comfortable middle-class background) with Fletcher Henderson’s band in the mid-‘20s, that was the decisive factor in heading Leon towards a career in music. He played alto saxophone in high school, and picked up the tenor saxophone during his years at West Virginia State College in Charleston. He was also a gifted athlete with potential as a professional football player, but music came first. There were tours with various bands (Perry Smith, Fleming Huff and Edward’s Collegians) in his native Ohio Valley area, which led to his first major professional break, a spot in Sammy Stewart’s band. Pianist Stewart had first come to fame in Columbus, Ohio and eventually made a tremendous hit in Chicago in the mid-‘20s. Their forte was sweet music, with an emphasis on semi-classics and an approach that resembled that of Paul Whiteman’s band. Louis Armstrong auditioned for Stewart when he left King Oliver, but thought he wasn’t “dicty” enough for them. Berry joined Stewart in 1929, around the same time as drummer Sidney Catlett which improved the band’s jazz quotient and they soon afterwards went to New York for engagements at the Savoy Ballroom, as well as the Arcadia.