“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.” Fletcher Henderson
Leon "Chu" Berry was one of the most prominent tenor saxophone players of the 1930's. His reputation was on a par with those swing sax players that proceeded Coleman Hawkins. Yet he possessed a very different style from Hawkins and he showed no fear in trying to push the instrument further, as jazz evolved from the New Orleans/ Chicago style in the 20's to Swing in the 30's. Berry was even present at some of the early sessions at Minton's Playhouse in New York, the time of early bebop.
He began his recording career by playing on one of the last sessions of blues legend, Mamie Smith. This more or less defined his early work, by sitting in on the sessions of Benny Carter, Spike Hughes, Teddy Wilson and Billie Holliday. The bulk of his recordings were with the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and later, Cab Calloway. He was renowned for pushing his fellow band members to new heights as he sought a way of developing his own sound and jazz music itself.
His technique was not as growling as Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster. His sound conveyed a much smoother, mellower tone with a wonderful vibrato. While Webster could display his trademark guttural sound on a high tempo number like Cotton Tail, Berry could also show his chops but with a much softer tone on a song like "Sittin' In". While I'm not saying that one song is better than the other it does prove that this was an extremely versatile instrument and that sax players of this era could express themselves in different ways. This song was from a fantastic session recorded in late 1938 with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Check it out.
The session also included Berry and Eldridge's experimental version of Body & Soul. Recorded almost a year before Hawkins' seminal version, it showed that they were not afraid of experimentation.
Chu Berry was to sadly die just a few years later at the age of 33. While touring with the Cab Calloway Band he became involved in a fatal car accident. It's a testament to his talent that, although he died so young, the body of work he left was to ensure his place among the greats of swing tenor saxophone and as a jazz pioneer.