Chu Berry (tenor saxophone)

LEON BERRY was born September 3, 1910 in Wheeling, West Virginia where he graduate on Lincoln High School (close to Charleston.) Leon show his interest in music at his early age, but when he heard Coleman Hawkins on tour, he became inspired to play tenor saxophone. After three years of study at the college he decided to improve himself rather as professional musician. Like many musicians at that time, he too was self-thought and launched for his professional carrier in 1924.


Berry’s real first job was with Edwards Collegians in 1929. In Chicago he switch to Sammy (Billy) Stewart’s band who start calling Leon ‘Chu-Chin-Chow’ because he thought Berry’s moustache made him look like Chinese. Soon his friends later shorted the name to ‘Chu.’


His life’s career continued in bands of Cecil Scott (1931), Benny Carter (1932), Charlie Johnson (1932-33), the famous Teddy Hill group (1933-34), Fletcher Henderson  (1935-36) and then with Cab Calloway (1937-41).

Between the years 1934 and 1939, while Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter were in Europe, young tenor players like Bud Johnson, Ben Webster and Lester Young among others, Chu Berry also emerged in front of great sound of swing. He was in great demand to sit-in for many recording sessions under famous names, such as: Spike Huges, Bessie Smith, The Chocolate Dandies, Mildred Bailey, Wingy Manone, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Allen “Hot Lips” Page, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Bunny Berigan, Red Norvo…the list of his collaboration is showing us how “hot” musician Chu Berry was.

Particularly in 1935 Henderson (Fletcher) had regained sufficient confidence to form a new band, and by the end of the year again led impressive line-up that, in January 1936, opened a lengthily residency at the Grand Theatre Ballroom in Chicago. This band, which included Roy Eldridge, Buster Bailey, Joe Thomas, Leon ‘Chu’ Berry and Israel Crosby, was the last really outstanding one that Henderson was to lead, and in ‘Christopher Columbus’ it had what was by now a rarity for the leader, a hit record.
– from ‘Big Band Jazz’ by Albert McCarthy, 1983 –


‘Right after we came out from Apollo, we went back into the studio (1939) with the whole band, and in the next three days we made ‘You Can Depend on Me’ and ‘Evil Blues’ with Jimmy Rushing; ‘Blame It on My Last Affair’ and ‘Thursday’ with Helen (Humes); two instrumentals, ‘Cherokee, Parts I and II’ (which took up both sides of ten-inch 78-RPM record they used in those days), ‘Jive at Five’ and ‘Oh Lady Be Good.’ By the way, the first tenor sax solo ‘Oh Lady Be Good’ is by Chu Berry. We borrowed Chu from Cab Calloway for that day because Hershel (Evans) didn’t feel well enough to make that session. Chu was one of very top tenor men on the scene at that time. He had been replacement for Coleman Hawkins that Fletcher Henderson had finally settled on, and he was also the mainstay of Cab’s band. Next to Cab himself, Chu was probably the best-known member of that band at that time.’
– from ‘Good Morning Blues, The autobiography of Count Basie’ As told to Albert Murray (1987)

Chu Berry was also pioneering a new music that would later be known as be-bop. His advanced harmony and his smoothly-flowing solos on uptempo tunes influenced young innovators as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.


On October 27, 1941, after playing the dance with Cab Calloway’s band in Brookfield, Ohio,  he had a car accident on a highway, where visibility was poor due to heavy fog. He had severe internal injures and a skull fracture. He was taken to Brown Memorial Hospital, Conneaut, Ohio. Here is how Danny Barker (guitar) reminiscing last memory with Chu:

‘The last time l saw Chu alive he was getting in a car going to Canada from Ohio. He asked me if l wanted to ride with the group in the car instead of the big Greyhound bus. It was after a dance and l was tired and could stretch out on the bus – a half-hour later the bus stopped on the highway. There were many night red flares on the road – an accident. The bus emptied to see what had happened. There was the car. The front smashed in, and on the roadside Chu lay unconscious. The ambulance sped up. We followed to a small hospital in this small town. They laid Chu on a bed – and l heard the attendant say “We can’t get a doctor until tomorrow morning, seven a.m.” l looked at my wrist watch – it was three a.m. We boarded the bus and speed off to Toronto, Canada.’

Three days later, on October 30 he died, age of 33.

Sound of Chu Berry will be presented for dancers at Balboa Social #10