Leon Brown "Chu" Berry (September 13, 1908,[1] Wheeling, West Virginia – October 30, 1941,[2] Conneaut, Ohio) was an American swing tenor saxophonist.



Considering the brevity of Chu's life, and that his recording career spans a mere decade, it is remarkable that his name continues to loom large in the annals of jazz. Had he lived, there is no doubt that he would be ensconced in the jazz pantheon alongside Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. He was that good. – Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University
Berry got his much-misspelled moniker (Choo, Chew) from musicians, because he chewed on his mouthpiece or had Fu Manchu facial hair or both. – Gary Giddins, jazz historian[3]

Early lifeEdit

Berry graduated from Lincoln High School, in Wheeling, then attended West Virginia State College, near Charleston, for three years.[4] His sister Ann played piano and Chu became interested in music at an early age, playing alto saxophone at first with local bands. He was inspired to take up the tenor sax after hearing Coleman Hawkins on tour. Although Berry based his style on Hawkins' playing, the older man regarded Berry as his equal, saying "'Chu' was about the best."

Big Band CareerEdit

Most of Chu Berry's career was spent in the sax sections of major swing bands:[5]

"Although it has been stated in some publications that Chu Berry joined Count Basie's orchestra, this is erroneous. He did not take the place of Herschel Evans, but did, however, deputize for him at a recording date..."[6]

Session PlayerEdit

Throughout his brief career, Chu Berry was in demand as a sideman for recording sessions under the names of various other jazz artists, including Spike Hughes (1933), Bessie Smith (1933), The Chocolate Dandies (1933), Mildred Bailey (1935–1938), Teddy Wilson (1935–1938), Billie Holiday (1938–1939), Wingy Manone (1938–1939) and Lionel Hampton (1939).

During the period 1934-1939, while saxophone pioneer Coleman Hawkins was playing in Europe, Chu Berry was one of several younger tenor saxophonists, such as Budd Johnson, Ben Webster and Lester Young who vied for supremacy on their instrument. Berry's mastery of advanced harmony and his smoothly-flowing solos on uptempo tunes influenced such young innovators as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The latter named his first son Leon in Chu's honor.[7] Chu Berry was one of the jazz musicians who took part in jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse in New York City which led to the development of bebop.

"Christopher Columbus", which Berry composed with lyrics by Andy Razaf, was the last important hit recording of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, recorded in 1936. It is one of the most popular riff tunes from the swing era. It was incorporated into Jimmy Mundy's arrangement of Sing, Sing, Sing for Benny Goodman's band. This was used as the final showstopper in Goodman's first Carnegie Hall jazz concert of January 16, 1938.

As leader of recorded sessions Edit

While Berry was in various bands, 4 sessions were organized with Chu Berry as leader:

  • March 23, 1937 yielding 4 songs for Variety Records (2 of which were subsequently issued on Vocalion in early 1938)
  • September 10, 1937 yielding 4 songs for Variety (2 of which were subsequently issued on Vocalion in early 1938 and 2 were initially rejected and subsequently issued on a dubbed Columbia 78 in 1947)
  • November 11, 1928 yielded 4 sides for Commodore
  • September 1941 yielded 4 sides for Commodore

Death Edit

On October 27, 1941, Berry was travelling by car between gigs in Brookfield, Ohio and Toronto. Visibility was poor due to heavy fog. Approximately 15 miles from Conneaut, Ohio, the car in which he was a passenger skidded and crashed into the end of a steel bridge. Berry sustained a fractured skull and other internal injuries in the automobile accident. He was taken to Brown Memorial Hospital in Conneaut, where he died on October 30, 1941 aged 33 years.[8]

Berry was survived by his wife, Mrs. Geraldine Berry; mother, Mrs. Margaret Berry, and sister, Miss Anne Berry. Over a thousand persons viewed Berry's coffin before his funeral at the Simpson Church. Cab Calloway came by plane from Rochester, N.Y. to attend the funeral.[8] The pallbearers were: Duncan Hill, John James, Charles Scott, William Riley, James Wood and Wilkes Kinney. Hundreds of cars were in the funeral procession towards Peninsula Cemetery in Wheeling, West Virginia where Berry's remains were initially interred. In 1964, due to construction work on the I-70 Wheeling Tunnel thoroughfare, his remains were exhumed and moved to nearby Mt. Zion Cemetery. His remains now rest in an unmarked grave in a grassy knoll section of the cemetery.[9]

Author Jack Kerouac was a Chu Berry fan, referring to him as "the great Chu Berry" near the beginning of The Subterraneans.

The "Chu Berry" SaxophoneEdit


"Chu Berry" is the unofficial name[10] of a series of saxophones produced by the C.G. Conn company during the 1920s, though it is more accurate to refer to them as the Conn 'New Wonder' Series II. Even then significant ambiguity remains.

Firstly, C.G.Conn never used the term "Chu Berry" to refer to any of their saxophones. Furthermore, Berry actually played a model of tenor sax generally known as the Conn "Transitional",[11] and is not known to have ever played a New Wonder Series II.[12][13] Some saxophone owners (particularly on eBay[14]) use the term "Chu Berry" in reference to any Conn saxophone made between 1910 and the mid-1930s, including soprano, alto, baritone and C melody saxophones, none of which Berry played.

Unfortunately, the term "Chu Berry saxophone" is misleading (and therefore potentially meaningless) because it has no accurate and universally agreed definition. This easily causes confusion e.g. to non-experts the Conn New Wonder Series II looks very similar to the New Wonder Series I or the "New Invention" model of circa 1910. To complicate matters further, there was no abrupt cut-off point between the New Wonder Series II and the 6M or 10M. Instead, there was a gradual evolution in the design. Between 1930 and 1934 (approximately serial numbers 244700 to 260999) Conn manufactured around 17,000 "Transitional" (or "cross-over") models. Most of these so-called "Transitional" saxophones were altos and they combine some features of the New Wonder Series II with others from the later Conn 6M (alto) and 10M (tenor) designs - in varying percentages. For example, early transitionals can be 80/20 New Wonder II and 10M, others are 60/40 or 50/50, whilst the later ones are 30/70 etc.

Suffice to say a number of progressively different transitional Conn saxophones were produced as designs evolved. Sometimes these design differences are obvious e.g. early transitional models have split bell-keys compared to later ones with the single-sided 6M and 10M bell-key layout, whilst both types may have a "nail-file" G# key.[15] A more subtle difference is that very late-production transitionals have a Conn 10M "shot glass" style octave-key vent on the neck as opposed to the earlier dome-shaped octave vent found on the New Wonder II.[16] When examining early-model transitional saxophones the differences can be quite minor (closely resembling the New Wonder Series II, except for having a modified high E-key on the side) and therefore detailed background knowledge is required to correctly identify them. Unless the owner knows which design features to look for, both early and late-model Conn transitionals can be misidentified under the all-encompassing label of "Chu Berry saxophone". As a result, the official Conn model names used by the manufacturer are preferred, because there is a clear, accurate definition and therefore the possibility of misunderstanding is much reduced.


Although Chu Berry's recording career spanned less than a decade, he is well represented on record.[17]


Ten selected 78rpm sidesEdit

Selected sideman appearancesEdit

  • Count Basie, Complete Decca Recordings, GRP Decca, ca. 1937-1939 recordings
  • Count Basie, Swingsation, GRP, ca. 1937-1939 recordings
  • Benny Goodman, The Centennial Collection, RCA, ca. 1936-1938 recordings
  • Lionel Hampton, Hot Mallets, RCA Bluebird, 1939 recordings
  • Lionel Hampton, Tempo and Swing, RCA Bluebird, 1939 recordings
  • Lionel Hampton, Ring Dem Bells, RCA Bluebird, 1939 recordings
  • Fletcher Henderson, Ken Burns Jazz, Sony, ca. 1936 recordings
  • Fletcher Henderson, Wrappin It Up, Quadramania, ca. 1936 recordings
  • Bille Holiday, The Essential Billie Holiday, Columbia, 1933-1939, recordings
  • Teddy Wilson, The Noble Art of Teddy Wilson, ASV, ca. 1935-1939 recordings


  1. Although some sources give a 1910-09-13 birth date, Chu was enumerated 1910-04-15 in the United States census at 1002 Chapline Street in Wheeling, a 19-month-old child living with his parents Brown and Margaret Berry – "". (a subscription site). Retrieved 2009-10-16. 
  2. Berry's death date also appears differently in various sources. However, his death certificate clearly lists his death as occurring 7:30 AM, October 30, 1941, in Brown Memorial Hospital, Conneaut, Ohio, as the result of a skull fracture incurred in an accident at 12:35 AM, October 27. The informant is his wife Ann. The certificate lists his middle name as Brown, gives his birth date as September 13, 1908, and gives his parents' names and birthplaces. – "FamilySearch Record Search". Retrieved 2009-06-26. 
  3. Gary Giddins. "Pilgrim's Progress". July/August 2007 Jazz Times. Retrieved 2010-09-13. 
  4. "Leon "Chu" Berry". Wheeling Hall of Fame biography. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  5. Chilton, John, Who's Who of Jazz, Storyville to Swing Street, Time-Life Records Special Edition, page 32, 1978
  6. Case, Brian, and Britt, Stan, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, Harmony Books, 1978, p.24
  7. "". Retrieved 2009-06-18. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Chu Berry Obituary." The Afro-American (Baltimore) - November 8, 1941, p. 14 From Ohio County Public Library. Retrieved April 3, 2013.
  9. Chu Berry at Find a Grave
  11. "10M Transitional". commentary. Retrieved 2009-06-25. 
  12. "New Wonder (Series II)". commentary. Retrieved 2009-06-18. 
  17. Rust, Brian, Jazz and Ragtime Records, 1897-1942, Mainspring Press, 2008.

External linksEdit



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