Leon “Chu” Berry (1908-1941) graduated from Lincoln High School, in Wheeling, then attended West Virginia State College, near Charleston, for three years. His stepsister 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."
"It might have been," said the poet, are the saddest of words. In a way, that is part of the story of Leon "Chu" Berry, a Wheeling native who during his short life became the jazz world's dominant tenor saxophone player.
Had Berry's life not been cut short when he died at age 33 as the result of an automobile accident, he probably could have become the most significant jazz saxophonist of the 20th century.
But what he did achieve was enough. Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, says of Berry, "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."
Even today, Branford Marsalis, James Carter and other leading young exponents of the tenor saxophone mention "Chu" prominently among their musical ancestors.
"Chu" Berry was born in Wheeling on Sept. 13, 1908, the son of Brown Berry and Maggie Glasgow Berry. He died on Oct. 31, 1941, near Conneaut Lake, Ohio, as the result of injuries he received in an accident three days earlier while a passenger in an auto, taking members of the Cab Calloway Band to Canada for a job. (Curtis Johnson, WHOF, OCPL for Legendary Locals of Wheeling)
Chuberry Jam: Chu Berry and his Stompy Stevedores, 1937
— from the Wheeling Intelligencer, Nov. 1, 1941.
LEON BERRY RITES SUNDAY AFTERNOON
Obsequies will be conducted in Simpson Methodist church Sunday afternoon at 2:30 o'clock for Leon (Chu) Berry, 33, native of this city and featured saxophonist with Cab Calloway's orchestra, who was fatally hurt in an automobile accident near Conneaut, Ohio, early Monday.
Rev. Mapson F. Hayling, church pastor, will officiate and burial is to follow in Peninsula cemetery.
"Chu" Berry, as he was known, had been connected with prominent dance bands over a period of years. The Calloway orchestra had just completed an engagement at Conneaut Lake Sunday night and Berry and another member of the group were en route to Toronto, Canada, to fill an engagement when the accident occurred. Their car struck a stone bridge abutment during a heavy fog.
Berry is survived by his wife, his mother, one sister, a step-daughter and a stepgrandson.
The body will remain in the Kepner chapel until 2 o'clock Sunday afternoon when it will be taken to the church.
— from the Afro American (Baltimore) Nov. 8, 1941, p. 14:
Thousands Attend Last Rites for Chu Berry at Wheeling
Death Ends His Career
Funeral for Saxophonist Held Sunday
WHEELING, W.Va. -- Finis was written to a brilliant career Sunday with the funeral and interment here of Leon (Chu) Berry, former saxophonist in Cab Calloway's band.
Mr. Berry died Thursday of injuries sustained in an automobile crash on Monday fifteen miles from Conneaut, Ohio, when a car in which he was riding skidded during a heavy fog and crashed into the end of a steel bridge.
Suffered Fractured Skull
Physicians at Brown Memorial Hospital attributed his death to a fractured skull and other internal injuries.
Funeral services were held at the Simpson Church with the Rev. Mr. Hayling officiating. Interment took place in the Peninsula cemetery.
He is survived by his wife, Mrs. Geraldine Berry; mother, Mrs. Margaret Berry, and sister, Miss Anne Berry. Pallbearers were: Duncan Hill, John James, Charles Scott, William Riley, James Wood and Wilkes Kinney.
Cab Comes by Plane
Calloway, who came by plane from Rochester, N.Y., to attend the funeral, was visibly touched. He expressed deep regrets over the loss of the greatest member of his band. Cab also stated that Chu would always be a member of my band.
The band contributed a floral design shaped as a heart, while Cab's personal design was a spray of lilies that covered the entire casket. Numerous other pieces banked the whole front of the church.
Thousands Pass Bier
More than a thousand persons viewed the remains and hundreds of cars were in the funeral procession.
Among out of towners attending the rites were: Mrs. E.S. Campbell, her three sons, and daughter, Mrs. Irene Erskine of Williamson; Mr and Mrs. John James, Huntington; Perry Smith, Aspin Wall, Pa.; Wm. Wood, Huntington; Mrs. Katherine Kennedy, Nashville, Tenn., mother-in-law; Mr and Mrs. Oswald Kennedy and Mr and Mrs. Harold Grave, all of Pittsburgh.
Second to Hawkins
Generally recognized in hot jazz circles as second only to Coleman Hawkins on his instrument, he came into prominence in the middle 1930s with the rise in popularity of swing. A college graduate from West Virginia, he was given the designation of Chu from his way of working the saxophone mouthpiece between his lips on a hot chorus, much in the manner of a person chewing.
Cab Believes Berry Had Premonition
WHEELING, W.Va. -- Did Leon (Chu) Berry have a premonition of his untimely death?
At least Cab Calloway thinks so.
He revealed that the ill-fated car in which Chu was riding came within three feet of having an accident at a railroad crossing Sunday night.
Leon, Cab said, told him after that he was nervous while riding with the driver of the car. I couldn't understand after he had that feeling why he would ride in the same car, Cab added.
Cab received news of Berry's death while playing before 5000 people in Toronto, Canada, where the band was en route when the accident occurred. He worked four hours without letting the band know of Chu's death.
He stopped the band twenty minutes before the close of the engagement and made the announcement, after which the band played God Save the King.
Calloway announced that hereafter the band members would have to travel in the band bus or not at all.
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