Had Chu Berry's life not been cut short when he died at age 33 as the result of an automobile accident, who knows what might have been. But what he did achieve was enough. Considering the brevity of his 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.
Leon Chu Berry was born in Wheeling on Sept. 13, 1908, into a relatively well-to-do family that included a very musical half sister who played piano in a jazz trio that rehearsed in the Berry home, Chu's love of music and the saxophone was born.
Inspired by Coleman Hawkins (whom he heard on tour) to take up the saxophone, he played the alto instrument while at Lincoln High School in Wheeling and at West Virginia State College in Charleston. After playing with his sister for high school dances, Berry's first band experience occurred in a 15-piece group in Wheeling and a college band in Charleston. In summer 1928, Berry returned to the Ohio Valley after a year in college and joined the swingingest jazz band around, Perry's Broadway Buddies. In 1929, he received his first nationally important professional engagement when he joined the Sammy Stewart band in Columbus and Chicago. Within months he made his first foray into New York and its jazz scene. He switched from alto sax to tenor sax after he joined the Stewart band and met and performed with tenor saxophonist Cecil Scott's band.