his colleagues, Chick Webb was a musicians’ musician. For dancers, he was their bandleader of choice. Yet, the man who drove the Savoy’s house band
is not as widely recognized alongside the Dukes and Counts of jazz royalty as
he ought to be. Surviving friends and
fans help rectify that in Jeff Kaufman’s thoroughly entertaining documentary
profile, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and
the Music that Changed America (trailer here), which screens as
part of the 50th New York Film Festival’s On the Arts sidebar.
Webb did not have much margin for error in life. He was an African American, naturally slight
of stature, whose childhood back injury led to a broken body and a short
lifetime of pain. He could play those
drums though. A reluctant bandleader,
Webb held his outfit together during some decidedly hard times, largely thanks
to the quality of his personality and music.
Eventually, they hit it big through the perfect combination of venue and
progressive management, the Savoy Ballroom was unlike other Harlem nightspots,
allowing interracial socializing. It welcomed
neighborhood residents onto its dance floor—and dance they did. The eternally youthful Frankie Manning
explains how the Chick Webb Orchestra became the band of choice for Lindy
Hoppers in general and especially for him.
In fact, it was Webb providing special rhythmic support for the first
time Manning publically unveiled his still dazzling air-steps.
familiar with Ken Burns’ Jazz will
also know the basic story of Webb’s legendary battle of the bands with Benny
Goodman. Yet, Savoy King tells it from a slightly different perspective, through
the written recollections of his friend and promoter, Helen Oakley Dance. Webb also had the distinction of giving a
band singer named Ella Fitzgerald her first big break. It all happened in thirty-four all too brief
one of the many drawbacks of dying at a young age is the difficulty of staking
one’s claim on history. Savoy King rightly does so on his behalf,
calling upon expert testimony from the likes of Manning, the impossibly cool
Roy Haynes, and trumpeter Joe Wilder, a true gentleman of jazz if ever there
was one. He also enlists an all-star
cast to give voice to the giants of the era, including Bill Cosby (a frequent
host of the Jazz Foundation of America’s Great Night in Harlem gala concerts)
fittingly cast as Webb himself. For his
colleague and favorite arranger Mario Bauzá, Andy Garcia is also about as
perfect a match as you could hope to make.
However, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald? She wishes.
King is a compelling blend
of cultural and social history that shrewdly always keeps the music prominent
in the mix. Although director-producer-writer
Kaufman fully explores Webb’s many tribulations, it is a pleasure to revisit
the early swing era in his company. Hip
and sensitive, Savoy King is an
obvious highlight of this year’s NYFF for jazz fans, but it is also highly
recommended for general audiences when it screens this Saturday (9/29) at the
Walter Reade Theater and the following Tuesday (10/2) at the Francesca Beale.
Labels: Bill Cosby, Chick Webb, Documentary, Frankie Manning, NYFF '12