The Savoy King and the Music That Changed America
Directed by Jeff Kaufman
(USA, 2012, 88 minutes)
Saturday, June 9, 6:00 p.m. at Harvard Exit
Sunday, June 10, 3:00 p.m. at Harvard Exit
In Baltimore, about a century ago, little Chick Webb busted out running to see his beloved grandmother and fell down the stairs. He got tuberculosis in his back, and though he had a loving mother, his father had taken off, and the small boy would stay smaller than everyone else around him his whole life, hunchbacked and in constant pain.
What this vexed, maimed, sick young man did for almost three decades more though was completely unpredictable, considering his condition. Webb took up the drums and carried everyone else around him with high hopes and good humor, inspiring good friends like guitarist John Trueheart to join him in a lifelong mission of music; building up a brilliant big band for Ella Fitzgerald; and giving cats like Count Basie a run for their money.
Through it all he was very ill, but he helped turn his new home Harlem from a place where Blacks couldn’t even get a job at Woolworth’s into a promised land of gorgeous jazz and ladies and dapper gents through his work heading the house band at live music venue The Savoy. Despite society’s segregation, there were no curfew laws “to dampen the spirit” in the neighborhood, and the club was the first to let all races walk together through the front doors.
All of this buzzed along by the incredible drumming, band-leading, and ambassadorship of whom Jellyroll Morton called “a little tiger.” (Morton and Webb would hang out on the streets and play their own version of the dozens, directed at each other’s musical talents.) The Savoy King and the Music That Changed America director Jeff Kaufman’s forte is usually documentaries for Amnesty International, which doesn’t give much of a hint of his ability to really put on a show for this biopic. His pulling in of actors and actors Bill Cosby, Charlie Watts, Janet Jackson, even Oxbow’s Eugene Robinson (!), and Ron Perlman to perform the interviews from Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Basie, Webb himself, and many others describing the challenges and excitement of making swing shows a great understanding of how to entertain, excite, and educate, all at the same time.
It all spins and dances around photos and playing of the inventively percussive Webb, who started out playing skillets and washboards with tin pan musicians back in Baltimore, selling 4,000 newspapers every day to buy his drum kit, and at eleven loved to bust into nightclubs to sit in and play with much older musicians. He made his own drumsticks at first, and as he put his band together, “spent every nickel on arrangements” to keep up with the latest in swing. He picked his own musicians because other bandleaders rejected him for the way he looked -- he was tiny, the hump on his back was huge, and he couldn’t walk very well. But he made a great big noise and got to know everyone he needed to know after he and his mentor Trueheart moved to Harlem; the latter working any day jobs he could while Webb made the rounds in the music scene. Duke Ellington met him and was quoted as saying that he knew Webb was going to be a bandleader before “the little tiger” even knew it himself.
There was a lot of bad luck though, and he and his musicians would need to live on “starvation regimens,” holing up together in a single room, and frequently getting burned for their performance fees. Kaufman has so much enthralling footage of swanky dancers jitterbugging and decked out players partying, the underlying poverty and suffering seems somewhat distant. But in those live recordings you can’t hesitate believing that Webb was kicking down bandleaders like Benny Goodman on The Savoy dance floor, as its revelers preferred the almost-out-of-control rhythms to the more melodically, meticulously controlled competition.
But once The Savoy started happening, Webb was able to broadcast his many nightly sets across the country, and recorded 220 songs between 1927 and 1939. He kept up his local reputation as “the Mayor of Harlem,” personally busting up knife fights, and smoking, drinking, and living the hell out of his life -- when he wasn’t boldly taking his men on tours down South. On one of those tours, he played his hometown, at the Hippodrome -- where Baltimore was still keeping the audience segregated, and they wouldn’t let him come in the front door. “If you can’t drink from the same water fountain as another guy, you know you’re in another country.”
The brassy, big beat-driven, bomp-inducing music Webb made and sent out across the land, and his elevating of dearly talented Fitzgerald into cultural crossover status and musical miscegenation, helped turn those kinds of separations around, eventually. The Savoy King and the Music That Changed America does a superior job of capturing the excitement in the creation of that music, the changes this music and its makers accomplished over time, and the utterly inspiring short life of Chick Webb. Don’t miss this.
Read more reviews and previews from the “Face the Music” series as part of the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival here.