CHICK WEBB, “THE SAVOY KING”: SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE

The fine writer and musician Candace Brown attended the premiere of the new feature film, THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA.  (You may know Candace through her perceptive, heartfelt blog, GOOD LIFE NORTHWEST — and if she’s new to you, you will want to make her acquaintance here.)

Here’s her review (interspersed with clips from THE SAVOY KING).  I can’t wait to see the film for myself!

Spirits haunt the Harvard Exit Theatre, some Seattleites say.  I do know that the spirit of Swing era drummer and band leader William Henry “Chick” Webb visited this 1925 building recently and played to a packed house.  While there for the Seattle International Film Festival (http://siff.net), I felt surrounded by his presence, his zest for life, and his passion for the music on which he left his mark, as I watched the world premiere of a film called “The Savoy King: Chick Webb and The Music That Changed America.”

The film’s writer, director and producer, Jeff Kaufman, described that music as “incredibly hot”during an interview on KUOW radio. “The music was made to light a fire inside of people and to charge a dance floor,” Kaufman remarked.  Chick Webb, as much as anyone, struck the match that lit that fire.  No wonder drummer Louie Bellson called him “the Louis Armstrong of drums.”

The film begins with the words “Giants come in all sizes.”  Chick Webb was indeed small.  He broke his back in a fall during childhood and never grew any taller, remaining under five feet. Compounding the crippling aftermath of his accident, he developed tuberculosis of the spine, which caused him to have a hunched back, limited use of his legs, and chronic pain.  Advised to take up drumming as a form of therapy, Webb found his life’s passion.  Then the world of Swing found him. Soon Louis Armstrong heard, and hired, the sensational young drummer, and they toured together with the musical HOT CHOCOLATES.

During a life that would last not much more than three decades, Webb came to be the father of modern jazz drumming.  He mentored Ella Fitzgerald.  He led the first black band to play in a number of white hotels, the first black band to host a national radio show.  He earned the title “King of the Savoy Ballroom” with his steady gig there leading the house band.

The story of this “King” and his ballroom go hand in hand and the film weaves the two together with a firm grip.  On opposing stages, bands battled in popular “cutting contests.” Webb’s band beat, among many others, those of Count Basie and Benny Goodman, defeated only by Duke Ellington.  And it was here that drummer Gene Krupa bowed to the “King” and told him, “I was never cut by a better man.”

The Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated music venue in America, opened in Harlem in 1926.  Reputed to be the world’s best, it attracted crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 dancers.  Kaufman recreates that scene through vintage film footage, computer wizardry, and quotes.  A Jewish man, Moe Gale, owned it and a black man, Charles Buchanan, ran it. Kaufman said, “It was sort of the Rosa Parks bus of music of the 1930s, and you can’t underestimate the impact that had.”  His amazement over how the Savoy brought people together helped drive the project.

Because so little footage of Webb exists, “The Savoy King” tells its story mostly through countless photos, filmed interviews, and old clips backed with narration, sometimes in the form of voice-overs by several of today’s celebrities reading quotes from Webb’s contemporaries.  Janet Jackson speaks the words of Ella Fitzgerald, Ron Perlman reads Gene Krupa, and Bill Cosby gives voice to Webb himself.  Kaufman included filmed interviews with several people who knew Webb personally, such as Louie Bellson, Lindy Hop dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, playwright and actress Gertrude Jeanette, and others.  Fitzgerald’s son, Ray Brown Jr., shares his mother’s memories of Webb.

Kaufman devoted months, sometimes years, to finding and connecting with his interviewees and he has my gratitude. Priceless film footage of Gale’s son, Dr. Richard Gale, recalling stories and describing the intensity of his father’s grief over Webb’s death, underscores one of the major points of this film, that whatever degree of racial equality we now have in America was hard won, and music played a part.  The blunt portrayal of racial prejudice, through eyewitness accounts, could shock even those who consider themselves aware.  But that prejudice ended at the edge of the dance floor, where all that mattered was the feeling of swing.

“The Savoy King” should go down on record as one of the most important films shown at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival because of its significance to not only music history, but American history.  It goes far beyond documenting the life of one musician—no matter how influential he was.  The film offers lessons and inspiration.  It shows how America has changed, how a person can overcome incredible hurdles to reach their dreams, how one person can make a difference.

In his radio interview, Kaufman described Chick Webb as “the first drummer to drum with emotion.”  Webb died 73 years ago, on June 16, 1939, but that emotion lives on.  I heard it in the music and in the voices of those who knew him, and I felt it when the film’s audience gave a standing ovation.  I hope the presence of Chick Webb’s spirit added to the vibe at the Harvard Exit.  Maybe late at night, when the lights go out, the ghosts dance the jitterbug.  And I hope that vibrant energy will reverberate in my own soul forever.

The film’s website can be found here.

May your happiness increase.

9 responses to “CHICK WEBB, “THE SAVOY KING”: SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE

  1. Excellent post and the review was also a delight to read. I do believe that Ms. Brown, though, is mistaken about Ellington beating out Chick’s band. I am pretty sure it was Basie’s, but a year later the decision was reversed.

  2. A fantastic post!! Great reading!! Candace is just as beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside, Thank you for the delightful post NM!!!

  3. Many thanks for this. I was lucky enough at Sweet Basil in NYC to be present for one of the jazz brunches in September 1999, organised by Randy Sandke after Doc Cheatham’s death. Local singers were invited to join in, and a very elderly gentleman in a blue gabardine suit from an earler era, and a turban, sang, and very well too, “I Cover the Waterfront.” He was Charles Linton, who pre-dated Ella in the Chick Webb band, and threatened to resign if the band didn’t hire her, perceptions of beauty not qualifying her. I read later that year in “Down Beat” that he died on the operating table, but I was thrilled to be able to hear him, and to shake his hand.

  4. Dear Mike, I don’t doubt your sources, but I checked with filmmaker Jeff Kaufman and he says, “I don’t know if I said it while in Seattle, but yes – officially the only battle of the bands Chick lost was to Ellington, although some people (not the press accounts of the time) say Chick and Count Basie were a tie. He actually had dozens of these contests.”

    At this distance, it hardly matters. . . better to imagine the sounds of those bands live, playing for all they were worth, in 1937, 1938, 1939!

  5. Fair enough. Kaufman lived this project for over two years and I am going to take him at his word. I am surprised that Ellington would outswing the Basie band, much less Chick’s, but if it happened, it happened. Thanks for the info!

  6. Pingback: A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA” | JAZZ LIVES

  7. Pingback: DON’T MISS THIS: “THE SAVOY KING” COMES TO NEW YORK CITY | JAZZ LIVES

  8. jOhn P. Cooper

    Michael-
    How about their battle with the Casa Loma orchestra? Didn’t Taft Jordan say in the liner notes to the Columbia Chick Webb LP that the Casa Loma band whipped them and cited their versions of “Chinatown” where he or someone in the band ended up on high C and the Casa Loma guy came in on a high C and kept going up?

  9. It’s been a long time since I held a copy of that record, so you may be right.

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