We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school. The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons. Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.
Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary. It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic. It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.
Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love. He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist. Crippled from childhood — he would never grow much taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.
But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man. It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician. It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world. That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission. For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.
Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing? I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love. How may people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET? We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.
And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music. The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.
Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.
I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones. Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone. It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.
Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties. For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions. And many of the subjects friends and family are also gone. Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film. Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.
I don’t think so. Here is a still from that film (with Chick’s dear friend John Trueheart on banjo and my hero Bennie Morton on trombone):
But back to Kaufman’s problem. Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic / charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis. Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.
So Kaufman had to be ingenious. And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.
The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera. The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.
And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap. Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots. Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages. Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?
THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it desrves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”
It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.
That’s the beautiful part. Now here comes four bars of gritty reality. In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now. But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.
Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release. All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference. Here is the link.
Think of a world made better by swing.
See and support this film.
May your happiness increase.