Tag Archives: Savoy Ballroom

“THE HOME OF SWEET ROMANCE”: REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, JOHNNY VARRO, WAYNE WILKINSON, NICKI PARROTT, DANNY COOTS at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 18, 2015)

SAVOY

It wins you at a glance.

Where?  The Savoy Ballroom, of course.  The  Home of Happy Feet in Harlem stopped being a Swing mecca in 1958, but its spirit remains.

That spirit was very much in evidence at this year’s Atlanta Jazz Party, and on April 18, 2015, Rebecca Kilgore and a wonderful small band brought it even more sharply into focus with a performance of Edgar Sampson’s STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY. Her Stompers were Dan Barrett, trombone; Johnny Varro, piano; Wayne Wilkinson, guitar; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Danny Coots, drums.  (Does that closing riff owe its existence to Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge?)

You don’t need a ballroom with these wonderful musicians.

May your happiness increase!

EVERYBODY LOVES CECIL SCOTT

Photograph by Nat Goodwin

Photograph by Nat Goodwin

Clarinetist and saxophonist Cecil Scott remembered by Art Hodes:

I’ll never forget the day Baby Dodds and I visited Cecil at his home in Harlem (N.Y.C.).  He had what we referred to as “a railroad flat.”  It was a first floor apartment with a long hallway running through the length of the apartment. Cecil took us into the kitchen for a taste, then called in the family. He had 11 children, from the baby to the eldest going on seventeen. I had to ask, “Man, how do you guys operate?” To which he answered, “We eat in shifts and we sleep in tiers.”

One of the warmest people I knew, Cecil Scott.  His smile was contagious. Here’s a guy, operating on one leg (and I won’t go into how he lost the other; the only story I heard was hearsay); always jolly and passing it on. People running in and out of his home; all day. Plus a few cats and a dog. Life all around him. And the spirit of that home, unbelievable.

I had a trio at Jimmy Ryan’s that consisted of Cecil (sax and clarinet) and Baby Dodds (drums) plus Chippie Hill (Bertha) doing the vocals. There was a performer. She’d go out, a’singing, to the end of the room, and start from there.  And by the time she’d hit the bandstand she’d have “gathered her children” in; that whole audience was like in the palm of her hand. No mike. And Cecil could charm her. For when she came to work she could be in a mood; but Scott would look at her, and then say, “Chippie, where did you get that hat; you look beautiful.” And she’d wild, and beam.  And we’d be together. They were beautiful people.

There was a style of clarinet playing we used to call “dirty.” Then there was a way of playing it that would make me think of someone a’callin’ to a chicken. Cecil knew all about that. It was later that I learned that the recording by Clarence Williams that I loved to listen to, especially because of the clarinet playing on it, was something Cecil had done. Yeh! And when my boy Bob was born, Cecil sent his oldest daughter over to my house to take care of things while my wife was hospitalized. “Man, don’t mention money, what do you wanna do? Insult me? I’m your friend.” And then one scene that keeps comin’ back.

I’d gone out to Harlem to do a benefit with Scott and others.  It was a warm affair, and I partook of the goodies. In fact I “over” partook. Now we had to get to our gig (J. Ryan’s). I drove and Cecil sat beside me. It seemed bouncey, beautiful, with lights flashing on; most enjoyable. Even sirens. Eventually I got the message and stopped. I had been “bouncing” up and down on the snow-covered street, and the lights and sirens were the po-lice. I was “in a cast.” The one-legged man had to get out and talk to the gendarmes. He must have sounded convincing because I got off with a lecture. You know I’ll never forget Cecil.

EVERYBODY LOVES CECIL (by H. B. M.)

Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, c. October 1946

Photograph by William P. Gottlieb, c. October 1946

Cecil Scott was sitting on the stool before the piano, his elbow on the keys and his right leg thrust stiffly forward. I sat across from him on a metal framed settee that looked a little like a double seat on a bus. There were several similar chairs in the room, a few music stands, and a tenor sax case on top of the piano. On the walls were several posters and many photographs showing Cecil at various times in his career. His weight varied with each picture, for his hobby is food and he eats until he weighs 210, diets until he weighs 160, and starts all over again. He is about 170 now, going down.

Almost as soon as I had met him, I liked Cecil. He is as warm and companiable as a fireplace. He is an energetic man, too, despite that awkward, unwieldy, artificial right leg. He’d suddenly lunge across the room to show me something, and lunge back again. It was more like an idiosyncrasy than a handicap.

“I suppose you want to know about the children,” he said. “There are thirteen of them, and I’ve got three grandchildren, with one more on the way. They’re from my eldest daughter, the one that deserted me. She’s the only one of my girls to get married.” He seemed to be peeved about that. “I’ll bet that’s her in the hallway right now. She’s in this house most of the day.”

It was the prodigal daughter. She entered the house very spryly.

“Has he been tellin’ you ’bout my children?” she asked. “They call him ‘Big Brother.’ You trying to keep young, Daddy?”

Actually Cecil looked very young, more like a man of thirty than a grandfather, and his wife, who entered then, didn’t look old enough to be a grandparent either. A little girl, about nine years old, was with her. She looked timidly about the room. There was a large white bandage about her ankle. 

“This is Elaine,” said Cecil. “She’s always wearing bandages. This morning it was her head. Now it’s her ankle. You run along, Elaine, and don’t you come back with that bandage ’round your nose.”

“But, let’s see now. About the music. It started when I was eleven years old out in Springfield, Ohio. I wanted to be a surgical doctor; spent all my time in doctors’ offices, and I figured I could make money with music. For two years I took lessons in clarinet and theory three times a week, and never missed a day. Started playin’ home dates with my brother Lloyd’s band. When I was seventeen I got married.”

“Eating is our big problem,” Cecil informed me. “Everybody has to eat in shifts. The little ones eat first shift, the middle ones second shift, and the big ones last shift. The dogs eat every shift.”

The house was full of children now. I could hear them moving everywhere. I met some more of the family, and Cecil coninued. He had come to New York and played with Lloyd’s band at the Saratoga Club. By 1928 he had his own band, and by 1930 was quite famous, playing at the Renaissance Ball Room with a band that had Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Dicky Wells, Frankie Newton, and Don Frye. Then he moved to the Savoy and trouble started.

“There was a girl at the Savoy,” said Cecil. “She had a man who was takin’ care of her, but she was makin’ quite a play for me. I didn’t pay her no mind until one night she asked me to a ‘rent party’ that her landlord was giving. It was one of those parties where they sold pigmeat and ‘white mule.’ There was a crap game going on and I started to win. I began buying everybody big pitchers of that white mule. Then her boy friend came in. There was some kind of misunderstanding right away. He slapped her, and she slapped him, and a fight started. Pitchers of while mule started flying through the air. Well, I had a big name, I had a reputation. I had to get out of there. I ran to the front door, but it had six locks I couldn’t open, so I ran to the back door. That had six locks too.

Well, I was a very active man in those days, so I jumped out the window, but it was a three story drop and I broke my ankle real bad.

Gangrene set in and they had to amputate several times. For a while the doctors didn’t have much hope. Chu Berry, my pupil, held the band together for me. Everyone was real nice. But, when I got out I didn’t feel like playin’. I was a very active man, used to jump off the piano with my saxophone and do a split on the floor, and things like that. I didn’t feel right standing with that band, a a cripple. So I disbanded it, although the boys sure didn’t want me to.

Then the neighbors started doing things for me. They brought me soup and stew, and stuff like that, and started sending me their kids to teach. First one, then two, then seven, eight, ten. I soon forgot about playing. For four and a half years I taught twelve to eighteen kids a day, and never had to advertise. At the same time I studied theory with Clarence Hall three times a week and took up weight lifting. I was too busy, and liked it that way.

It wasn’t until Albert Socarras, a flute player with a Latin band, came to see me that I started playing again. He needed a sax player real bad. I didn’t want to go but he and his wife finally persuaded me. I played three days, and they gave me leader’s pay. I’ve been playin’ off and on ever since.

I think that my wife is the real reason for most of my success. When I lost my leg and became sensitive, afraid to face people, she was the one who revived me and gave me confidence again. She’s always encouraged me. We were born in the same town, in the same month, in the same year. We went to the same school together! Why, she’s been with me all my life!”

from SELECTIONS FROM THE GUTTER, edited by Hodes and Chadwick Hansen, pp. 214-16.

May your happiness increase!

ANOTHER MINT JULEP, PLEASE!

mjjb-dosn-cd-cover

A new CD, DURHAM ON SATURDAY NIGHT, by the Mint Julep Jazz Band, featuring the excellent singer Laura Windley, is a honey.

The MJJB is a small hot group — well-versed in playing for dancers, so they set swinging tempos and stick to them.  Their ensemble work is beautifully precise without being stiff, and they really understand the subtle mysteries of swing rhythm.  And the solos are just fine: not only can these young folks energetically pretend that 1941 isn’t really gone, but they can launch their own inventive solos time after time.

One of their main inspirations is youthful Ella Fitzgerald and the small group out of Chick Webb’s band — The Savoy Eight — and they evoke that sound perfectly without turning out pale note-for-note copies of the records.  I heard evocations of Sandy Williams and Sidney Bechet, but also Al Grey and Howard McGhee.

The repertory also looks with affection at the Ellington small groups and Victor band, the Kirby Sextet, the Ink Spots, the Basie band of the same period (I really welcome hearing JIVE AT FIVE, and the MJJB swings it the best way.)

They also find rather obscure pop tunes — which work!: GET IT SOUTHERN STYLE, ONE GIRL AND TWO BOYS, and there’s a nifty original, MIAMI BOULEVARD.

The excellent young musicians on this disc are Lucian Cobb, trombone; Laura Windley, vocals and glockenspiel; Aaron Hill, alto saxophone / clarinet; Keenan McKenzie, tenor saxophone / clarinet; Jared Worford, guitar; Jim Ketch, trumpet; Jason Foureman, string bass; Aaron Tucker, drums.  They aren’t restricted to the world of 1937, but there are no excursions into Sonny Rollins on a Swing chart, if you know what I mean.

Those boys rock,” the folks at the Savoy would have said.

Laura Windley is a special pleasure.  Many youthful singers in the “swing dance” scene have memorized the gestures of their idols — listening to the records so many times that they can mimic those Vocalions — and they, women and men, dress beautifully.  But as singers they lack their own personalities.  All gown, no voice.

Laura’s got her own sweet style with a serious rhythmic underpinning: if she were handed a song she’d never heard before, she could do it convincingly without echoing anyone else.  Her rich voice reminded me of young Ella — that hopeful, wistful, asking-for-love quality — but she can turn corners at a fast tempo, as she proves on the CD’s closer, the band’s romping version of Lil Armstrong’s HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

Here’s a small sample from a band-within-a-band:

Laura Windley (vocals), Lucian Cobb (trombone), Aaron Hill (tenor sax), Keenan McKenzie (sitting in on soprano sax), Aaron Tucker (drums), J.C. Martin (guitar), Peter Kimosh (bass).

What you will hear on the CD will convince you that — like Swing itself — the Mint Julep Jazz Band is here to stay.  And that is very reassuring news.

Visit them, hear more from their CD (it’s also available on iTunes and CD Baby), and follow them here.

May your happiness increase!

CATHERINE RUSSELL, SWING SUPER-HEROINE

Catherine Russell

I don’t know how the singer and ebullient force of nature Catherine Russell would do in combat against Lex Luthor or a fleet of intergalactic starships.  But I do know that she is the sworn enemy of Gloom and Dullness, a tireless fighter for Joy and Swing.

She proved this again last night at Symphony Space in a concert sponsored by the Sidney Bechet Society.  With her were some of her usual comrades-in-arms: Matt Munisteri (guitar and musical director); Mark Shane (piano); Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet); Dan Block (clarinet and tenor); Lee Hudson (string bass); Rocky Bryant (drums).

Catherine is not only a splendid singer, with an unerring internal pulse and gift for melodic invention; she moves easily through a variety of moods in the course of an evening.  In addition, she is a happy embodiment of living swing: flashing a gleaming smile, joking with the audience, and dancing all over the stage.

She truly has a good time, and it never seems artificial.

Rather, she is delighted to be there to make music for us and her pleasure comes through, whether she is picking just the right tempo for a bluesy slow drag or spontaneously interacting with an audience member.

After an instrumental exploration of BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, Catherine came on to offer a varied program.  A special pleasure was observing a mature artist who has fully internalized a variety of influences — from the fierce women blues singers to Motown queens, from the dancers at the Savoy Ballroom to gospel choirs, all these influences seamless and fully developed within her own personal style.  Listening to Catherine, one never feels, “Now she’s becoming this performer or this one; now she’s acting out that recorded / seen performance.”  No, the result is fully in blossom — homage to the great influences before her but also singularly her own.

When she approached an early-Twenties blues, SHAKE THAT THING, it owned property in several universes — not only the kind of music one would grind to in 1923 Chicago but a sultry call-to-shake entirely appropriate ninety years later.  Her other blues performances — one about financial distress (the concert was, after all, held on April 15), her own evocation of Esther Phillips’ AGED AND MELLOW, and Dinah Washington’s ominious MY MAN’S AN UNDERTAKER — were just as dramatically compelling.  She wooed us with AFTER THE LIGHTS GO DOWN LOW and then hilariously dismissed us with I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE.  Other classics that Catherine has made her own — an encore of KITCHEN MAN, WE THE PEOPLE, standards SOME OF THESE DAYS and DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL — had their own joyous light.  In twenty songs, she turned herself and her personality to the light as many ways, but each time we recognized her essence: soulful, experienced, thoughtful, deeply feeling and deeply amused.

Visit Catherine’s websiteFacebook page or Facebook music page.

And for the immediate future . . .

CAT DIZZY'S

Catherine will be appearing with Mark Shane, Matt Munisteri, Lee Hudson, and Mark McLean at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center) for four nights — Thursday, April 25, through Sunday, April 28 — with shows as 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

Come and be amazed by Catherine Russell, performing superhuman feats of humanity, humor, creativity, and swing, as if they were easy to do — which for her, they are.

May your happiness increase.

DON’T MISS THIS: “THE SAVOY KING” COMES TO NEW YORK CITY

Good news!  THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA is coming to New York City . . . .

The Savoy King is an important contribution to our knowledge and our history.  I highly recommend that those who have the opportunity see this film.” – Harry Belafonte

“Vibrant and evocative – – I loved every minute of The Savoy King.” – film critic Leonard Maltin

With the voices of: Sunpie Barnes as Barney Bigard, Bill Cosby as Chick Webb, Billy Crystal as Mezz Mezzrow, Tyne Daly as Helen Oakley Dance, Keith David as Charles Buchanan, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, Danny Glover as Count Basie, Jeff Goldblum as Artie Shaw, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Dizzy Gillespie, John Legend as Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Perlman as Gene Krupa, Voza Rivers as Sandy Williams, Eugene Robinson as Teddy McRae, and Charlie Watts as Stanley Dance

THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA  will screen at THE 50TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL:

Saturday, Sept. 29 (noon), at The Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St.

Tuesday, Oct. 2 (3:30pm), at The Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St.

September 13, 10am to noon, there is a press screening and Q&A at The Walter Reade Theater, with Director / Producer Jeff Kaufman, Executive Producer Voza Rivers (Chairman of The Harlem Arts Alliance), and NEA Jazz Master Roy Haynes

September 28, 8pm, a panel with a Swing Dance to follow, with The George Gee Swing Orchestra, and special guest vocalist Lainie Cooke.  The panel will be hosted by Judy Pritchett, and will include:  Dr. Richard Gale (son of Savoy Ballroom owner Moe Gale), Swing dance master Norma Miller, and Jeff Kaufman (director / producer of The Savoy King).  Location: Dance Manhattan, 39 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011.  (212) 807-0802

October 2, at noon: a panel at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of Harlem Arts Advocacy Week.  Hosted by Voza Rivers of the Harlem Arts Alliance / New Heritage Theatre Group; the panel will include: Dr. Richard Gale (son of Savoy Ballroom owner Moe Gale), Swing dance master Norma Miller, playwright / actress Gertrude Jeannette, drummer Roy Haynes, and Jeff Kaufman (Director / Producer of The Savoy King).  Location: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York NY 10037-1801

“We fought a war with music and dance, and that’s what opened the doors.”

– Norma Miller

inclusive pr | http://www.inclusivepr.com  |  323-460-4111.  Mickey Cottrell: mickey@inclusivepr.com  |  Jonah Blechman: jonah@inclusivepr.com

Note to JAZZ LIVES readers: this is not only a splendid film about Chick Webb and the music he created and helped make the American popular language — it is about that music’s power to create acceptance and break down barriers.  THE SAVOY KING is also a wonderful film — even if you have never heard or heard of Chick Webb, it has its own power to enchant without ever seeming didactic.  

I’d make it required viewing for anyone who thinks (s)he wants to make a film, because it’s so far beyond the usual parade of talking heads . . . . 

Don’t miss it!

Here is my review and a beautiful one, SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE, by Candace Brown —           

May your happiness increase.

THE HOME OF SWEET ROMANCE

Nowhere but the Savoy Ballroom in New York City:

Let’s go this Thursday!  My air-step is earth-bound, but we could listen to the bands and watch the people who can really dance.

Another treasure for sale on eBay, thanks to mdt141mike.

For the real story of the Savoy Ballroom and its King, visit here to learn more about Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant and moving film, THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA.

May your happiness increase.

A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”

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.

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.

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (Dec. 19, 2010)

This isn’t about Dostoevsky or his grim-pre-existential narrator.

No, the subject is much happier and equally profound. 

I had learned from trumpeter Gordon Au that there would be a below-ground wingding on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010: he and the Grand Street Stompers would play an hour’s gig down on the subway platform, the F train at Second Avenue for those taking notes.  Even better, they would be joined by New York City swing dancers in vintage attire.  Then, everyone would board an antique subway train (circa 1960 with yellow / blue rattan seats), do a round-trip out to Queens and make way for a second train trip. 

I could only take the vintage subway a few stops uptown, but I did capture the vivid action on the platform.  The Grand Street Stompers began as a trio — Gordon, Pete Anderson on clarinet, Rob Adkins on bass — but soon became a quartet when guitarist Mikey Freedom Hart arrived.

Their first number was a nicely rocking / sentimental BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA, perhaps a homage to Louis, who began his concerts with this sweet old song for nearly twenty-five years:

Then, in the first acknowledgment of the season, IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS in two tempos, the dancers dipping and whirling even in the confined space (everyone was fully aware that overdramatic dancing would take them and us too close to the edges of the platform):

An unusual (and brave) choice for the context, Hoagy Carmichael’s NEW ORLEANS, with Gordon growling passionately, Rob bowing in the best old-New-Orleans manner:

SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN (the song that made J. Fred Coots financially secure forever) here sounds as if BLUE MONK was not far in the background — it’s really a good, simplistic Thirties song:

I don’t know if Fats Waller ever took the subway, but he would have been pleased by this pretty — although brief — version of his 1929 hit AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’:

Finally, the pop lexicon’s version of the primal scene — Freudian or out of PEYTON PLACE? — I SAW MOMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS.  Let’s hope it was Daddy in the red suit, shall we?

I delighted in the lovely playing of the quartet, the delicious incongruity of the music and the setting — but the real pleasure was in watching the dancers reflect the music in their bodies, singly and in pairs, switching off, having a fine time.  Lynn Redmile, who appears in the beginning of the last video (to the right), promised she would tell me the names of the spirited and agile dancers we so admire here.  

The Home of Happy Feet for the price of a Metrocard swipe — !

“UNIDENTIFIED NEGRO JAZZ MUSICIANS” on eBay

Call me oversensitive if you will, but I found the title above more than a bit puzzling and demeaning when it was attached to a number of photographs on sale on eBay.  Hasn’t “Negro” been replaced by more accurate, less weighted language?  And to call the musicians below “unidentified” seems a failure of basic research skills. 

If Benny Carter is an “unidentified Negro,” we need to embark on a more effective national program of cultural education.   

Without further lecturing, the photographs (all of them sold to the highest bidders by now):

Benny Carter and his Orchestra, 1939 — including Jimmy Archey, Bobby Woodlen, Vic Dickenson, Chick Morrison, Lincoln Mills, Tyree Glenn, and Joe Thomas (from left to right).  It’s a rather unorthodox arrangement of this stellar brass section, for photographic purposes only.

I’ve never seen a photograph of this man looking downcast or mournful: that’s Zutty Singleton!

Two extraordinary percussionists for the price of one: on top, grinning even more broadly, Sonny Greer at his personalized Leedy set; below him, Cozy Cole, having a wonderful time as well.

In fairness, I must write that this handsome trumpet player is, for the moment, “unidentified” to me — he looks terribly familiar but his name is elusive.  Can anyone help?  (Although I must point out that John C. Brown or someone else had identified the subject on the reverse of the one photograph from this collection I bought . . . )

As a postscript: Steve Provizer thinks it’s Jonah Jones.  Mike Burgevin, who enjoyed a long friendship / playing partnership with Joe Thomas, thinks it’s Joe. 

The photographs above are famous — the Blessed Herschel Evans (possibly by Timme Rosenkrantz) and Irving “Mouse” Randolph.  I wonder how Irving got that nickname: he hardly resembles any rodent I ever saw, on the floor or in cartoons.  The Randolph portrait, by the way, was reproduced in one of the mid-Seventies Billie Holiday box sets on Columbia, which is where I saw it first.

His Honor, The Judge, Milton John Hinton (in the Seventies, I believe).

Mugging for the camera — by himself, without the Tympany Five — Louis Jordan.

Sonny Greer, resplendent at work (with the backs of the Ellington brass section to his right) during that band’s Victor Records contract — little Nipper’s on the bass drum head.

The two musicians at bottom are identified (although not by the seller); at top, I think the pianist is Patti Bown, the trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and I couldn’t mistake Milt Hinton and Jo Jones.

I won’t even guess at the trio on the right, but the handsome fellow on the left is intriguing.  If I can’t find out who he is, at least I’d like that suit jacket for myself, if it would fit.

The fellow in the center should be recognizable — but who could miss Lionel Hampton and Jimmy Crawford (the latter under his own stylized palm tree)?

Equal time for unidentified Caucasians!  The drummer at top left obviously loves his Rogers set, but might need a motorized throne to cover it all.  Behind the swinging woodpecker, none other than Ray Bauduc.  And at bottom — characteristically thin and somber — Dave Tough. 

Anonymous no more, I hope.

P.S.  And since I’d like to end this post in celebration rather than rancor, here’s a lovely (and fully identified) portrait of the saxophonist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Edgar Sampson, sharp in his band jacket and ready for action in front of the Savoy Ballroom, or at least the Savoy Billiards.  Everything suggests this was taken in the mid-Thirties, and it has the general affect of a Timme Rosenkrantz shot, but I can’t prove it: the clothing of the passers-by suggests mild weather, but only students of historical fashion could tell us more. 

MICHAEL BANK QUARTET at PUPPETS JAZZ BAR (Oct. 28, 2010)

Puppets Jazz Bar, in Park Slope (that’s 481 5th Avenue in Brooklyn) was new to me, but owner Jaime Affoumado — a jazz drummer himself — told me that it’s been thriving for six years.  Puppets is a delightful spot, with vegan / vegetarian dishes, intriguing drinks, a first-rate piano, and a clear view of the band.  

Pianist Michael Bank isn’t new to me, and that’s a pleasure in itself.  His playing combines the best elements of timeless mainstream / modern / swing: it’s only logical that he should have studied with Jaki Byard, played alongside Fats Waller’s guitarist Al Casey.  Michael always swings and adds his own idiosyncratic touches to even the most well-behaved melody statement. 

Michael can offer authentic Wallerisms and Ellingtonian touches, but he isn’t a clone of anyone, and his sly, subtle playing melds the lightness I associate with Wilson and Basie with more exploratory harmonies — a perfect fit. 

For this evening, Michael was joined by two veterans of the New York jazz scene: bassist Murray Wall and drummer Giampaolo Biagi — and a new face, the young guitarist Matt Smith.  Here’s the first set plus a swinging feature for Murray.  

To begin with, Michael called the most “ordinary” opening song anyone could think of — an easy ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, in C.  But notice his intriguing twists and turns, his delicacy and humor.  There’s nothing formulaic here:

Kern’s YESTERDAYS often labors under the morose seriousness the lyrics suggest: this performance (thanks to Giampaolo’s and Murray’s strong pulse) makes me think that the halcyon days were spent uptown at the Savoy Ballroom, even though Matt’s chiming lines come from a few decades later:

I associate YOU STEPPED OUT OF A DREAM with Bobby Hackett — but the energetic rocking of this quartet shows that this dream is a swing fantasy:

GONE WITH THE WIND is one of those twining songs I can’t hear often enough: its melody alone is a pleasure.  Matt’s backwards-looking lines are intriguing exercises in balancing the notes in his own good time.  And Michael’s solo chorus is worth the wait — both thoughtful and hilariously exuberant:

Murray Wall proposed (in response to Giampaolo’s suggestion that they play some Ellington music) his own I GOT IT BAD, which again took the typically sad song and shook it up happily and plausibly.  Ellington had the finest bass players; he would have loved this version:

Michael Bank doesn’t come down to New York City often enough for my taste.  As a soloist and leader, he’s worth looking out for!

“ECHOES OF HARLEM” with MICHAEL McQUAID

One of my loyal readers, Trevor Hutchison, let me know that Michael McQuaid and a troupe of enthusiastic dancers had created a Cotton Club show — with several performances of Ellington songs posted on YouTube.  Here’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” performed in front of an audibly enthusiastic audience.  Shades of the Savoy Ballroom in the glory days!

For the record, the dancers in this clip are Cam Mitchell, Noni Clarke, Evan Hughes, and Francine Jeffery.  Other clips feature Andy Fodor, Shob Nambiar, Keith Hsuan, Shaz Callaghan, Anthony Wheaton, Sarah Farrelly, Harry Doan, Loz Yee and Nicole Smith.  Swing,you cats!

NOW WE KNOW! — THE CANGELOSI CARDS

Although the Cangelosi Cards have a well-earned and devoted following, I think that sometimes they have been hard to find for people who weren’t, as we say, in the know.  This situation has just improved.  Thanks to Eve of Avalon Jazz, I found this listing of the places the Cards play on a weekly basis.  Being of an anxious disposition, I would still check with the respective clubs before saddling up for a Cards gig, but this is more information than we’ve been used to in the past. 

And did I mention that the Cards are the closest thing to an unclassifiable melding of a hoedown, a jam session, a fiddle convention, a wondrous interstellar excursion, a mix of Minton’s 1941, the Quintette of the Hot Club of France, old-timey music seventy years ago, the Savoy Ballroom, ecstatic rituals and more?  I did?  Well, it bears saying again — especially since my musical sage and scout, Jim Balantic, whispered to me that Tamar Korn was trying out some Boswell Sisters repertoire with a small group.  Short of the reincarnation of the entire 1938 Basie band, I can’t think of anything better. 

Impatient readers will want to scroll to the bottom of the page, where the elegant homespun calligraphy will greet you.  Others, more prudent, will find themselves attracted by all the information about Eli Smith’s Down Home Radio Show.  Whichever type of information-gatherer you are, you’ll find this schedule invaluable:

Cangelosi Cards



9:30 PM – 1:00 AM

banjojims.com

9:00 PM – 1:00 AM

telebar.com

9:30 PM – 12:30 AM

cafe-moto.com

5:00 PM – 9:00 PM

8:00 PM – 11:00 PM

Autumn Swing Dance
Friday, October 31st – Saturday, November 1st
Monroe Arts Center in Monroe, Wisconsin
For details go to autumnswing.com


 

“The Cangelosi Cards are one of the best bands I’ve seen anywhere. They have a great live show, perfect for dancing! I envy any one who has not yet seen them because you now have the chance to see them for the first time! They keep it strictly real, playing traditional New Orleans style jazz, but continue to see at as a living tradition- and as such bring in influences from outside the cannon, such as country, blues, and early popular music. The level of musicianship is brilliant, bring your dancing shoes.”

Eli Smith – Producer/Host Down Home Radio