Screening at the New York Film Festival this October as part of the fest’s “On The Arts” Special Events, the Swing-era feature documentary The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America, follows the short life of drummer Chick Webb, who suffered from Spinal Tuberculosis since he was a child, as he built the hottest American Jazz orchestra based at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, NY.
Described as “a meditation on the transformative power of art,” the New Heritage Theatre Group co-production is directed/produced by Jeff Kaufman and edited by Jamal El-Amin. The Savoy King, which also tells the story of Ella Fitzgerald, quotes the greatest legends in the history of Jazz, and features the voices of Bill Cosby as Chick Webb, Tyne Daly as Jazz publicist Helen Oakley Dance, Ron Perlman as Gene Krupa, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, and Danny Glover as Count Basie.
Here’s more about the film:
The Savoy Ballroom was the home of the amazing Lindy Hop dancers, and the first venue in America where Blacks and Whites could dance and socialize together. It had a huge, but largely unheralded social impact. Born fatherless and poor, Chick Webb developed spinal tuberculosis and was a hunchbacked dwarf in constant pain, yet he virtually invented modern drumming and built the hottest band of the 1930s (it was the Savoy Ballroom’s “house band”).
Chick was mentored by Duke Ellington, toured with Louis Armstrong, argued with Jelly Roll Morton, jammed with Artie Shaw, married a beautiful dancer, discovered and practically adopted Ella Fitzgerald, beat Benny Goodman and Count Basie in legendary battle of the bands, befriended Mario Bauzá (“The Father of Afro-Cuban Jazz”), encouraged a struggling Dizzy Gillespie, and helmed the first Black band to host a national radio show . . . all before drumming himself to death at age 30.
We’ve been privileged to film with people who could each could warrant their own documentary. They include: drummers Louie Bellson and Roy Haynes, trumpeter Joe Wilder, playwright-actress Gertrude Jeannette, Swing dance masters Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, Harlem Rens basketball star John Issacs, composer-arranger Van Alexander, longtime Harlem physician Dr. Muriel Petioni, and childhood friend Rev. Edward Wilson, Ella’s son Ray Brown Jr., the son of the Savoy Ballroom’s owner Dr. Richard Gale, and Chick’s jazz-loving nephew Brad Rowe.
Chick’s brief, inspiring life illuminates the society-changing power of music, the life-lifting effect of mentoring, a hard-fought breakthrough in racial understanding that reverberates today in many ways, and the ability of everyone (with or without disabilities) to reach beyond their apparent limits.
Watch the very engaging preview clips below: