“Music is a universal combiner,” says Dr. Muriel Petioni, the mother of Harlem medicine, in the first few measures of Jeff Kaufman’s spirited window into the culture of the Harlem music and dance movement in the 1920’s & 30’s. This is a perfect descriptor for “The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America” and its assemblage of graphics, file footage, still photographs, primary source interviews and narration by the likes of such modern day jazz enthusiasts as John Legend, Charlie Watts, Janet Jackson, Ron Perlman, Tyne Daly and Bill Cosby. (Trailer below.)
Kaufman’s feast of rhythmic musical energy and historical imagery drops us into the life of one of jazz music’s unsung heroes. 4’1” “Chick” Webb earned his nickname from a childhood injury that left him with a broken back and a chicken-strut walk. The gifted drummer and bandleader helped to ignite and maintain the national swing craze of the 1920’s and 30’s. The insatiable constantly traveling workaholic created the best swing band of the era. After winning competitions against the likes of Benny Goodman’s all-white ensemble and Count Basie’s bluesy Kansas City players, Webb was at the top of the jazz food chain.
Webb’s hard-driving rhythms inspired swing dancers who appeared by the hundreds wherever the band played, but his success dissolved far too early at the tender age of 30. In one of the documentary’s most emotional sequences, still shots of Webb in the hospital are covered gently by actress Tyne Daly intoning Chick’s last words to his wife as he slips away.
The principal backdrop for this incessant cadence is the Savoy Ballroom. Opened by 27-year-old entrepreneur Moe Gale in 1926, a luggage salesman looking for a sideline business opportunity, the Savoy unintentionally breached race barriers in Harlem that had world-famous spots such as The Cotton Club admitting only white patrons. All were welcome at the Savoy to listen, dance, socialize and in a twist for an uptown nightspot – behave. The ballroom’s policy of decorum enabled ladies of all backgrounds to frequent the establishment without fear of inappropriate advances or violence. Critical to the establishment’s success, this focused the patrons on the acrobatic swing dancers and furious beats that fueled the famously raucous atmosphere.
Kaufman dutifully profiles the celebrities who flocked to the Savoy, including Clark Gable. When word spread of his arrival, the customers asked: “Can he dance?” When the answer was “No,” the crowd quickly turned its attention back to the action on the bandstand and dance floor.
Another story weaved with Webb’s is that of his discovery and cultivation of initially timid vocal great Ella Fitzgerald. The film does stretch into excessively atonal territory with the use of less than fully realized 3-D computer simulations of the Savoy and some narration segments that are too eager to please. But as one of the jazz greats has been known to say, in the jazz idiom, “there are simply no wrong notes.”