The second best thing about this week’s NYFF screening of The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music that Changed America might have been the audience — a fire-hazard crowd of friends, family and jazz enthusiasts ready to laugh, hoot, and more than once, sing along to the music. But the first best thing was 92-year-old Norma Miller, a delightful presence both on film and live on-stage, where she joined director Jeff Kaufman for a lively but all-too brief Q&A.
Nattily dressed in a black cap and sequined, sparkling jacket, the Queen of Swing spoke passionately about the power of jazz, the thrill of her days as a dancer at Harlem’s legendary Savoy Ballroom and of course her love for the bandleader and drummer Chick Webb, who succumbed at age 30 from complications from tuberculosis. He died far too early for his fans but not too early to have built a name for himself as the “swingingest’ drummer of his era.
Miller: The day before yesterday, I come to NY because of Jeff, and a very dear friend asked me to do a master class. So there I am, a day before yesterday, doing a Master Class, in Lindy Hop! This is crazy! I’m 92, what the hell am I doing? And all because of your film!
Kaufman: Here’s my advice, if she starts a software company, I would invest.
Miller: We have lost a lot of the history of the beginning of the world of swing. But what Jeff found is amazing, and how he put it together, I’m amazed at that, because how do you put something together when there’s no history? I mean like you said, you got a few good pictures of the band all dressed up…but you never see the dancing and the music together, it just, nobody ever… the ideal thing today is, we put the show together, we put the band out, and we put the dancing, and we could do that today but it would have to be with surrogates.
Kaufman: Chick was known to sometimes play a song for 15 minutes. They would just go nuts with a song: you’d have drum solo after drum solo, he’d give all his guys in the band time to go if they wanted to, and of course records could only record 2 1/2 to 3 minutes. So we’ll never really know… (to Miller), well you know, but for us, we’ll never really know that — Feeling. It made a big difference. It’s a pity we can’t record how it was. All we can do is try to remember how it was.
Miller: It was the most exciting period, because it was the incoming of the new music that everyone was listening to. They had to come to the Savoy because we couldn’t go to any of the other ballrooms. And they all came because the excitement was every night up on that bandstand. So you would see Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, I saw Leopold Stokawski. Because this movie was what was created in America by Americans. We took a music and made it a culture. And the world recognized this.
All we have is these few recordings, but what was happening was a new world, and we were all part of it. It was the first dance ever created in America! Because remember, we are a nation of immigrants, everything we had here was brought here. So we had to listen to Europe and all that kind of bull… bull — (interrupted by audience laughter) — It was a time to see the beginning of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, these were the people — we stood in line to see Louie Armstrong, here was a man who took a trumpet, and it became the symbol of Jazz! Jazz is American! That didn’t come out of Europe. And that’s what we created. Thank you black folks, that’s what we created!
Kaufman: Yeah it’s really a haunting story. I was able, through my crazed obsessive detective work, to track down two seemingly remaining drum sets, one with the cartoon of him from up there, and one with the crown, and I was doing everything I could. I actually wasted money flying to Detroit because I had a hot tip. This guy swore he had the drum set, he wouldn’t actually show me the picture, but he seemed to know everything about it. I flew to Detroit, I went to his house, I went down the stairs, and it was some white guy with a bow tie on it, I said “that doesn’t look like Chick.” But finally, we had the story of Chick’s drum set being in his house in Connecticut, and I was able to track the path of it, and I actually talked to somebody who said she remembered seeing it upstairs in the attic, all dusty… Anyway, to make a long story short, I got very close to the person who had it, and they died, and the trail just went cold. It may still be there somewhere, you just never know. But so far we haven’t found it.
On Playing the South
Miller: But you know, the Chick Webb story is just one of many stories like that. The men that produced this music that became part of America — you have Duke, you have Basie, you have Chick Webb, you have all the bands that came up out of this segregated world, because you could only play the Savoy [the nation’s first integrated dance hall]. When you left the Savoy, you played four theaters. Then you had to go south, and if you were a black band going south….
When her husband was playing with Basie, Mona Hinton, would go south ahead of the band and go to people’s houses, and ask them where they could have rooms for the musicians, because we couldn’t go in a hotel. So the tragedy of the going south, playing all night, going into another town and don’t have no place to stay! You can’t go to a restaurant, you got to go to the side and they give you a sandwich, so it’s a wonder that you didn’t have all kinds of constipation problems. The history of jazz music, is written in tragedy, but the music that came out of is amazing… We couldn’t do nothing because, where do you stay? You can’t even go to the bathroom, it was demeaning, but they continually worked at it and produced it —
… And that’s the miracle of the jazz musician.