Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Savoy King: A Movie About Chick Webb and the Savoy Ballroom

A few months ago I received an email from a producer named Jeff Kaufman, who informed me about a movie about the great Chick Webb and the Savoy Ballroom. The movie also features Ella Fitzgerald and other notables from that era who were connected with the Savoy and Chick. Because of a personal tragedy I am only now starting to write again.

The best way to present the project is to use Mr. Kaufman's description:

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. Produced with The New Heritage Theater Group (New York's oldest non-profit Black theater), The Savoy King: Chick Webb And The Music That Changed America weaves together newly filmed stories from remarkable people who knew Chick Webb at every phase of his life, with quotes from some of the greatest figures in Jazz history. Bill Cosby has voiced the words of Chick Webb, and we also have Tyne Daly voicing Jazz publicist Helen Oakley Dance, Ron Perlman as Gene Krupa, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, and Danny Glover as Count Basie. We just had a screening of the rough cut, which we will now polish. Unfortunately, I've hit a financing wall at this crucial time, and I am urgently seeking tax deducible finishing funds to complete our work. Donations are tax deductible, and any level of support can make a big difference.

As you know, 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 (in many ways, their relationship is the heart of the film), 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 some terrific people, each who could warrant their own documentary. They include: drummers Louie Bellson (with, I believe, his last filmed drum performance) and Roy Haynes (among other things, he does a charming scat version of A-Tisket, A-Tasket), trumpeter Joe Wilder, playwright-actress Gertrude Jeannette, Swing dance masters Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, basketball star John Issacs, composer-arranger Van Alexander, longtime Harlem physician Dr. Muriel Petioni, childhood friend Rev. Edward Wilson (minister emeritus at Waters AME Church), Ella Fitzgerald's son Ray Brown Jr., the son of the Savoy Ballroom's owner, and Chick's jazz-loving nephew.

Since I am a big fan of that era, and revere Chick, I found the news of this project to be exciting. Chick's name is becoming a dim memory among drummers, and too many younger drummers never heard of him. To keep his name and accomplishments alive is, to me, important. Mr. Kaufman's project could be not only a loving tribute, but may spark interest in the newer generations, which could revive swing in much the same way Squirrel Nut Zippers and similar groups did in the 1990s.

A better overview of the project is on Floating World Pictures page titled The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music that Changed America.

If you are not familiar with Chick or the Savoy Ballroom, this clip from Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns is a quick introduction:

For more information about Chick, recommended recordings and links to more information, see my March 11, 2010 post.

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