Vivid archival clips of Harlem in the ’30s illuminate “The Savoy King,” Jeff Kaufman’s lively portrait of bandleader/drummer Chick Webb, whose music intersected with and rivaled that of jazz’s most illustrious names. Although Webb suffered from spinal TB, which made him a hunchbacked midget, his immense popularity helped topple racial barriers as he became the King of Swing at Harlem’s only racially integrated nightclub. Crammed with remarkable found footage and encomiums from the likes of Andy Garcia, Danny Glover and Janet Jackson, this jubilant docu invites limited theatrical exposure before inevitable tube play.
Clearly, if Webb had lived longer than a mere 30 years, his meteoric rise would have been followed by more lasting fame. Certainly his obsessive dedication to his music pushed him to overextend himself physically, contributing to his early demise. But he managed to make tremendous strides in those few years, despite constant pain from a broken back.
At the age of 17, Webb was dubbed bandleader by Duke Ellington, and when he was 18, his band became the official Savoy house ensemble. At 24 he became the first black orchestra leader with a national radio hookup, recording some 220 songs (many sampled on the soundtrack) over the next six years. Yet even more important than his growing popularity with black and white audiences was the fact that he was a musician’s musician. The words of Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Mario Bauza, Gene Krupa and Dizzy Gillespie, brought to life by a stellar cast of voice actors, loudly sing his praises. Ellington is heard to comment (via John Legend), “Chick was the first drummer who made sense in a big band. He knew how to shade and color and how to bring a band up and keep it there.”
Kaufman captures Jazz Age excitement using rare images of Harlem in the ’20s and ’30s, musical shorts and excerpts from films featuring Webb, and spectacular footage of Savoy jitterbug dancers, chief among them Frankie Manning, who appears, still bright-eyed and foot-tapping, in recent interviews. Kaufman proves as felicitous in his choice of talking heads — men and women who light up when recalling the Savoy in its prime — as he is with his cornucopia of standout archival photos and footage.
Former frequenters of the club remember all the Hollywood stars who showed up there, from Greta Garbo to Clark Gable to Fred Astaire. The Savoy owner’s son recalls the opening of the opulent ballroom, often catering to an integrated clientele of thousands. Newspaper articles, playbills, snapshots and newsreel coverage evoke the famous swing-band battles at the establishment, when lines stretched around the block.
Eventually during Webb’s career, his fame was equaled and even eclipsed by that of his discovery and protegee, Ella Fitzgerald, whom he adopted and groomed for stardom. Kaufman includes a clip from Universal’s Abbott and Costello film “Ride ‘Em Cowboy,” where Fitzgerald sings “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” to a busload of white travelers.