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Saturday, September 15, 2012

THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB & THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA

By D.E.Levine

A NYFF50 SELECTION

This is a fascinating documentary about a musician who had an enormous impact on the Swing era of music and has gone unappreciated due to his short life.

Chick Webb was a peer of Duke Ellington who having broken his back as a child and contracted TB of the spine, lived a painful life as a hunchback.  The nickname Chick came from his unusual walking gait due to his illness and deformity.  Studying drumming to build upper body strength, Webb approached it with a vengeance and was initially noticed by Ellington himself, who helped created Webb's band.

Webb was a perfectionist who turned down lucrative gigs when they required musical compromises and was willing to pay for the best musical arrangements.

Jeff Kaufman has produced an interesting and entertaining documentary based on newspaper and magazine articles, vintage newsreels and first hand accounts from that time.  Webb became a well-known fixture in the Swing scene of Harlem, where there was segregation even in the black community.

The Savoy Ballroom was where Webb became a fixture and it's described as a virtual haven of integration where black and white alike, celebrity and common man, co-mingled, danced and enjoyed the swing music.

He also had an eye for talent and developed young performers, among them a very young Ella Fitzgerald, who lived with Chick and his wife.

Kaufman has gotten a host of well known actors to do readings of reminiscences by both Webb and his followers.

His life was cut short too soon, at the age of 30, and ten thousand fans lined then streets of Harlem when he was buried.

While this documentary may not have wide distribution, it is educational, interesting and leaves the viewer wanting more information on both Chick Webb and the Swing era.