"I was puzzled. Because with the music I had known, I had never known anything but progress. . .things were getting better and more complex. We were adding stuff on and all of a sudden it was falling off." The speaker is the great singer Jo Stafford in my newspaper interview with her from 1982. The quote was part of her analysis of the rise of a music whose ultimate "achievement" rang the death knell for the continuum of American vernacular music, especially as exemplified by 30s and 40s swing. Post WWII, she offered, was the first time in human history when adolescents and teenagers had attained a degree of economic parity. And thus it befell the overlords of the music biz to "invent" a simpler kind of music, replete with the monotonous cadences of nursery rhyme to tap into this new source of consumer revenue, i.e. rock and roll. Now there is a brand new film, The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America, that beautifully documents what much of the far more sophisticated and artistic stateside music world was like before it was blown away by the 50s tsunami of rock and roll.
Drummer-bandleader Webb was inarguably as well known in the land as any of his musical peers---Ellington, Goodman, et al--- before his obscene and untimely death at the age of 30 (some say 34) in 1939. But the lore and legend vanished quickly, with most, today, if they remember Webb at all, recalling him as discoverer of and mentor to Ella Fitzgerald.
Director Jeff Kaufman set before himself the daunting task of not only thoroughly documenting Webb's career (and redressing historical oversight), but also telling the story of the evolution of jazz up to and including the Webb era, detailing social life in the Harlem of those times, AND cobbling together a somewhat brief but nevertheless highly informative film bio of singer Fitzgerald. In all of these, and several other sub-tasks as well, Kaufman has succeeded with flying colors. The film is eye-poppingly graphically animated to the degree that it never stops moving, panning, swirling, etc.; a visual delight from start-to-finish (just the film of the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers dance troupe alone. . .).
The Webb music on the soundtrack is plentiful, and the character voiceovers constitute a veritable who's who of current show biz, i.e. Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson, John Legend, Andy Garcia, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover, et al. Those names alone should lend a pretty good idea of what a first cabin effort is The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America.
I was honored by being given an advance look at the just-completed film only last week. Distribution plans are still in the process of being decided upon, but public screenings at fests and wider showings will soon be forthcoming. As my late friend Jonathan Benair was always fond of saying: "I laughed, I cried, I loved every minute of it."