Monday, October 24, 2011

Here comes Chick Webb!

"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 Americathat 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." 


David Federman said...

I am often amazed at the devolution and then stasis of music. My parents worshipped Goodman and Miller and their kids worshipped Kenton and Coltrane. Yet my kids have found nothing of meaningful magnitude since the Beatles. They are using music made more than 40 years ago as a benchmark. And there is no sign that they will ever have a truly contemporary music with a vanguard of people like Lester Young and Frank Sinatra, or Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Jazz moves forward, yes. Players like James Carter give me great hope. But my kids' home base is rock and roll--and no one in the field has hit a homer since Springsteen and Bowie. I can't see how the world can survive without the replenishment of great new music and musicians. Even the Occupy Wall Street anthems don't hold a candle to those pro-Union songs recorded by the Almanac Singers in 1941. I've been playing some of this 'ancient' music for my students at Community College of Philadelphia, but most hate it. There is absolutely no curiosity about music and culture outside the hard, tiny isthmus of their own alienation. I find this insularity amazing because they all have iphones and iPads and the ability to connect to a cultural vastness if they so desire. Hell, I gave them a Raymond Carver story to read and every thumb in the class went down and the lions had another hero for dinner.

Bill Reed said...

Thanks for your most astute observations. I just came across this quote that someone posted on youtube. Sums your sentiments in a a nice neat little sentence: "I think Darwin was wrong after all, this stuff is 70 years old [Krupa's Drum Boogie] and what happened in the meantime doesn't look like evolution at all." Though I would tend to replace Krupa's name with Parker's and "70" with "50." Right now, listening to Ella singing Cousin from Milwaukee with Nelson Riddle and it sounds and feels, extra-categorically, light years ahead of anything that is produced by today's musical establishment. Buble is pretty good; Alan Broadbent, too. And a few others leap to mind. But mostly no one alive and making music today can hold a candle to Ellington, Gil Evans, et al. The music industry "suits" responsible for the latter-day garbage palming itself as music wouldn't be caught dead letting their own children listen to it. Don't get me started. . .. Don't get me wrong; I occasionally clear my music palette with a dose (15 seconds of surprise) of Brian Wilson or the Beatles. But that's about it.