The Savoy King is a feature-length documentary about the Swing-era drummer/bandleader Chick Webb. Kylie Boltin spoke with director Jeff Kaufman on the eve of the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival.
The documentary charts the life story of Baltimore-born Chick Webb (1905-1939) who, as an 11-year-old, broke his back and developed tuberculosis of the spine. Drumming was recommended as rehabilitation and Webb went on to become the biggest bandleader of his time, the first to be sponsored by a broadcaster (NBC) and the man to give Ella Fitzgerald her first opportunity. Jeff Kaufman answers questions about Webb, the documentary’s style and the historical context of this legendary American story.
What inspired you to make a documentary about Chick Webb?
I had a daily news radio show for eight years. I loved listening to music but [during that time] I only plugged into news items. When I got out of it I needed something healing and soothing. I started listening to jazz and had a wonderful journey of exploration. I read a biography of Benny Goodman which had half a page about Chick Webb. I was so intrigued by that very brief description that for some reason, I deputised myself to find out more. That discovery led me to many people who knew Chick Webb in the 1920s and 30s.
You’ve constructed the story of Webb through observations and thoughts from people who knew him personally. Could you talk a little about why you structured it this way?
I wanted the film to be a series of experiences. One of my favourites was when [jazz journalist] Stanley Dance, voiced by Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, described how Chick, even though he was only four feet tall with a hunchback, waded into a night fight. He broke up a night fight with three or four musicians. You can experience and see it yourself, just like you would in real life, as opposed to being told about it.
The voices used to bring key characters in this documentary to life include Bill Cosby as Chick Webb, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald, Danny Glover as Count Basie and John Legend as Duke Ellington. How did you convince these actors to participate?
It took a long time. Except for Tyne Daly, everyone was a cold call. I just had a notion they would be wonderful. With one person it took two and a half years, with others it would take six months of reaching out, negotiating and working out details. You have to be determined, feel like you have a good mission. Once I connected with those people, I was knocked out by their kindness and the investment they put into voicing the characters they were assigned. It was an impressive experience. Obviously the people we interviewed on camera like Gertrude Jeannette, Muriel Petioni, John Isaacs and Frankie Manning – they have such rich lives and experiences and were so dynamic. That was a real blessing as well.
Finally, the context, time and place are all so important to this story. Could you comment about how you approached these elements and included them in the story?
If you don’t have a sense of the past, if you don’t have a sense of people who have taken risks in the past, then you’re blind to the future. I think the lessons of coming together across racial barriers, life barriers and having a place that opened doors to everyone, connects directly to our time. What the Savoy Ballroom represented was the first place in America where whites and blacks could go on a dance floor, touch each other, dance, talk and socialise. That had a transformative effect and those issues and concerns are directly connected to how America is being defined right now.
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