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SIFF Review: 'The Savoy King' Celebrates Harlem Jazz Drummer Chick Webb

Reviews
by John W. Comerford
June 11, 2012 8:39 PM
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"The Savoy King"
"The Savoy King"

“Music is a universal combiner," says Dr. Muriel Petioni, the mother of Harlem medicine, in the first few measures of Jeff Kaufman’s spirited window into the culture of the Harlem music and dance movement in the 1920’s & 30’s. This is a perfect descriptor for "The Savoy King: Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America" and its assemblage of graphics, file footage, still photographs, primary source interviews and narration by the likes of such modern day jazz enthusiasts as John Legend, Charlie Watts, Janet Jackson, Ron Perlman, Tyne Daly and Bill Cosby. (Trailer below.)

Kaufman’s feast of rhythmic musical energy and historical imagery drops us into the life of one of jazz music’s unsung heroes. 4’1” "Chick" Webb earned his nickname from a childhood injury that left him with a broken back and a chicken-strut walk. The gifted drummer and bandleader helped to ignite and maintain the national swing craze of the 1920’s and 30’s. The insatiable constantly traveling workaholic created the best swing band of the era. After winning competitions against the likes of Benny Goodman's all-white ensemble and Count Basie’s bluesy Kansas City players, Webb was at the top of the jazz food chain.

Webb’s hard-driving rhythms inspired swing dancers who appeared by the hundreds wherever the band played, but his success dissolved far too early at the tender age of 30. In one of the documentary’s most emotional sequences, still shots of Webb in the hospital are covered gently by actress Tyne Daly intoning Chick’s last words to his wife as he slips away.

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