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The Savoy King

Chick Webb and the Music That Changed America has been selected for the 50th annual New York Film Festival. It will screen Saturday, September 29 (noon), and Tuesday, October 2 (3:30pm). The documentary brings alive the untold story of drummer / bandleader Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, and Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Music and film critic Garry Giddins wrote, "The Savoy King is a wonderful film – dynamic and true to the spirit of its subject. If Chick Webb's life had been a novel, filmmakers would have lined up to option it. Through genius and a fabled will, Chick became a true titan in American music. In telling this remarkable story of an indispensable man, Jeff Kaufman has made one of the great musical documentaries of our time."

The Savoy King features Bill Cosby voicing the words of Chick Webb, Janet Jackson as Ella Fitzgerald, John Legend as Duke Ellington, Billy Crystal as Mezz Mezzrow, Tyne Daly as Helen Oakley Dance, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauza, Ron Perlman as Gene Krupa, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson as Teddy McRae, Danny Glover as Count Basie, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Dizzy Gillespie, Harlem Arts Alliance director Voza Rivers as Sandy Williams, New Orleans musician Sunpie Barnes as Barney Bigard, Keith David as Charles Buchanan, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts as Stanley Dance, and narration by Rocky Carroll of NCIS. The film presents newly filmed interviews (plus some singing and dancing) with drummers Louie Bellson (with his last filmed drum performance) and Roy Haynes (with a scat version of A-Tisket, A-Tasket), Swing dance masters Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, trumpeter Joe Wilder, playwright-actress Gertrude Jeannette, Harlem Rens basketball star John Isaacs, Ella Fitzgerald's son Ray Brown, Jr., composer / arranger Van Alexander, and others.

The Savoy Ballroom was the home of the amazing Lindy Hop dancers, and the first venue in America where Blacks and Whites could dance and socialize together. Born fatherless and poor, Chick Webb developed spinal tuberculosis and was a hunchbacked dwarf in constant pain, yet he virtually invented modern drumming and built the hottest Swing orchestra of the 1930s - the "house band" of The Savoy Ballroom. Chick was mentored by Duke Ellington, toured with Louis Armstrong, argued with Jelly Roll Morton, jammed with Artie Shaw, discovered and practically adopted Ella Fitzgerald, beat Benny Goodman (with Gene Krupa) and Count Basie (with Billie Holiday) in legendary battle of the bands, befriended Mario Bauzá ("The Father of Afro-Cuban Jazz"), encouraged a struggling Dizzy Gillespie, fired Louis Jordan ("The Father of Rhythm 'N' Blues" - for trying to steal away Ella), and helmed the first Black band to host a national radio show . . . all before drumming himself to death at age 30.

Dancer Norma Miller (still touring and teaching at 92) says in the film, "We fought a war with music and dance, and that’s what opened the doors."

Along with the New York Film Festival screenings, there will be a September 28, 8pm panel discussion and dance with the George Gee Swing Orchestra at Dance Manhattan, and a panel with people in the film at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture noon October 2, as part of Harlem Arts Advocacy Week.

There is also an Indiegogo fund-drive to cover promotion and travel costs. Donations are tax deductible, and contributors will receive a signed DVD. The link is:

Grammy-winning trumpeter, bandleader, composer Terence Blanchard wrote, "The Savoy King is an excellent film that is able to capture the energy and passion of our music. The story of Chick Webb is unique and wonderful. The way Jeff Kaufman has presented Chick's tale fits perfectly with that. It was thoughtful, humorous, and heartfelt. I loved it!"

And here's what drummer Gene Krupa said about Chick Webb: "Chick drew drummers by the dozen to where he was working. His playing, so clean and fast and technical, had the kind of drive that is impossible to describe if you weren't there to feel it. He showed us, by example, how to back sections, how to shade for the ensemble, how to structure drum solos, and make breaks count. He was the master, the little giant of the big noise."

The Savoy King’s themes of overcoming obstacles, mentoring, dues paid by earlier generations, the hard fight for racial understanding, and the power of music and dance to bring people together, all connect Chick's time to our own. As Dr. Muriel Petioni ("The Mother of Harlem Medicine") says in The Savoy King, "In spite of ourselves I think music is the thing that really binds us. Music is a universal combiner."