Evergreen Magazine

The Savoy King

While poring over a biography of the popular swing-era bandleader Benny Goodman, Jeff Kaufman read a passage about a 4-foot-1-inch drummer named Chick Webb that caught his interest. In 1937, it said, Webb’s orchestra bested Goodman’s in a battle of the bands held at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and packed with 4,000 fans. “That was like someone you never heard of beating The Beatles,” observes Kaufman.

Intrigued, Kaufman sought to find out more about this diminutive upstart, a musician deformed by childhood spinal tuberculosis who became one of the giants of the swing era. The more Kaufman learned, the more he realized that Webb’s life ”was an amazing untold story.” Mentored by Duke Ellington, Webb had discovered Ella Fitzgerald and humbled not only Goodman but also Count Basie with his genius, overcoming enormous physical and racial obstacles in the process and dying in his early 30s.

Kaufman’s research led him to produce and direct The Savoy King, a documentary about Webb’s life that premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in June and was named “Best of the Fest” at the New York Film Festival in September. Kaufman “built the story entirely on first-person accounts” of individuals who knew and worked with Webb, including 91-year-old swing dance pioneer Frankie Manning, who died in 2009. The film, which has gotten rave reviews, features an all-star cast (including Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover and John Legend) that brings some of jazz history’s great figures to life.

Before making The Savoy King, Kaufman, who attended Evergreen in 1973–74, was involved in the production of several programs for The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and The Learning Channel. His documentary work includes the feature film Brush With Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman and 10 short films for Amnesty International, including one that launched Amnesty's Maternal Mortality campaign. He is already at work on his next two documentary projects: one on education and sustainable development in Haiti, seen through the life of economic visionary Father Joseph Philippe, and another on a 200-year-old Mardi Gras tradition.

Kaufman’s path to filmmaker was circuitous: He once worked as a messenger for The New Yorker, which bought a number of his cartoons. He did illustrations for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times; wrote and illustrated several children’s books; and hosted and produced daily political and cultural talk radio shows in Los Angeles and Vermont. With his Los Angeles-based production company Floating World Pictures, he’s clearly found his groove.