The Savoy King: A Serendipitous Evening With a Witness to Jazz History

You never know what you'll encounter along Gay Street on a Saturday night. This past Saturday witnessed a rare sort of movie premiere, a new film shown on a clean white sheet at the interior courtyard of Jack and Marlene O'Hanlon. Their secluded terrace once belonged to an unusual sort of a nightclub. As it happened, the movie was about a more famous nightclub, one in Harlem called the Savoy. Of the dozen people watching the movie under the stars, the one sitting closest was a retired academic, an author on complex philosophical theories, but one who knew the Savoy better than most.

The Savoy King, by director/producer Jeff Kaufman, may or may not make it to proper indoor theaters here—non-political documentaries seem to have a hard time drawing paying crowds—but it has an all-star cast of voices, from Bill Cosby to Billy Crystal to Danny Glover, and it has been showing in Manhattan lately, at the New York Film Festival three weeks ago. It's the story of America's first racially integrated dance club, Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, and especially its famous house band.

Opened in 1926 by adventurous entrepreneur Moe Gale, the Savoy was an almost instant legend. It held 4,000, huge even by Manhattan nightclub standards. On a typical night, a majority were charismatically, sometimes gymnastically dancing—the Lindy Hop or the Big Apple or something else no one had ever seen before. The crowds were mostly black, but the admixture of adventurous whites in the same crowd—among them Greta Garbo, Bing Crosby, and Fred Astaire—made the Savoy pretty unusual, even in New York.

They came to see performers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and especially Chick Webb, the diminutive drummer who led the house band.

His growth permanently stunted by a severe back injury as a child, Webb was dwarf-like in stature, and consequent health problems resulted in his early death. As if he knew something about the preciousness of time, Webb learned to play the drums like nobody else, and in his short life he became one of the most influential musicians of the swing era, by his signature tunes, like "Stompin' at the Savoy," and by helping younger musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and especially Ella Fitzgerald. Webb effectively launched that legendary singer's career at the Savoy, and played on her first records, including "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," when Fitzgerald was a member of Webb's band.

At the O'Hanlons' downtown courtyard, with Interstate 40's oceanic whoosh and an occasional freight train as the background score, the 80-year-old man in front watched intently from his lawn chair. Richard Gale is a semi-retired academic, a wiry, energetic man with a quick mind and a sharp memory. He's the son of Moe Gale, the man who ran the Savoy for more than 30 years. "He was a businessman," Richard says of his father. Moe Gale wasn't necessarily a civil-rights activist, but open-minded enough to try something new that might be profitable.

The Savoy's heyday was in the 1930s, and it was never the same after Chick Webb's death in 1939. Swing itself died not too long after. Moe Gale was never as fond of bebop, which attracted some of the Savoy's old stars, like Gillespie. The famous Savoy was torn down in the late '50s for a housing project.

Richard Gale tried to get into the music business in the 1950s. His clients spanned a wide range of popular music, from Jim Reeves to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and he frankly admits he sometimes he carried around payola bribes, which was the marketing currency of the day. Gale tried to market "I Put a Spell on You," but says he failed; though the song has since become iconic, Hawkins' original never charted.

But Richard didn't like his dad's business, and veered about as far away from it as you can, into academia. He has written books about the pragmatists John Dewey and William James and the philosophy of time. His books include Negation and Non Being and On the Nature and Existence of God. He occasionally sounds philosophical. "Jazz in general has been America's id," he says. "It's always perceived by the white establishment as a threat. And it is."

Several years ago, he retired and moved to Knoxville, at his daughter's urging. His wife, Maya, died just a few months ago. Gale's in the process of moving into a smaller apartment on Union Avenue.

Richard Gale remembers the Savoy's famously effective manager, Charlie Buchanan. "He was a man without a race," he recalls of the mixed-race Caribbean immigrant, who wasn't wholly comfortable with either blacks or whites. Gale doesn't claim to remember Chick Webb very well personally, but says one of his earliest memories is his father's weeping at the news of his friend's death.

The younger Gale did get to know several later musicians: Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Jimmy Rushing, and saxophone legend Lester Young, who died in 1959. "He was the most sweet gentleman, but the most far-out cat in the world," says Gale, who says Young was shy about going out in public in the daytime. Gale says Young was the one who began using the word "cool" to describe the music he liked.

Gale is still in touch with a few musicians from the old days; not too long ago, he swapped e-mails with 97-year-old jazz composer Van Alexander, who had worked with Webb.

The Savoy King contained a surprise for this local audience. Webb performed mainly in New York, but occasionally went on tour. Chick Webb's all-black band played only occasionally in the segregated South, where the constant anxiety about finding accommodations sounds like it was often more trouble than it was worth. The fact that Webb helped raise funds to help the controversial legal defense for the Scottsboro Boys didn't help. He hardly played in Tennessee at all. But a map of his dates shows that he played at least once in Knoxville, perhaps in his last tour, in the latter 1930s. If you know anything about that, don't be a stranger.