The Savoy, where it all began

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I have wondered how to start this blog, but really the answer is simple: I must start at the Savoy in Harlem – where Swing music and dance was born, thrived and became world famous. And king amongst the swing dances of the age was the Lindy Hop (also known as jitterbug). Lindy Hop, swing and all things vintage are back in vogue again – and it is important to remember its origins. Stepping up the Savoy’s marble and mirror staircase into the finest ballroom in the world is a good place to start…

Savoy, Harlem 1952
A crowd gathered outside the Savoy Ballroom, a major cultural hub and landmark for the Harlem neighborhood.(Photograph © Bettmann/Corbis. http://www.danceheritage.org/savoy.html

The Savoy was more than a ballroom – it was the beating heart of Harlem. Here is where the best musicians and dancers came together to create swing. It was the largest and most elegant ballroom in Harlem. For a start it was on a different scale to other ballrooms, occupying a whole block from 140th to 141st street, about 250ft by 50ft with two bandstands – it could fit thousands on the dance floor, over 5,000 attended on its opening night on 12 March 1926[i] with Fletcher Henderson’s band.

This is how Frankie Manning, the great Lindy Hop legend, described his first visit to the Savoy when he was about nineteen:

‘As I was climbing the steps that led to the ballroom, I could hear the swinging music coming down the stairwell, and it started seeping right into my body…I got to the top step, went through the double doors, and stopped for a moment with my back to the bandstand, taking it all in. When I turned around and faced the room…well I just stood there with my mouth open. The whole floor was full of people –and they were dancing! The band was pounding! The guys up there were wailing! The music was rompin’ and stompin’. Everybody was movin’ and groovin’….We started saying ‘’This is dancin’ heaven’’. It even looked like the floor was getting in the mood because it was bouncing up and down too.’

Harlem had become a popular night spot for downtown white society during the 20s. Harlem, a predominantly black neighbourhood in New York experienced a huge influx of black migrants from the South in the early 20th Century decades as thousands fled from terrible oppression looking for new opportunities. Harlem provided a promise of freedom and pride, and it became a hotspot for black creativity and culture – in music, art, literature and politics, in a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. But although it was ostensibly the ‘Negro’ neighbourhood, it was also notably segregated (as was the case throughout the US to different degrees at the time), most of the famous nightclubs were for white patrons only: the Cotton Club, the Apollo (which is still standing today) etc. would feature black performers but black people could not use the main entrance or mix with the white audience.  Segregation and discrimination were even greater problems outside of New York – when Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers or bands and musicians went on tour it was often difficult to find places that would serve them food or provide accommodation. Billie Holiday describes countless incidents in her memoirs, including the difficulty in finding rest rooms she could use, just one small example of the challenges they faced.

The Savoy was unique as it was not segregated – black and white patrons could attend, sit, eat and drink and dance together, ‘for the first time in history the status quo was challenged’ states Norma Miller. Frankie Manning has said that it didn’t matter whether you were black or white, green, yellow or whatever, just whether you could dance.  I think this inclusive spirit is reflected in Lindy Hop and is a key feature of this joyful dance, of its legacy and how we enjoy this dance nowadays.

The Savoy was the most elegant ballroom in Harlem and surpassed all of America’s top dance halls. It was dazzling, as described by Norma Miller: ‘the ballroom itself was decorated in gold and blue with colored spotlights. The walls were lined with booths for eating and drinking. The dance area was…the length of a city block, the dancefloor itself was made of many layers of hardwood, such as mahogany and maple…it was replaced every three years, worn out by the constant pounding [of the dancers]’.

The music…and the dance

Chick Webb vs Count Basie, with Billie Holiday, Savoy
Advertisement for a battle of the bands between Chick Webb and Count Basie, with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

The music never stopped at the Savoy, there were two bandstands and one of them was always playing. Norma Miller recalls listening to this music from her home’s fire escape as a child, and later she started dancing on the pavement outside the Savoy. Chick Webb usually led the house band, and he was Lindy Hoppers’ favourite band. Over the next few years over 200 hundred swing bands played the Savoy – there were legendary battles between visiting bands like Cab Calloway’s, Count Basie’s or Benny Goodman’s (who only played the Savoy once but visited often) and Chick’s band. For top band battles the queue would go round several blocks – and it was the dancers who made a band’s success. The Savoy was also key in launching the careers of famous singers like Ella FitzGerald, who was picked by Chick to sing for his band, and continued to lead the band after his death in 1939. Chick Webb recorded Stompin’ at the Savoy in 1934. Here is Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb’s orchestra playing St Louis Blues at the Savoy, sometime in 1939.

Back then bands played for dancers, and if they wanted to stay they had to keep the floor packed according to Frankie Manning. Jacqui Malone has written a very interesting article on Jazz Music in Motion: Dancers and Big Bands which argues for re-claiming the close connection between dance and the development of jazz and swing music ‘Night after night, the dancers and musicians at the Savoy spurred one another on to greater heights and greater depths- always with an attitude of elegance’. Duke Ellington commented ‘You start playing, the dancers start dancing, and they have such a great beat you just hang on!’.

Out of this close collaboration with Chick Webb’s and other swing bands the Lindy Hop was born. The Lindy Hop is a joyous improvisational dance with a syncopated 8 count beat. For all the lindy hoppers reading this I do not need to provide further explanation. It evolved from other dances of the era with the breakaway, which allowed more room for improvisation, and introduced the swing-out, its star step. Herbert White, the Savoy floor manager, brought together the most talented Lindy Hoppers to form Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and other dance troupes. The Lindy Hop was popularized all over America and overseas thanks mainly to Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers – touring Europe, Australia and Brazil as well as appearing in several films and the 1939 New York World Fair.

Frankie Manning, a legend in the swing community who we will speak about more in another post, was one of Whitey’s dancers; he was a key innovator and choreographer, influencing the dance’s characteristic near-horizontal style and creating the first acrobatic airsteps with his dance partner. He has also been the inspiration leading the Lindy Hop worldwide revival since the 90s and contributing to the inclusive spirit of the swing community. The Lindy Hop was not the only dance danced at the Savoy and other popular dances included the Shag, the Fox Trot, the Peabody, the Black Bottom, the Big Apple, the Shim Sham etc. but it has perhaps had the most lasting impact, as experienced daily by thousands of modern Lindy Hoppers the world-over.

Here is some rare footage of dancing at the Savoy from a newsreel: Dancing at the Savoy

…and more

The Savoy was not only a ballroom, it also had a role as a civic centre for the black community in Harlem: there were regular community gala events on Wednesday and Friday nights, the ‘400 Club’ and other Harlem fraternities and associations met there and Adam Clayton Powell was a regular patron. Following the riots in 1935 it was felt the Savoy was too important to be closed and the Harvest Moon Ball competitions were created in an effort to re-build the damaged morale of the black community.  Despite it being a predominantly black neighbourhood, the home of the New Negro and the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem was mainly owned by white people and many Harlem businesses did not employ black people, contributing to these riots in the midst of the Depression. In this context the value of the Savoy as a venue that employed and welcomed a diversity of patrons – from local kids to Hollywood starts – becomes more apparent.

The Savoy opened in 1926 and closed in 1958. There is scarcely a big jazz band name that is not associated with the Savoy, including black and white bands. For the Lindy Hoppers like Frankie Manning and Norma Miller and many others it became a second home, the ‘home of happy feet’ as it was known.  It helped create and popularize the most quintessentially American music, swing, and a truly American dance, Lindy Hop. The Savoy was the place to be in Harlem – and Harlem was the place to be in the 20s and 30s. In the words of Romare Bearden (artist) ‘The best dancing in the world was there, and the best music…You’d want to be either in Harlem then or in Paris. These were the two places where things were happening.’

And what would a post about the Savoy be without music? Here is a selection of tracks:

The Savoy opened in 1926 and closed permanently in 1958. It was demolished for the construction of a housing complex. A conmemoration plaque was inaugurated on 26 May 2002 by Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, on Frankie’s 88th Birthday.

More reading

There is plenty of material about the Savoy. I would recommend starting with Frankie Manning’s and Norma Miller’s biographies for a personal account of what the Savoy was like. These are some of the sources I used, by no means a full list of what is available. Some video documentary material is also available on youtube (The Savoy ballroom).

Burns, Ken, Jazz (TV and DVD series, PBS, 2000) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_(TV_series)

Malone, Jaqui, ‘Jazz Music in Motion’, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, Chapter 18. Ed. Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Manning, Frankie & Millman, Cynthia, Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.

Miller, Norma, Swingin’ at the Savoy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Seisdedos, Iker, ‘Cuando Harlem era una fiesta’. El País, 5 February, 2015.

Stearns, Marshall & Jean, Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance, New York: Macmillan, 1968

The Studio Museum in Harlem, Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. New York: Times Mirror Books,1987.

The Savoy Plaque http://www.savoyplaque.org/

The Savoy King Documentary, http://www.savoyking.com/ . Extract from the documentary, The Savoy ballroom https://youtu.be/Mqsc0dhoED0

Quotes from:
Malone, Jaqui, Jazz Music in Motion, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, Chapter 18.
Manning, Frankie, Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop.
Miller, Norma, Swingin’ at the Savoy.

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