In December I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet Norma Miller, Queen of Swing, in Milan, where she was celebrating her 97th birthday…and the launch of her new album A Swingin’ Love Fest. I have been working on translating her memoirs into Spanish for over a year now, so as soon as I found out she was coming to Europe I was hopping on to that Ryanair flight, I had to meet her. It is impossible to describe the sheer energy Norma Miller exudes, but I managed to take some notes, and here are some of Norma’s words of wisdom on Lindy Hop, life and “ism”.
Norma Miller started dancing on the streets of Harlem as a kid, before making it to the Savoy Ballroom and becoming one of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. When she was 15 she came to Europe, and introduced European audiences to the Lindy Hop for the first time – and she is still teaching us what it’s all about now. To find out more about her incredible life and career dancing in the Savoy and performing with Cab Calloway and Count Basie, among many others, from Harlem to Hollywood and Rio and beyond…well I recommend her memoirs Swingin’ at the Savoy! (Soon to be available in Spanish too).
This is Norma performing her number Gimme da Beat with the Billy Bros. Orchestra on 10 December 2016 at Spirit de Milan. Gimme da Beat.
A swingin’ love fest in Milan
The whole weekend was in fact a swingin’ love fest, organized by Maurizio ‘Big Daddy’ Meterangelo and Roberta Bevilacqua, Norma’s Italian family, also known as Italian Swing Dance Society. Maurizio recorded the new album with Norma and leads the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra in true hep fashion. The setting, the decadent industrial glamour of Spirit de Milan, and the local lindy hoppers lived up to Italian style expectations, so that you could be forgiven for thinking you had wandered in to a gangster movie set at times, including the 1930s vintage car that Norma pulled up in on opening night.
We enjoyed a screening of the documentary Queen of Swing, which Maurizio had subtitled especially for the occasion, followed by a personal interview with Norma each night. Jude Lindy acted as MC and interpreter and Norma was in (literally) sparkling form, she showed her star quality as soon as she was up on stage. We had two nights of fantastic live music and were treated to the dance virtuosity of Chester A. Whitmore, who was delightful at all times (Chester recently worked on La La Land).
The highlight of the event was of course a show-stopping performance of the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra with Norma Miller on the Saturday night. They have the best big band sound I have heard live, and the Queen of Swing certainly had the beat. Five of the album’s songs are Norma’s, which she sang live, including Gimme da Beat, They Call Him Louie, Swingin’ Frankie’s Way, Down in New Orleans and Swing Baby Swing.
We were celebrating Norma’s new album and her recent 97th Birthday!! (Which by the way, is very close to being a world record).
It was an incredibly intense weekend, filled with swing and joy. Maurizio and Roberta were truly welcoming and made me want to join the Italian lindy hopping family too.
But let’s hear what Norma had to say (recorded as best I could).
Norma Miller on…
“Count Basie had the greatest swing band ever. He was the one that was able to…Everything he did. He told arrangers to write the music to keep the dancers on the floor. Consequently, if you hear a Basie tune you can dance to it. He had one of the best rhythm sections ever. Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums, Freddy Green on guitar and Basie on the piano. Which was the best rhythm section ever in the history of swing music. Now, you had a lot of great bands. You had Chick Webb who was the King of Swing. You had Jimmy Lunceford, another great band. But no-one swung like Basie. That’s why all our dances were choreographed to Basie music, because rhythmically it was perfect. And when you Lindy Hop, you Lindy Hop to great rhythm. And the two things went together perfectly. And that is why Basie was one of our best bands for dancing. It wasn’t that the other bands weren’t good, it’s just nobody was better at it than Count Basie.”
The most wonderful thing
“ Nothing’s more wonderfully enjoyable than a guy and a girl, enjoying a Count Basie tune. You take Corner Pocket, you take any of the great Basie tunes and you take a girl on the floor, well it’s an enjoyable thing. Lindy Hop is the best social dance there is. Ballet is wonderful, solo jazz is wonderful, but nothing is more wonderful than to be with a guy and you swing with him, it’s just the best there is. Nothing tops the Lindy Hop. I’m at the end of my rope now, but you got to enjoy it. I enjoyed it!!”
“Lindy Hop is the most sexual thing a guy and a girl can do…without going to the bedroom.”
Swing and colour
“Swing was doing integration before Martin Luther King. That’s what was happening in the Savoy. White people along with black people, dancing together. We were trying to do integration.”
“Swing has no colour. It doesn’t matter whether you are white or black, or even Muslim. Swing is music. Sound has no colour. You play a Count Basie song and you can’t think about colour. That’s swing. We rose above it.”
Getting out of the ghetto
“I was a woman and I was black. Swing, dancing, got me out of Harlem. We survived. I tried to be the best, all my life. You have to be the best at what you do to get ahead.”
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers
“We were good. We were good because we danced every night. For about five years, before the movies, we were at the Savoy dancing every night. That’s why we were good.”
“You got to dance to the music. You have to listen and dance to the music the band is playing. We danced everything. The Savoy was a ballroom and you had to dance to everything, one-step, two-step…We didn’t Lindy Hop all night.”
“I don’t give advice to dancers. Just dance.”
“Ism is mmmm, mmhhhh, it’s that something. ‘Ism’ is what made Louis Armstrong Louis Armstrong”.
Her first dance with Twistmouth George
“I was twelve and I will never forget it. It was the best day of my life. I was dancing with the best dancer, he was six foot tall, I was only twelve, I flew. I will never forget it.”
Her drink of choice?
“Mimosa, champagne and orange juice, what could be better?”
Norma hasn’t stopped swinging and she is full of plans. She wants to bring the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra to New York to perform at Midsummer Jazz at the Lincoln Center. She also wants to bring a show to Broadway with Chester and the best swing dancers, if anyone can make it a great show that is Norma.
Norma’s advice for future generations?
If you want to recommend Norma for a Kennedy Center Honor you can do so here.
A Swingin’ Love Fest (Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra with Norma Miller, 2016).
You can order a copy from the Italian Swing Dance Society.
Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer, Norma Miller with Evette Jensen (Temple University Press).
All photos by OlgaBSP for Spirit de Milan, courtesy of Italian Swing Dance Society.
A Royal Welcome for the Queen of Swing was organized by Italian Swing Dance Society in collaboration with Luca Locatelli, the Klaxon Agency and Spirit de Milan.