On 24 May the swing community, her family and friends from around the globe gathered at St James’ Presbyterian Church in Harlem to celebrate the life of Norma Miller (2 December 1919-5 may 2019).
We were moved by how many people Norma touched throughout her life with her spirit, determination and humour. Those of us who met her know how lucky we were. She was one of a kind.
“We must study and carry on Norma’s legacy”, in Adam Brozowski’s words, “And not just the steps or copying clips… the ideas, the meaning, the heritage which is so relevant right now in our lives. A message of unity through music, dance and love.”
It was a beautiful ceremony and of course there was swinging music and dancing for the Queen.
Now Norma rests in good company in the Jazz Corner at Woodlawn Cemetery. May she “Rest in Rhythm”.
A special day in Harlem
I was honoured to attend this ceremony in her birthplace, Harlem, NYC, which was so lovingly organized (thank you Mickey Davidson, the Frankie Manning Foundation and everyone involved).
Some of the speakers who shared their memories of Norma included John Biffar, Adam Brozowski, Bill Cobb, Darlene Gist, Lennart Westerland, Elliott Donnelley, Jackie Harris and Shirley Duncan. Music and swing were provided by Frank Owens, Tina Fabrique and Melba Joyce.
That evening the Harlem Swing Dance Society hosted a special Sugar Hill Swings! event honouring Harlem’s own Queen of Swing. With guest history panels featuring some former Norma Miller dancers: Darlene Gist, Crystal Johnson, Maxine Simmons, Barbara Billups and Sonny Allen, and a screening of rare (previously unseen by me) footage of Norma Miller presented by Chris Lee. There were also performances, swinging music by the Sugar Hill Quartet and lots of dancing by locals and visitors from around the globe who had come together for this occasion.
This was a truly special day in Harlem honouring the Queen of Swing.
Some thoughts on the Queen of Swing
Now that Norma is gone, everything has changed. She was the last of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers who could tell us what growing up in 1920s Harlem and dancing in the Savoy in its heyday was really like. She could tell us how this dance we love so much was created and in what difficult circumstances; she knew the value of her cultural heritage and that this was a story that needed to be told (well ahead of the curve, as usual). We have lost so much. And yet we have also been so lucky to have had her for 99 years, for everything she has shared with us throughout her career in swing, humour, knowledge and perseverance. Now we have to think about how we continue her legacy, how we “keep swingin’”, to follow her signature motto.
Over the last few years I met Norma Miller twice in person, yet I have spent so many hours with her: reading her words, translating, proofreading and re-reading, in English and Spanish. These have been long hours in her company and I thought I knew her well (knew her life chronology better than my own!), but since she left us I have found there is so much more to learn about her. I am realizing now how truly exceptional Norma Miller was –whether in dance, choreography, writing, music, stand-up comedy or any other of her multiple facets– she was a pioneer and her creativity was not limited by any bounds, despite the adversity she faced as a single black woman in show business. I am still researching and still learning.
On a personal level, I am thankful to Norma Miller for much joy, in particular in the last few months thanks to the publication of her memoir in Spanish. I am happy we did publish in time for her to know about it and hold a copy in her hands. After the solitary translation work, doing the book launches has been an incredible experience, an opportunity to bring her story to new audiences –-I wish I had had the chance to tell her about these events and all the people who were interested in her memoir in places as distant as Santiago, Vigo, Madrid, Barcelona, Granada and even Finisterre (aka “the end of the world”). I know she would have enjoyed visiting Spain. She was so full of energy when I met her in December that I had expected to see her at her 100th birthday.
About a year ago I was preparing a biographical article and I wrote this note: “750 words. Just 750 words to tell the life of Norma Miller…who keeps on, keeps on going and keeps on being herself at age 98 –which I guess is the greatest achievement anyone can aspire to!”. (Incidentally, 750 words was not sufficient, 1000 was tight enough). I feel Norma was as much herself at 99 as ever, with as much character, as much swing, as much joy…She remained true to herself and what she wanted in life. I cannot think of anything more inspiring.
“Everything in Life’s got a beat. When you walk down the street your feet tap to the beat…Gimme the Beat!” (Gimme the Beat, by Norma Miller).
Norma, thank you for nearly a century of swing. You are missed.
#queenofswingforever #lareinadelswing #keepswinging
Time to celebrate the Queen of Swing
2nd December will be Norma Miller’s centenary. There are several ways in which you can honor the Queen of Swing and join in Birthday the celebrations, find out more on the Frankie Manning Foundation Norma page.