March 2018/marzo 2018
Spirit of Community: Art of Harlem exhibition (Harlem Hospital Center, Lenox Avenue, NY).
Atlantic Lindy Hopper is going to New York in March 2018 thanks to the the support of the Frankie Manning Foundation.
I will be researching the origins of Lindy hop in Harlem: early press materials, the history of the dancers and the venues where they danced. The treasures of the NYPL await (this library even has its own film).
It’s not all going to be archives, there will also be an escapade to LindyFest in Houston, one of the major swing festivals in the US.
I hope to come back with lots of new stories for Atlantic Lindy Hopper, watch this space.
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.
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).
“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.”
“ 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 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.”
“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.”
“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”.
“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.
This post was originally published as a guest post on the Frankie Manning Foundation site (by Karen Campos McCormack).
This might not be a widely known fact among the Irish Lindy Hopping community, but Frankie Manning was in Dublin in 1937. He was performing with Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs, as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were billed on this European tour with the Cotton Club Revue. They landed in Dublin following a successful ten weeks run at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and six weeks at the London Palladium. In his memoir, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop (see notes below), after describing their tour of Paris and London, Frankie mentions briefly that they also performed in Dublin and Manchester. I was intrigued by this single line, and decided to do some research last summer when I was in Ireland. I was amazed at what I discovered in just a few days at the library and trawling through online Irish newspaper archives. Since I first fell in love with Lindy Hop in Dublin, knowing that Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers actually danced here and walked the streets of Dublin is especially meaningful for me.
The Cotton Club Revue was billed as ‘Harlem on Parade’ in its visit to Dublin. It opened at the Theatre Royal on Monday 30 August 1937 and ran that week, closing on Saturday 4 September.
The Cotton Club Revue set sail from New York on 25 May 1937 and showcased the best African American musical and dance talent. It was spectacular in all senses, with a travelling cast of sixty artists including the Teddy Hill Orchestra, the Three Berry Brothers dance act, singers Rollin’ Smith and Alberta Hunter, Harlem dancers Freddy and Ginger, tap dancer Bill Bailey, Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs, the Tramp Band (a novel musical act), and a chorus line of ‘25 copper coloured gals’, as they were advertised. The Revue performed in full in Paris and London, but the chorus line was dropped for their shows in Dublin and Manchester. For the European tour Teddy Hill was replacing the Cab Calloway band from the original New York show, and similarly, Bill Bailey replaced tap star Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Frankie said about Teddy Hill’s orchestra, which at the time included a young Dizzie Gillespie, ‘I always loved dancing to that band. They knew how to improvise on the spot.’ (Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop, p135). The Cotton Club was the epitome of show business, and performing there was a turning point in his career.
The show gathered enthusiastic reviews in its European tour. Playing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris it attracted Django Rheinhardt and Hugues Panassié, the famous French jazz critic, (the former went to see them perform every night according to Frankie, and Panassié went to see them fifteen or twenty times). For Panassié, ‘The biggest event of the 1937 season in Paris was the arrival of the Cotton Club Revue’, and ‘Everyone should go to see the Cotton Club Revue.’ (Quotes from Paris Blues, p77).
It was advertised in British papers as ‘The fastest entertainment in the world and given by Harlem’s foremost entertainers.’
It was late August 1937 when Harlem on Parade came to Dublin. These were dark times in European history, the Irish newspapers are full of news about the Spanish Civil War (refugees fleeing from Franco’s troupes in Santander) and thousands gathering at the Nazi Annual Congress in Nuremberg, on the same pages that Harlem on Parade is advertised. In the face of the Depression and increasing world conflict, Harlem was spreading its message of swing and joy across Europe, a ‘riot of music, dancing, song and rollicking fun’, as described by the Irish paper the Saturday Herald (28 August).
Ireland might not have seemed like the most swingin’ location. Just a few years earlier, leading religious figures and politicians, including President Eamon De Valera, had supported a ‘Down with Jazz’ campaign (1934). Jazz music, and dancing in particular, were seen as a pagan threat to Catholic morality and Ireland’s newly independent national identity, claiming that jazz dancing was ‘suggestive and demoralizing’, ‘a menace to their very civilization as well as religion’. To give foreign readers an idea of the sway of the Catholic Church at the time, just about a quarter of Ireland’s population (i.e. one million people) had gathered at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress High Mass in Phoenix Park (Dublin). Despite this campaign and the severe restrictions of the 1935 Dance Hall Act, jazz music and dancing were hugely popular—Swing music was the music of the moment worldwide, and American film and music were pervasive, as much in Ireland as in Franco’s Spain and even Germany. Dubliners who wished to evade the dark news coming from Europe had no end of jazzy entertainment options from cinemas to theatres or dances.
Harlem on Parade opened on Monday 30 August 1937 in Dublin’s top venue, the (third) Theatre Royal, located on Hawkins Street. An ambitious modernist entertainment venue opened in 1935, it was the largest theatre in Ireland, and one of the largest in Europe, with seating for 3,850 people. It included the luxury Regal Rooms (dining room and ballroom) and a cinema. Harlem on Parade was at the Theatre Royal in a cine-variety format, including local artists and two short films; the Theatre Royal had been especially designed for this type of entertainment, which was very popular before the advent of TV. Unfortunately, nothing remains on its former site to give us an idea of the splendour of the Theatre Royal, as it was demolished in 1962 (and replaced by probably the ugliest government buildings in Dublin). The only surviving element is the grand marble staircase from the Theatre Royal’s Regal Rooms, now located in the Marks and Spencer’s store on Grafton Street, which is open to the public if you wish to literally follow in Frankie’s steps.
Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs were Whitey’s top group and comprised three teams on the European tour: Naomi Waller and Frankie Manning, Lucille Middleton and Jerome Williams, Mildred Cruse and Billy Williams. They had started performing at the Cotton Club in 1936. Whitey had several dance groups going at that time under different names, such as the group dancing in the Marx Brothers movie. Frankie suggested the name of Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs because they were crazy, but over the years all the groups came to be referred to under the umbrella of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop, p125).
The entirely African American cast of Harlem on Parade would have attracted quite some attention in Dublin, which was not as racially diverse then as nowadays. Although Irish audiences would have been familiar with African American performers from films and touring shows. I was excited to find several photographs of the cast around Dublin, including some of Frankie and other members of Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs, published in the Irish newspapers.
The big news story that week (aside from the Spanish civil war and the Nazi congress) was the heavyweight world championship fight between Joe Louis and Welshman Farr (the ‘white hope’ to regain the championship from ‘negro’ Joe Louis, Evening Herald 31 August) which was taking place in New York. The fight was given full-page round-by-round coverage, and there are two related photos of the Harlem on Parade cast, one of them reading the latest news scoop, and another celebrating Joe Louis’ victory. As Norma Miller explains in her memoirs, Joe Louis was an important hero for the African American community (Swingin’ at the Savoy). The Evening Herald photo of the Harlem cast celebrations (31 August), provides us with the first identifiable image of Frankie in Dublin.
There is also a photo of the Harlem on Parade cast looking at the Gas Company Building window display. Cynthia Millman helped me identify this photo where we can see Lucille Middleton and Naomi Waller (possibly even Frankie and Billy, but this is more uncertain due to the grainy image). This is an image of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers walking Dublin’s streets in a recognizable location. The Gas Company on D’Olier Street, now the Trinity College Dublin School of Midwifery, is one of the few well preserved examples of Art Deco in Dublin, and is open to the public. The association between the Gas Company and the Harlem on Parade show seems to have gone even further, judging by the Gas Company advert that ran in the Evening Herald; also note the interesting jazz-inspired window display.
Harlem on Parade provided Dublin audiences with the first opportunity to see the Lindy Hop live but, interestingly, they might have already seen Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers on screen, only shortly after American audiences. The Marx Brothers’ film A Day at the Races, which featured a dance scene with a different Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers group, was released in June 1937 in the US and had a pre-London release in early August in Dublin at the Savoy Cinema (still Dublin’s foremost cinema today). The Harlem on Parade show arrived hot on its heels, and it is fun to imagine that it might even have been possible for Frankie to have seen the first Hollywood Lindy Hop performance while in Dublin, although there is no evidence to back this. A Day at the Races continued to tour Irish cinemas well into 1938.
From Dublin the Cotton Club Revue went on to Manchester before returning to the US in September 1937.
The Evening Herald:
“Harlem on Parade”, the show which comes to the Theatre Royal on August 30, has been acclaimed as the greatest cavalcade of coloured artists in the world. Following a sensational ten weeks’ appearance at the French capital, they were engaged for six weeks at the London Palladium, where they broke all box-office records.’’ (Evening Herald, 26 August 1937).
The Irish Independent:
Royal’s Outstanding Show: At the top of the bill is “Harlem on Parade”…This feature is well worth seeing. The fine singing of Rollin’ Smith in “Ole Man River”, and “Poor Old Joe,” and the dancing of Bill Bailey, are notable in the performance. Several new dances are presented. There is the “Lindy Hop” by Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs. Then there is the music of Teddy Hill and his orchestra from New York. (Irish Independent, 31 August 1937).
The Manchester Guardian:
Then the first crisp trumpet notes of the Teddy Hill’s band are heard through the curtain. Immediately the whole atmosphere changes, and the Cotton Club artists from New York set out show this benighted continent what hot jazz really is…Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs abandon themselves whole-heartedly to the primitive ebullience of the Lindy Hop. (Manchester Guardian, September 7 1937. Source: Proquest Historical Newspapers, the Guardian and the Observer).
Hugues Panassié (French jazz critic):
Whitey’s Hopper Maniacs are three couples who specialise in a dance called the lindy hop (the name comes from the Lindbergh hop), a dance which has been raging for some time in America. The six dancers are remarkable, in particular Naomi Waller and Lucille Middleton. It is difficult to give readers who have never seen the lindy hop an idea of what it looks like. It is the most dynamic dance in the world. The dancers throw their partners up in the air, jump in front of each other and perform the most unpredictable gags. (Hugues Panassié, as quoted in This Thing Called Swing, p220).
This research is an on-going project, and I welcome any further information other readers can add about Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs’ visit to Dublin or help identifying the members of the cast in the photos. I would like to thank Cynthia Millman in particular and the Frankie Manning Foundation for their encouragement and support. I would also like to thank the staff of Trinity College Library.
I am interested in commemorating Frankie’s visit and the Harlem on Parade show in Dublin next year, as 2017 would be the 80th anniversary. If you would like to get involved please contact me.
Karen Campos McCormack is a freelance translator and swing dance, music and history enthusiast. She is currently working on the Spanish translation of Norma Miller’s Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer (Temple University Press). She is the founder of Compostela Swing and you can find more of her articles in English and Spanish on Atlantic Lindy Hopper.
Batchelor, Christian, This Thing Called Swing: Study of Swing Music and the Lindy Hop, the Original Swing Dance. Original Lindy Hop Collection, 1997. https://www.amazon.com/This-Thing-Called-Swing-Original/dp/0953063100
Brennan, Cathal, ‘The Anti-Jazz Campaign’, Irish History Online, 1 July 2011. http://www.irishhistoryonline.ie/
Devitt, David, ‘The Theatre Royal – A Palace of Cine-Variety’, History of Ireland, Vol. 21, No. 2 (March/April 2013).
Flashbak, ‘The Cotton Club Revue Visit London in 1937’, http://flashbak.com/the-cotton-club-revue-visit-london-in-1937-22484/
Fry, Andy, Paris Blues: African American Music and French Popular Culture, 1920-1960. University of Chicago Press, 2014. http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo18008923.html
Irish News Archive, https://www.irishnewsarchive.com/
Kerins, Des, ‘The Story of a Staircase’, Arthurlloyd.co.uk, http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Dublin/TheatreRoyalDublin/Staircase/TheatreRoyalDublinStaircase.htm
Lloyd, Mathew, ‘The Theatre Royal, Hawkins Street, Dublin’, Arthurlloyd.co.uk, http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/Dublin/TheatreRoyalDublin/TheatreRoyalDublin.htm
Manning, Frankie & Millman, Cynthia R., Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007. http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1877_reg.html
Miller, Norma & Jensen, Evette, Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1214_reg.html
Evening Herald, 7 August, 30 & 31 August 1937 (Irish news archive).
Manchester Guardian, 7 September 1937 (Proquest Historical Newspapers)
The Irish Independent, 31 August 1937 (Irish news archive).
The Irish Press, 30 & 31 August 1937 (Irish news archive).
Saturday Herald, 28 August and 4 September 1937 (Irish news archive).
You might have missed this hidden treasure of Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic craze. Cassino da Urca was Rio’s most spectacular casino dating back to the 1930s, the epitome of Rio’s golden era of glamour with its grand casinos and top level national and international performers. Carmen Miranda was the casino’s resident star attraction before moving to Hollywood. Some of the stars who frequented the Cassino da Urca included Josephine Baker, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney and Orson Welles. The place was swingin’ in the 1930s and 40s, and you could even see Harlem’s best Lindy Hop with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who performed here on tour in 1941-1942; in fact, due to World War II they were forced to delay their return and remain in Brazil several months for fear their boat might be attacked as the international conflict grew. The recently renovated casino building can still be seen overlooking a quiet beach in the Urca neighbourhood, across the bay from Rio, but it gives us little indication of the scale and luxury of the casino in its heyday.
Norma Miller was one of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe that went to Rio and describes her arrival in her memoirs Swingin’ at the Savoy:
The driver took us along Copacabana Beach where the road winds all the way to Cassino da Urca, a beautiful building on the beach, with an awning all the way to the street. It was just as we anticipated, like a fabulous movie setting. There was nothing in America to compare to this casino. It was on the beach, facing the harbor, and when you stood on the patio looking across the harbor, you had a breathtaking view of the statue of Christ. Rio immediately filled a special place in my heart. (p 173).
Is probably Brazil’s most iconic star, and she performed weekly at the Cassino da Urca until 1940, when she moved to Hollywood.
Carmen Miranda singing O Tic-Tac do Meu Coraçao (1942).
Joaquim Rolla was the entrepreneur who transformed the Cassino da Urca into the best casino in Latin America and beyond. He won ownership over part of the casino playing cards in 1933. After becoming the sole owner he turned it into something much more ambitious and reopened in 1936 following the renovations.
The casino had three big bands, a large chorus line like the Rockettes, and over one hundred band singers (each singer would perform just one number with the band). In Norma Miller’s words: ‘It was something like Las Vegas today’. The Carlos Machado Band was the leading big band in Rio at the time Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were there and Grande Otello was the local actor and singer star. There was a theatre, several gambling rooms and restaurants, as well as a boat service to other casinos.
Everything about the Cassino was beautiful and on an incredible scale of luxury. The stage was mobile, and as one band finished playing it would disappear underground as the next band started up (you can see this device in action in the Istituto Europeo di Design video included at the end of the post).
This film clip re-creates Carmen Miranda’s last performance at the Cassino.
Walt Disney’s stay inspired this Donald Duck clip.
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers travelled down to Rio in December 1941. The troupe included three teams: Frankie Manning and Ann Jonson, Al Minns and Willamae Ricker, Billy Ricker and Norma Miller. The Lindy Hoppers loved the Samba and were a big hit on opening night according to Norma:
‘We loved Brazil, and Brazil loved us. When we hit the stage with the band, I knew something special was happening. It was wonderful, it was that Samba beat…The house roared and the band was swingin’ like crazy. When we finished the house went wild, everything else stopped. We bowed and bowed, and, finally, they let us go. We were a smash in Rio. We knew we had found a second home’. (p 175).
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers had been contracted for 6 weeks, but following the bombing of Pearl Harbour it became too dangerous to return by boat, and 6 weeks became 10 months, during which time they played all the major casinos in Brazil. They would do a first show at Cassino da Urca and then take a cabin cruiser across the harbour to play at Cassino Icarai.
You can read more about Norma Miller’s adventures in Brazil, where she learned to dance Samba and participated in the Carnival parade, her conversations with Orson Welles and their close escape from a mob, in Swingin’ at the Savoy.
Norma Miller on Samba and Swing:
The Brazilians have a Swing all their own, but it has the same African roots as American jazz. Brazilian blacks gave it a Samba beat, and American blacks swung it. The ties were there, and we felt them immediately. Everything about Brazil was swinging. (p 173).
The Cassino da Urca was also the location for Orson Welles filming of an unfinished feature film, Ain’t it the Truth, which included a section documenting Rio’s carnival (filmed during the same period as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers stay). Unfortunately, the project was never completed and not much footage remains. Welles was a great jazz enthusiast and had been working on a film documenting the history of jazz with Louis Armstrong before accepting to come to Brazil when he was appointed goodwill ambassador to Latin America as part of the war effort. The Carnival episode was also called “The Story of Samba”.
The Cassino da Urca today
Gambling was declared illegal in 1946 in Brazil and the building was bought by a TV channel. After laying derelict since the 1980s, the casino has recently undergone renovations with the Istituto Europeo di Design. You can follow in the steps of the Cassino’s history and renovation in this IED video.
If you are lucky enough to visit Rio, this is its location.
This piece is inspired by Norma Miller’s memoirs Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer (Temple University Press). Her book is available in English on Amazon and I am currently finalizing its translation into Spanish.
Istituto Europeo di Design, https://youtu.be/PyW_XWLsFPU
Aquarela do Brasil (Ary Barroso) in any of its versions.
Juke Box Love Song (Langston Hughes)
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
(Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, p227).
Even 13 year old Billie Holiday knew she had to go to Harlem. This New York neighbourhood exerted a powerful attraction on African Americans of all backgrounds in the early decades of the 20th Century. In the 1920s Harlem became the home of the New Negro Movement in the US, the first civil rights movement embodied in organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) or the National Urban League, and a focal point for black culture – in politics, literature, art and music; a phenomenon which also became known as the Harlem Renaissance (officially inaugurated in 1925). Originally a 17th century Dutch settlement, Harlem had experienced several migratory influxes, but in the early decades of the 20th Century it was the main destination for the Great Migration of African Americans who were escaping oppression and Jim Crow (seggregation) laws in the South for better opportunities in the North (Chicago was another important destination).
Nowhere quite captured the imagination and the spirit of the time as Harlem did. It attracted black intellectuals and artists (‘niggeratti’ as coined by Zora Neale Hurston) — writers like Langston Hughes, artists like Aaron Douglas, musicians like Duke Ellington – but it also attracted ordinary African Americans struggling for survival and respect. Here I have gathered some impressions of Harlem.
Elmer Simms Campbell. A night club map of Harlem, 1932.
During the 1920s and 1930s Harlem embodied the new spirit of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, with a significance that reached beyond the African American community, New York and the US. Here the best musicians played and swing was born. It was the hottest night-spot and there was no shortage of night-clubs as we can see in this 1932 image: the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, Small’s Paradise and countless other clubs, ballrooms, theatres and speakeasies attracted (white) party goers from downtown New York -including many famous Hollywood and Broadway stars like Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable or Tallulah Bankhead. Harlem provided the best opportunity to savour the freedom of the Jazz Age.
Romare Bearden (artist) was a regular visitor at the Savoy Ballroom in the ‘30s:
‘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’. (Malone, Jazz Music in Motion).
Norma Miller (the Queen of Swing) in a recent BBC interview:
‘Harlem was the epitome of a people who had found a certain freedom, so anybody who could walk, run, jive…they came to Harlem. It was the one place where a black person could feel he had a freedom’.
(Norma Miller, BBC interview February 2014)
Take the ‘A’ Train (video)
This song was written in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington referring to the New York subway line that connects Brooklyn with Harlem, it became Duke Ellington’s band’s signature tune. The Duke and his band play it here in a 1943 version for the film Reveille with Beverly.
‘Harlem, to our minds, did indeed have the world’s most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there.’
(Ellington, Music is My Mistress, p36)
Getting to Harlem
Norma Miller’s mother, Zalama Barker, was only 15 when she emigrated from Barbados to New York, then a two-week ship voyage:
‘She was on the way to New York –that magnificent city she had heard so much about was going to be her home. She was especially excited to see the place she had heard most about, the place where all of the colored people went – Harlem.’
(Miller, Swingin’ at the Savoy p.5)
Billie Holiday describes her arrival in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues:
And Grandpop put me on the train. I had a ticket to Long Branch, where Mom was going to meet me. But as soon as I got on the train by myself I decided, damn Long Branch, I was going to get to see Harlem some way. So I took off the big tag, decided I’d get off the train in New York, take the subway to Harlem, have myself a time, and then contact my mother.
I was only 13 years old, but I was a hip kitty. I was travelling light – except for that basket of chicken [from Grandma] – but I travelled.
(Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues).
Billie Holliday experienced the ugliest side of Harlem before she became a star, staying at a children’s shelter and prison at different times.
Ralph Ellison (writer). In his novel Invisible Man, he describes his protagonist’s impressions when he first arrives in Harlem from the South.
‘I had never seen so many black people against a background of brick buildings, neon signs, plate glass and roaring traffic —not even on trips I had made with the debating team to New Orleans, Dallas or Birmingham. They were everywhere. So many, and moving along with so much tension and noise that I wasn’t sure whether they were about to celebrate a holiday or join in a street fight. There were even black girls behind the counters of the Five and Ten as I passed. Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic – and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Sure I had heard of it, but this was real. My courage returned. This really was Harlem…The vet had been right: For me this was not a city of realities, but of dreams; perhaps because I had always thought of my life as being confined to the South.
(Ellison, Invisible Man, p159).
Many more followed this journey to Harlem: Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker (although Baker was not so impressed and soon moved to Paris) and a very long list.
Harlem Mecca of the New Negro
Harlem was swinging’ – but not everything was swing. The New Negro Movement was lead by figures like W.E.B DuBois, head of the NAACP, and philosopher Alain Locke. They believed a new Negro literature and art were the means for African Americans to achieve equal status and rights.
Harlem Mecca of the New Negro – Survey Graphic (March 1925), Ed. Alain Locke
Alain Locke in his 1925 essay ‘Harlem’:
‘without pretense to their political significance, Harlem had the same role to play for the New Negro as Ireland has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the new Czechoslovakia’.
(Locke in Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue).
Was Harlem a slum? Harlem, which had become a predominantly black neighbourhood by the 1920s, offered opportunities and possibilities for black Americans that were unavailable in other parts of the US, however, poverty was a widespread problem, as is evident in any of the personal accounts of that time.
David Levering Lewis:
‘Harlem’s statistics were dire…What the statistics obscured was the mood of the universe north of Central Park. Whatever its contradictions…the one certainty almost all who lived there shared was that Harlem was no slum. Ghetto, maybe. Slum, never. […] Jobs and rent money might be hard to come by, and whites might own more than 80 percent of the community’s wealth, but the ordinary people of Harlem –not just civil rights grandees and exhilarated talents from the provinces— exuded a proud self-confidence that, once lost, would not reappear’.
(Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue p109).
Harlem’s greatest legacy is probably still its music (and dance):
And who wouldn’t want to go to Harlem if we could?
Take the ‘A’ Train (Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, 1939)
Drop me Off in Harlem (Duke Ellington, 1933)
Ellington, Duke, Music is my Mistress. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.
Ellison, Ralph Invisible Man. New York: Penguin, 2014.
Holiday, Billie, Lady Sings the Blues (translation Iris Menéndez). Barcelona: Tuesquets Editores, 1990.
Langston, Hughes, Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books, Random House Inc., 1959.
Levering Lewis, David, When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1979.
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.
Miller, Norma, Swingin’ at the Savoy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Miller, Norma, BBC interview, Feb2014 https://youtu.be/kflv49JTDZE
(Clocks go back, winter is coming, so I am turning to summer for this post…)
As I was sitting having a beer in a leafy beer garden in southern Galicia this summer, while attending a meeting of the local swing association, I came to reflecting about globalization, universal human passions for music and dance, and the mysterious and circuitous turns in history which have led to this meeting taking place at all…as you do. The place is the Aturuxo bar in Bueu, a small village on the coast of one of Galicia’s southern bays. It is a lovely early summer afternoon and we are sitting around a table in the shade of the garden, surrounded by the countryside. The Aturuxo is in fact a great concert venue and the alma mater of Lindy Hop in Galicia. This is where Jorge and Elena started their first Lindy Hop classes when they returned after living in Porto (Portugal) where they had been bitten bad by the lindy hop bug. They started with a small weekly practice group in 2012 and now, in just three years, it has grown into a busy swing dance school (Swing On Vigo) and has spawned an independent Galician swing association which was formally created last year (Ghastas Pista Swing). We were there to organize the association’s annual swing festival work programme and to attend a concert by Alo Django, a local swing band from Santiago de Compostela.
I think it is a fair bet to imagine that there was no Lindy Hop or other swing dancing occurring in Bueu in the late 1930s or ‘40s. For a start the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and tough post-war period under Franco’s dictatorship would have been a dampener on the swing spirit. Bueu would have been a relatively remote fishing village. I would be interested to know if swing music was popular at the time in the larger cities of Vigo or Coruña, but it is unlikely that a group of lindy hoppers would have gathered to dance to a live swing band at their local bar, as was the case today. So I looked into this a little, there isn’t much material on the history of swing in Spain, but if you would like to know more this is the best source I have found article by Jorge García. It suggests that even back then Barcelona was the main jazz route entry in Spain and that while the fox trot and Charleston made it, Lindy Hop would not have been widely known or danced. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers did a couple of tours of Europe in the late 30s, fitting in England, France, Switzerland and even a visit to Dublin, but did not reach Spain (which would have been in the midst of the civil war as mentioned). I also doubt even Frankie Manning (Lindy Hop inspiration) had an inkling of how far his legacy would reach when he was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1980s and the Lindy Hop revival started in the US and Sweden. Ah the marvels of a globally connected world.
This global passion for swing speaks of the joy its music and dance transmits, which veritably ‘hooks’ lindy hoppers from all kinds of backgrounds. Alo Django provided us with some swingin’ tunes — crazy beat, foot stomping versions of All of Me, Undecided, Sweet Georgia Brown and others, which had us hopping in the grass well into nightfall. Alo Django are Xabier Mera (voice and guitar), David Tato (guitar), Quim Farinha (violin), Alfonso Calvo (double bass), often in collaboration with Gail Brevitt (tap and voice), and have been very supportive of the local swing scene. They recently organized the II Foliada Swing in Santiago for example, including a film screening, dance workshops, and a joint tap and swing shim sham on stage.
The route to the swing (dance) revival in Galicia has been circuitous and also follows the ebbs and flows of emigration and return: via Portugal and the vibrant swing community that Abeth Farag (US) helped to create over the last 10 years, via Jorge (from Bueu) and Elena (from Madrid) who after living in Porto have gone on to work full time at fostering and growing a local swing scene in Galicia; via Ireland and a half Irish-Spanish ‘migrant and back again’ (me) who started dancing in Dublin and has been doing her best to continue dancing and to share her love of swing dancing in Santiago de Compostela; via Carlos Tomico whose travels brought him to Scotland, Madrid (where he caught the swing bug), back to Galicia where he has been actively involved in Ghastas Pista Swing and teaching in Santiago, and are now taking him abroad again to Portugal; via Leti González, originally from Madrid, who has sailed the seven seas before docking in Vigo and getting on board the Swing On team – and also some really enthusiastic local lindy hoppers who discovered swing in this very location, like Daniel Pérez and Laura Rosales, current Treasurer and President of Ghastas Pista Swing Association. The people behind the local swing scene do paint a picture of globalization at its best, that is, bringing together people who love to dance!
And at the same time the swing scene in Galicia is very much local, fuelled by Estrella Galicia and tapas, dancing on the beach or in narrow old town streets, gathering for a Galician winter stew (cocido gallego) or shim shamming on the pier or in front of the Santiago cathedral.
This was the Frankie 100 celebration in the Rías Baixas (the southern coast of Galicia) with the students of Swing On School.
This was Santiago de Compostela’s Shim Sham for Frankie last May.
Although the passion for swing music and Lindy Hop is now global and goes across all kinds of cultures –from the US, UK, Sweden, Spain, Korea, South America, Israel, South Africa…it also takes on specific forms in each locality. I have lived and experienced three different scenes mainly – Dublin, Barcelona and Galicia. In Galicia it is developing hand in hand with great bars, live music, and the special ‘swing vermouth’ modality, which combines a pre-lunch drink and tapa with dancing, usually outdoors. In Barcelona, thanks to the great weather, there is outdoor dancing every weekend in plazas and parks (but here sans tapas). The scene there has developed mainly thanks to very active swing dance schools and teachers (now nearly 20 schools in the Barcelona region, some with hundreds of students) which have contributed to one of the largest most exciting swing communities in Europe. In Ireland the scene has grown mainly as an evening activity in pubs – because what other kind of venue can you find in Ireland??- but as a generally beer-free form of pub-going (which doesn’t usually go down well with the pubs). It ends up being all your friends’ houses where you meet up to dance and party (Anita Walshe, thinking of your place especially). There are sometimes swing picnics, which are a nice Irish family-friendly version of the ‘swing vermouth’ where people bring along home-baked cakes, oh and there is usually some kind of roof, just in case.
These are the scenes that I am familiar with, but I can only imagine that the Lindy Hop community in Sweden or Korea have their own unique forms of swingin’. What is perhaps special about the global Lindy Hop community is that we are also very closely connected, frequently attending events abroad and finding fellow Lindy Hop addicts where we least expected. As Norma Miller said in her memoirs ‘Although Harlem created it, the Lindy belongs to the world’.
The swing community could not grow without great venues that support it by facilitating, a) a space to dance and b) promoting local swing musicians and events. In the south of Galicia the Aturuxo, Carycar club or Taberna O Rincón, and in Santiago O Ateneo 30, Gallaecia in Armis and Dado Dada club have been essential allies and great places to dance.
Let the swing spirit continue 😉
Note: this post is by no means a complete guide of swing in Galicia – I write about the people and places I know personally, so if you feel I have left anything important out…well just add it to the comments and let me know.
In fact, I would really like to know your views – what do you think attracts people to swing and Lindy Hop nowadays? What is unique about your scene?
Find out more…
Ghastas Pista Swing https://ghastaspistaswing.wordpress.com/
Swing On School LINK http://www.swingonvigo.com/
Compostela Swing https://www.facebook.com/groups/compostelaswing/
Alo Django https://www.facebook.com/alodjango
Aturuxo Bar http://www.aturuxo.net/
O Ateneo 30 http://www.oateneo30.com/
Ok and many many more great bands and bars
Estrella Galicia?? (I do think we should look for a sponsorship deal sometime…)
García, Jorge ‘El Trazo del Jazz en España’ http://www.bne.es/es/Micrositios/Exposiciones/Jazz/resources/img/estudio1.pdf