“Count Basie had the best swing band ever…It wasn’t that the other bands weren’t good, it’s just nobody was better at it than Count Basie.” (Norma Miller).
It’s been a while since I have written here…this has been a strange year. There has been little dancing and more study these months, so I will share some summer reading I am enjoying at the moment.
William “Count” Basie (1904-1984) was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, but moved to Harlem when he was about twenty and just starting his career. Recently I have been reading Count Basie’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues (co-written with Albert Murray), where he shares his first impressions of the neighbourhood. I was excited to find out the first place he went was the Alhambra –which was a theatre at the time, but later was converted into the famous Alhambra Ballroom, one of the few venues from that era still standing in Harlem. Only last year I attended at a very special event at the Alhambra Ballroom honouring Norma Miller and Frankie Manning’s 105th Birthday. I have walked many of these streets tracing the venues and locations while preparing Norma Miller’s Harlem map — Count Basie’s directions would have come in handy!
His first address was 2150 Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard), between 127th and 128th streets.
“When we arrived in New York at the end of that summer, Smitty met us at the station and took us uptown. Our first address was 2150 Seventh Avenue, which was in the block between 127th and 128th streets in Harlem. The apartment was on the third floor, and for a few days we didn’t go anywhere. Because we didn’t know where to go…It took us a few days to get our bearings, and the only place I remember going during that time was the Alhambra Theatre, which was only about a block away on the same side of Seventh Avenue, at the corner of 126th Steet. Other than that, the main thing I recollect is how Elmer Williams and I used to come downstairs and out onto the porch where the other tenants used to sit chatting from around dusk dark until late into the night. I remember sitting out there on the railing and on the steps looking at the people strolling along the sidewalk and the traffic moving up and down Seventh Avenue. ” (p 49).
Basie mentions that the Alhambra Theatre was segregated at the time, something common in Harlem despite it becoming the black cultural capital of America (when the Savoy opened in 1926 it was the first integrated ballroom).
“That was the biggest stage show I had ever seen up to that time, and Elmer Williams and I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that the only way you could get in there was through a side entrance for coloured people on 126th Street, and the only section you could sit in was the balcony. I hadn’t expected to find anything like that in Harlem but that is the way it was, and the Alhambra Theatre was not the only segregated place along that part of Seventh Avenue in those days”.
In fact, 126th was on the southern edge of Harlem back then: “Everything stopped at 126th Street. You didn’t go much further down than that. When you came to 125th Street, it was like another part of town.” (p50). Many of the venues on 125th Street were “lily-white”, including the Theresa Hotel, and Basie and his fellow musician Elmer Williams didn’t have much interest in anything further down from 125th Street or going sightseeing in Manhattan –their priority was where they were going to play music and meeting other musicians and people in show business.
After getting their bearings, they decided to explore Harlem, bringing them up to 140th Street.
“Then that next Sunday we decided to get out and go exploring in Harlem. So we checked our landmarks and started up Seventh Avenue. We passed the Lafayette Theater between 131st and 132nd streets and went on beyond 135th Street and came to the Renaissance Casino at the corner of 138th Street, which was kitty-corner across Seventh Avenue from a section of houses known as Strivers’ Row. As I looked around, I figured we must be getting into the main part of Harlem, and later on I found out that wasn’t very far off. ” (p 51).
They end up at a matinee in the Capitol Palace (140th Street and Lenox Avenue) where Basie sees the Washingtonians and Duke Ellington playing for the first time. What a significant musical coincidence! It is also when he hears the famous pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith. Another thing he notes about that matinee is the new dance step one of the dance acts was featuring: “It was called the Charleston and it was just catching on as a ballroom fad because it had made a big hit in a Broadway musical called Running Wild” (p52).
Willie “the Lion” Smith
Running Wild, Broadway show 1923
Count Basie with Katie Krippen, c1925
He stayed in Harlem playing in different venues and returning there between tours (he worked as a pianist with Katie Krippen on the Columbus Burlesque Circuit and later toured the TOBA circuit with Gonzelle White) for several years before settling in Kansas in 1927, where his musical career really took off. He would return to Harlem in 1936/37 with his own band, and play the Savoy Ballroom — an event that Frankie Manning and Norma Miller remember well. But that is all another chapter.
“There was so much going on all around in Harlem during those days. I wish I could get myself together about more of it. But I’ll never be able to do justice to what it all meant to me…Maybe I wasn’t raising any hell, but I was there, and in my mind I was one of them. So when I would get a chance to go on those little out-of-town dates that came up every now and then, I was not from Red Bank anymore. I was from New York.” (p84).
Next time I am in Harlem – and it’s a place it is always worth returning to- I will be sure to visit Basie’s locations.
This is only the beginning of Count Basie’s adventure, if you would like to read more I recommend the book!
Last year I created this map when I was in New York and was able to walk around Harlem tracking down many of the locations mentioned by Norma in her memoir Swingin’ at the Savoy. Born in 1919, Norma grew up in 1920s and 1930s Harlem, round the corner from the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom and many other famous venues that are sadly no longer standing. I have added images, video and other content to the location markers to facilitate a virtual tour, so whether you are lucky to be in New York covering this on foot, or you are touring Harlem at a distance, I hope you find this useful. Just click on each marker for more content.
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.
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.
A month in New York seems like years in other places. When I wasn’t in the library I was getting in as much live music and dance as I could: swing, jazz and blues. I heard some fantastic artists, saw some great tapping and enjoyed the dances, but my personal favourite in Harlem was American Legion Post 398 (thanks to Greg Izor for the recommendation). This venue belongs to the American Legion (a veterans association) located on 248 W 132nd St in the heart of Harlem and has become the home of jazz thanks to organist Seleno Clarke, who started the Sunday jam tradition. Seleno passed away in December, but the spirit of jazz continues, and every Thursday and Sunday there is a jam session led by saxophonist David Lee Jones and other resident musicians, with the best local talent and musicians from all over the globe joining in. The atmosphere is very welcoming with an audience that combines veteran regulars and music-loving tourists. Russell, Barbara and Karen behind the bar, made me feel at home watching the Oscars gala with them during the band breaks. The music is fantastic and on any given night you can find some well-known Harlem artists such as Anette St John, a singer who also performs at the Cotton Club and Smoke, among others. There is no cover charge (just a bucket collection for the band) and, a rare phenomenon in New York, –it’s possible to have a beer and a decent meal at a reasonable price. I cannot think of a better place to spend a Sunday evening and enjoy the jazz.
Paris Blues, Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. Live music every night.
The Cotton Club, a mythical name for any jazz or swing fan, has inspired countless songs and films. Despite being a nightclub that only admitted white patrons and perpetuated a segregated society, performing there meant attaining the top in show business for African American artists of the twenties and thirties (among others Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway). The club was located initially on 142nd St with Lenox Avenue, later it moved downtown to 48th St and its latest incarnation is on 125th St. Those seeking the legendary Cotton Club of the twenties should be warned that the current venue somewhat lacks the glamour, although it keeps alive the musical and dance show tradition that made it famous. It was an unmissable rendez-vous, so I headed there on a cold Monday in March. Attendance was low, mostly tourists, but the quality of the musicians and dancers was well worth the 25 dollar cover charge. An excellent big band was swinging with singer Anette St John. I loved the chorus girl numbers with their sparkly jazz dance and the incredible tap dancers. Some of the band numbers were danceable, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an event for Lindy hoppers unless you were going with a partner or a group. The night I went there were few social dancers, although I was lucky to dance several songs with Ice, a charming gentleman who is a regular at all the swing dance events I attended in New York (he told me he only takes Wednesdays off). Here I also met Shana Weaver: chorus girl, Lindy hop dancer and Ambassador for the Frankie Manning Foundation, she continues the Cotton Club chorus line tradition that gave rise to great stars like Josephine Baker or Lena Horne.
Guitar prodigy King Solomon Hicks stands out among the club’s performers. I was lucky to see him playing again at Terra Blues, a highly recommended venue on Bleecker St. The 22 year-old achieves a moving blues sound and he easily wins the audience over with his technical virtuosity and charm. The Harlem guitar player started by playing in local neighbourhood jam sessions, where he earned his stripes with high quality musicians. He was still a teenager when he participated in the Apollo Amateur Night and was promptly hired by the Cotton Club. Nowadays, when he is not playing in the city he can be seen on tour around the US and Europe (last year he was in Spain playing in venues like the Jamboree club in Barcelona or Café Central in Madrid, as well as other festivals).
If you like your jazz with spectacular views the place is Jazz at Lincoln Center, a unique institution led by Wynton Marsalis, whose mission is to promote the enjoyment of jazz through performance and education “in the spirit of swing”. I have to love an organization that has a “Swing University”. Located at Columbus Circle (very close to Trump Tower, that’s New York for you), the venue’s window façade overlooking the city and Central Park alone is worth a visit. Jazz at Lincoln offers a high-quality varied music programme, ranging from its in-house orchestra led by Marsalis in person to the late night performances at Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club. Those who cannot attend live performances (either due to location or budget) can enjoy these concerts in live-streaming. In addition, Jazz at Lincoln provides an excellent education programme. I was very fortunate to attend a Listening Party about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an integrated all-woman big band of the 1930s and 1940s. Kit McClure’sorchestra, comprising ten women musicians, played versions from the repertoire of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm as well as showing some original footage. It was a double discovery: of the fascinating history of these pioneering women in swing, and of Kit McClure’s band, who offered a really swinging interpretation of great classics like “Jump Children”, “Vi Vigor” or “How About that Jive?”. More about New York: in a city where a coffee can cost five dollars I was able to enjoy the best swing music for free.
Not all jazz plans need be nocturnal, and a musical Sunday can start with a delicious jazz breakfast at Smoke (in this case featuring a trio and vocalist). This well-known Upper West “jazz and supper club” offers quality music in an intimate and cozy setting. The brunch menu is not cheap, but a jazz fan has got to keep her strength up in a city like this.
Swing 46is a classic of the New York swing scene (located on 46th St). With live music seven days a week, Swing 46 was a favourite spot among dance legends like Dawn Hampton (several photos honouring her decorate a corner table where she used to sit). Tuesdays is the night of the George Gee Swing Orchestra, a band that has been playing for dancers for over thirty years, and their swing did not disappoint. Given the quality of this band and the discount price for dancers of only 10 dollars, I was surprised at the small number of dancers in attendance: barely a handful of couples and some inexperienced tourists (the weather might have been a factor: I learned the meaning of a Nor’Eastern during my stay). Luckily tireless Ice was there, always smiling and ready to cut a rug, with whom I danced some fun numbers — although I found it hard to keep up with this swing veteran.
A note to Dancers: the most buzzing dance night I found was the Frim Fram, which takes place every Thursday at a dance school (Club 412 on 8th Avenue). There is no live music but it is a meeting point for dancers from all over New York (and beyond) of all ages and levels. The atmosphere is relaxed and I danced non-stop: in summary, a night to dance your feet off and meet other local Lindy hoppers.
There is very little of Swing Era Harlem still standing, which is why the Apollo Theater on 125th deserves a special mention. With the Savoy and other major Harlem venues razed to the ground, the Apollo Theater is the only theatre that is still functioning, and very successfully, since 1934. That year Amateur Night at the Apollo started, the forerunner of the Got Talents and X-Factors of today, to which we owe the discovery of Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill or dancer Norma Miller, who also started her career winning a dance competition on this stage when she was only fourteen.
The list of stars who have performed at the Apollo is too long to detail, from James Brown to Michael Jackson, and a few years ago a “Walk of Fame” was installed on the sidewalk outside reflecting the premier place of this theatre in American culture. Many things have changed, but Amateur Night is still held every Wednesday (with a 10,000 dollar prize for the season winner). It is advertised as “The best fun you can have in this town for under $30”, and I can vouch this comedy and talent show makes good on its promise. Unlike other similar competitions, the audience not only chooses the winner by applause, but also has the power to boo-off performers: at which point a siren goes off and the famous “executioner” sweeps them off stage with his broom and dance. In this interactive show the audience is as much the protagonist as the contestants, of which there were all sorts: singers, dancers, rappers, poets…The Harlem crowd is not easy to please: if it does not like something it makes it known immediately and loudly.The night I attended they booed off the first three hopefuls as soon as they opened their mouths, which really makes me admire the bravery of the contestants who followed these acts on stage. Without question the best fun in Harlem.
My last week in New York I enjoyed dinner and a gig at Silvana’s Café, on 116th St in Harlem, thanks to my friend Loli Barbazán who now lives in the Big Apple. Less soaked in history, with a younger crowd and a friendly and multicultural vibe, Silvana’s brings together in its café cultural activities, good food and music. I was very pleasantly surprised by the different groups that played that night, anything from jazz to hip hop, and I especially fell in love with the tap dancers who went up to jam on-stage with the musicians. I wouldn’t mind going back.
I couldn’t leave without visiting Paris Blues, the well-known Harlem bar that was located round the corner from my apartment (also recommended by writer and occasional New Yorker Elvira Lindo). I wanted to spend my last hours soaking up all the neighbourhood music and charm that I could. The bar has been proudly run by Samuel Hargress, Jr. since 1968 and it remains true to its spirit: here you can find live jazz and blues every night until 3am for the price of a beer. The house band plays in a jam where other musicians join in, both young and old (a father with his teenage son for example). The warm atmosphere of this small bar encourages friendly conversation. There are few places like this left and it is worth enjoying them, even if it is just one for the road.
I read today that: “After all New York is a fiction, a literary genre that adapts to the traveller’s state of mind.” (Manuel Vicent, El País,19 August 2018), although in this case I experienced the city as a song or an album that accompanied me throughout all my wanderings (and in New York you can wander a lot, walking, on the train…). I haven’t tired of the songs at any time and I hope to return soon, although I know that a city like New York cannot repeat itself, with its constant rhythm and improvisation it never plays the same tune twice.
I want to thank the Frankie Manning Foundation for having given me the opportunity to stay in New York in order to carry out my research on the history of Lindy hop (which I will talk about in another post).
In March 2018 I was lucky to spend a month in New York, in Harlem, researching the history of Lindy hop thanks to the support of the Frankie Manning Foundation. I had previously researched the history of swing via the internet, Amazon, second hand bookshops and the limited resources available on this topic at my local library in Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and Trinity College Dublin (Ireland), but this would be the first time I had the opportunity to research the origins of swing and Lindy hop at its birthplace. I have been working on translating Norma Miller’s book Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer into Spanish for the last couple of years, and now I would be able to follow Norma’s footsteps about Harlem, not to mention everything else Manhattan has to offer. Needless to say I was excited.
I was interested in exploring the roots of Lindy hop in Harlem and gaining a fuller understanding of its local context and significance at the time, considering issues like race and gender, as well how the dance developed in relation to music and other forms of dance. I was especially curious to find out more about some members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers who visited Europe in the 1930s and have received little attention. Underpinning my research were questions such as: what is the legacy of swing in Harlem? How can we contribute to recovering the memory of this African American dance as a mostly white swing dance community?
I did not think one of the most thrilling parts of my visit to New York would be visiting the libraries and archives. I had expected to enjoy the rush of Manhattan city life, and it did not disappoint, but the Lindy hop joys I found in libraries and archives were a surprise. This is a personal guide to the libraries and archives that I visited.
The New York Public Library might just be the best library in the world. Having filled out a simple online form before my trip I was given a visitor library card, which grants full access to the NYPL’s digital and on-site collections for 3 months and the right to borrow up to 50 books (!) to any visitor to the city. If you are planning a longer stay in New York you could consider some “research tourism”. I spent most of my time at the New York Library for the Performing Arts (Lincoln Center) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Malcolm X Blvd), but also visited the Microform room at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (42nd Street), the Institute for Jazz Studies (Newark) and other resources, including access to some fantastic private libraries.
Searching the catalogue
In advance of any visit to the NYPL I would recommend a search of its online catalogue (https://catalog.nypl.org/), starting with generic terms like “Lindy hop”, “Swing” or “Savoy” for example, to draw up an initial reading list and scope out the locations for different items. Once on-site I found the library staff were generally very helpful when it came to navigating searches for more obscure items like articles, papers or film material.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard (135th St and Malcolm X Blvd).
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses a great collection of books, papers and photographs for the curious Lindy hopper. Located at the heart of Harlem on 135th St, directly opposite the school that Frankie Manning and Norma Miller attended, this library is of great significance for the neighborhood and African American culture. Arturo Schomburg was a Puerto Rican of African and German descent who moved to the United States and became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance for researching and raising awareness about African American history. His collections were purchased by the NYPL in 1926 and form the basis of the library, which was named in his honor. There is even a film clip of Schomburg in the original library c. 1937 (thank you to Julia Loving for this information).
The Schomburg reading room, decorated with Aaron Douglas paintings, is an excellent place to start finding out more about swing era musicians, performers and Harlem venues. I enjoyed in particular Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, Babylon Girls by Jayna Brown and Jazz: a History of the New York Scene by Samuel B. Charters. No booking is required to access this room and books are usually delivered within a few minutes of placing an order. Staff were very helpful and it was even possible to scan many items for free.
The Schomburg holds some beautiful original documents relating to the Savoy. You can for example view the Savoy 25th anniversary booklet The Savoy Story, produced in 1951 (before its closing in 1956). My standout item of the collection is the catalogue for Richard Yarde’s Savoy exhibition Savoy: an installation. This exhibition was on view at the Harlem Studio Museum from June to September 1983. It included live-size cut-out images of dancers and musicians recreating the Savoy Ballroom and its opening was an opportunity for many of the Savoy dancers to gather and a celebration of the Harlem community.
I was not as lucky in my hunt for Lindy hop references in The Manuscripts and Rare Documents Division this time (I examined Alberta Hunter’s and Sam Wooding’s papers), but it holds several other collections of interest for future visits. A word of warning: getting an appointment in this division can be difficult and requires booking a few weeks in advance.
The Photographs and Prints Division has “Dance” and “Harlem nightclubs” collections that are worth viewing for their unpublished images of social dance and venues (appointment also required, usually one day notice will be sufficient for this division).
As any time handling original documents and photographs, these must be treated with great care and certain limitations are in place (some archives will not allow pens or personal belongings in the room, for example).
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Jerome Robbins Dance Division. 40 Lincoln Center Plaza (65th St and Columbus Ave).
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has a fantastic collection of dance-related books, papers and films. In relation to the Lindy hop the star of the collection are Mura Dehn’s films and personal papers: it is one of only two places where you can watch the original five-hour The Spirit Moves documentary (the film is currently being digitized so viewing permission must be requested several days in advance).
Mura Dehn spent decades documenting and filming different forms of jazz dance and her legacy has provided us with unique footage of Savoy lindy hop dancers, both in the studio and dancing at the Savoy. Among her personal papers are several unpublished articles containing some interesting reflections on jazz dance and its history. These are available in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division Manuscripts section.
“The source of Jazz is rhythm. Rhythm is what one has to learn. The movement is just a byproduct. A visual manifestation of each rhythm pattern which takes approximately the same form once the best solution is found.”
(“The ABC or The Fundamentals of Jazz Dance”, Mura Dehn papers, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
A much shorter documentary that is recommended viewing at the Library for the Performing Arts is The Call of the Jitterbug(Sorensen, Winding and Ross, 1988), a Danish film that includes interviews with Savoy dancers and musicians like Norma Miller, George Lloyd, Delilah Johnson, Bill Dillard, Dizzy Gillespie and Sugar Sullivan, among others. Some clips may be available on Youtube but the entire film is not easily found. America Dances! 1897-1948 (Carol Teten), also available at the library, provides a comprehensive compilation of different dance clips, starting with the Cake Walk and including the Lindy hop.
“Dancing was our high.”
(Sugar Sullivan in The Call of the Jitterbug, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Milstein Microform room.
476 Fifth Avenue (42nd St and Fifth Ave)
This is the most famous NYPL building and I recommend visiting it even if it is only to admire its architecture or to access the internet on its public-use computers. The NYPL offers many digitized newspaper collections (including the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper that is still in print), however, other newspapers such as The Daily News have not been digitized and must be viewed onsite at the Milstein Microform room.
The Daily News sponsored the first Harvest Moon Ball in 1935, which was a major launching pad for the Lindy hop and the Savoy dancers. In fact, the contest was so popular that the first edition on August 15, 1935 had to be cancelled and rescheduled to August 28 due to over 100,000 attendees overcrowding the park. Leon James and Edith Matthews were the Lindy hop division winners of this first edition and a very young Norma Miller (just fifteen) and Billy Hill were also among the finalists who later went on to tour Europe. I found many articles and photos in relation to the preliminary contests and the finals. The Daily News had several editions each day and it is laborious to work through them on microform, so it is highly advisable to know specific dates for searches. No appointment required for this division (only a NYPL library card).
NYPL Online resources
Among the many NYPL online resources I would highlight A People’s History of Harlem: A Harlem Neighborhood Oral History Project (http://oralhistory.nypl.org/neighborhoods/harlem). I have only started exploring this resource that deserves further attention, as it contains some accounts by residents who remember the swing era in Harlem and can provide some unusual insights into this fascinating neighborhood.
Rutgers University, 185 University Avenue, Newark, NJ 07102.
The heart of the Institute for Jazz Studies (IJS) is the Marshall Stearns collection. Author of the fundamental book Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance, he was the first to pay academic attention to this form of dance. The collection containing his research papers for this work gives an indication of the breadth and depth of his study (although with some notable gaps in relation to Lindy hop). I spent a very enjoyable day at the IJS exploring 10 boxes of papers (although there is a wealth of material) and seeing his notes on interviews with “Shorty” George Snowden, Leon James and Al Minns.
The absolute highlight for me was holding in my hands letters from Fred Astaire (where incidentally he clarifies that he does not see himself primarily as a tap dancer “I dance according to my own rules – in other words I just dance as it comes to me.”) and a beautifully handwritten letter by Fayard Nicholas, where he discusses his career with his brother (The Nicholas Brothers).
I contacted the IJS in advance of my visit but there was no problem scheduling a visit for the next day and I found the staff to be extremely helpful.
My guide to the libraries and archives I visited during my research stay in New York would not be complete without a special mention of the personal collections to which I was given access: Cynthia’s Millman’s and Lana Turner’s home libraries were a pleasure to explore and I am very grateful for their generosity and support in this endeavour.
Beyond the library…
When I was not at the library I made the most of my visit walking about Harlem (I recommend the Harlem Swing Dance Society tour), visiting exhibitions, listening to amazing live music, dancing and getting to know more about the local swing scene and dancers –too much to include in this single article.
The most worthwhile part of my trip was the people I met: other Lindy hop researchers and local New York swing dancers, teachers and artists. These conversations have been immensely interesting and valuable for my research and thinking about Lindy hop history. I want to thank Cynthia Millman especially for her support organizing my trip and during my stay, Buddy Steves and Rowena Young for an incredible Lindyfest experience in Houston, the Frankie Manning Foundation for making my trip possible, as well as the following people: Judy Pritchett, Barbara Jones, Margaret Batiuchok, LaTasha Barnes, Shana Weaver, Samuel Coleman, Robert P. Crease, Bobby White, Mike Thibault and Julia Loving, with a special thank you to Alice Pifer and Lana Turner.
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.
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.
A swingin’ love fest in Milan
Norma arriving at Spirit de Milan, photo OlgaBSP
Norma arriving at Spirit de Milan, photo OlgaBSP
Chester A. Whitmore, photo by OlgaPSB
Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra, photo by OlgaPSB
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).
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.
‘Everyone should go and see the Cotton Club Revue’
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.’
Swing comes to town
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).
Down with Jazz
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 at the Theatre Royal
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
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).
Harlem Celebrations in Dublin
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.
The hottest thing in town
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.
A Day at the Races
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.
In the press:
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).
Celebrating Frankie in Dublin
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.