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.
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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):
I have wondered how to start this blog, but really the answer is simple: I must start at the Savoy in Harlem – where Swing music and dance was born, thrived and became world famous. And king amongst the swing dances of the age was the Lindy Hop (also known as jitterbug). Lindy Hop, swing and all things vintage are back in vogue again – and it is important to remember its origins. Stepping up the Savoy’s marble and mirror staircase into the finest ballroom in the world is a good place to start…
The Savoy was more than a ballroom – it was the beating heart of Harlem. Here is where the best musicians and dancers came together to create swing. It was the largest and most elegant ballroom in Harlem. For a start it was on a different scale to other ballrooms, occupying a whole block from 140th to 141st street, about 250ft by 50ft with two bandstands – it could fit thousands on the dance floor, over 5,000 attended on its opening night on 12 March 1926[i] with Fletcher Henderson’s band.
This is how Frankie Manning, the great Lindy Hop legend, described his first visit to the Savoy when he was about nineteen:
‘As I was climbing the steps that led to the ballroom, I could hear the swinging music coming down the stairwell, and it started seeping right into my body…I got to the top step, went through the double doors, and stopped for a moment with my back to the bandstand, taking it all in. When I turned around and faced the room…well I just stood there with my mouth open. The whole floor was full of people –and they were dancing! The band was pounding! The guys up there were wailing! The music was rompin’ and stompin’. Everybody was movin’ and groovin’….We started saying ‘’This is dancin’ heaven’’. It even looked like the floor was getting in the mood because it was bouncing up and down too.’
Harlem had become a popular night spot for downtown white society during the 20s. Harlem, a predominantly black neighbourhood in New York experienced a huge influx of black migrants from the South in the early 20th Century decades as thousands fled from terrible oppression looking for new opportunities. Harlem provided a promise of freedom and pride, and it became a hotspot for black creativity and culture – in music, art, literature and politics, in a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. But although it was ostensibly the ‘Negro’ neighbourhood, it was also notably segregated (as was the case throughout the US to different degrees at the time), most of the famous nightclubs were for white patrons only: the Cotton Club, the Apollo (which is still standing today) etc. would feature black performers but black people could not use the main entrance or mix with the white audience. Segregation and discrimination were even greater problems outside of New York – when Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers or bands and musicians went on tour it was often difficult to find places that would serve them food or provide accommodation. Billie Holiday describes countless incidents in her memoirs, including the difficulty in finding rest rooms she could use, just one small example of the challenges they faced.
The Savoy was unique as it was not segregated – black and white patrons could attend, sit, eat and drink and dance together, ‘for the first time in history the status quo was challenged’ states Norma Miller. Frankie Manning has said that it didn’t matter whether you were black or white, green, yellow or whatever, just whether you could dance. I think this inclusive spirit is reflected in Lindy Hop and is a key feature of this joyful dance, of its legacy and how we enjoy this dance nowadays.
The Savoy was the most elegant ballroom in Harlem and surpassed all of America’s top dance halls. It was dazzling, as described by Norma Miller: ‘the ballroom itself was decorated in gold and blue with colored spotlights. The walls were lined with booths for eating and drinking. The dance area was…the length of a city block, the dancefloor itself was made of many layers of hardwood, such as mahogany and maple…it was replaced every three years, worn out by the constant pounding [of the dancers]’.
The music…and the dance
The music never stopped at the Savoy, there were two bandstands and one of them was always playing. Norma Miller recalls listening to this music from her home’s fire escape as a child, and later she started dancing on the pavement outside the Savoy. Chick Webb usually led the house band, and he was Lindy Hoppers’ favourite band. Over the next few years over 200 hundred swing bands played the Savoy – there were legendary battles between visiting bands like Cab Calloway’s, Count Basie’s or Benny Goodman’s (who only played the Savoy once but visited often) and Chick’s band. For top band battles the queue would go round several blocks – and it was the dancers who made a band’s success. The Savoy was also key in launching the careers of famous singers like Ella FitzGerald, who was picked by Chick to sing for his band, and continued to lead the band after his death in 1939. Chick Webb recorded Stompin’ at the Savoy in 1934. Here is Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb’s orchestra playing St Louis Blues at the Savoy, sometime in 1939.
Back then bands played for dancers, and if they wanted to stay they had to keep the floor packed according to Frankie Manning. Jacqui Malone has written a very interesting article on Jazz Music in Motion: Dancers and Big Bands which argues for re-claiming the close connection between dance and the development of jazz and swing music ‘Night after night, the dancers and musicians at the Savoy spurred one another on to greater heights and greater depths- always with an attitude of elegance’. Duke Ellington commented ‘You start playing, the dancers start dancing, and they have such a great beat you just hang on!’.
Out of this close collaboration with Chick Webb’s and other swing bands the Lindy Hop was born. The Lindy Hop is a joyous improvisational dance with a syncopated 8 count beat. For all the lindy hoppers reading this I do not need to provide further explanation. It evolved from other dances of the era with the breakaway, which allowed more room for improvisation, and introduced the swing-out, its star step. Herbert White, the Savoy floor manager, brought together the most talented Lindy Hoppers to form Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and other dance troupes. The Lindy Hop was popularized all over America and overseas thanks mainly to Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers – touring Europe, Australia and Brazil as well as appearing in several films and the 1939 New York World Fair.
Frankie Manning, a legend in the swing community who we will speak about more in another post, was one of Whitey’s dancers; he was a key innovator and choreographer, influencing the dance’s characteristic near-horizontal style and creating the first acrobatic airsteps with his dance partner. He has also been the inspiration leading the Lindy Hop worldwide revival since the 90s and contributing to the inclusive spirit of the swing community. The Lindy Hop was not the only dance danced at the Savoy and other popular dances included the Shag, the Fox Trot, the Peabody, the Black Bottom, the Big Apple, the Shim Sham etc. but it has perhaps had the most lasting impact, as experienced daily by thousands of modern Lindy Hoppers the world-over.
The Savoy was not only a ballroom, it also had a role as a civic centre for the black community in Harlem: there were regular community gala events on Wednesday and Friday nights, the ‘400 Club’ and other Harlem fraternities and associations met there and Adam Clayton Powell was a regular patron. Following the riots in 1935 it was felt the Savoy was too important to be closed and the Harvest Moon Ball competitions were created in an effort to re-build the damaged morale of the black community. Despite it being a predominantly black neighbourhood, the home of the New Negro and the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem was mainly owned by white people and many Harlem businesses did not employ black people, contributing to these riots in the midst of the Depression. In this context the value of the Savoy as a venue that employed and welcomed a diversity of patrons – from local kids to Hollywood starts – becomes more apparent.
The Savoy opened in 1926 and closed in 1958. There is scarcely a big jazz band name that is not associated with the Savoy, including black and white bands. For the Lindy Hoppers like Frankie Manning and Norma Miller and many others it became a second home, the ‘home of happy feet’ as it was known. It helped create and popularize the most quintessentially American music, swing, and a truly American dance, Lindy Hop. The Savoy was the place to be in Harlem – and Harlem was the place to be in the 20s and 30s. In the words of Romare Bearden (artist) ‘The best dancing in the world was there, and the best music…You’d want to be either in Harlem then or in Paris. These were the two places where things were happening.’
And what would a post about the Savoy be without music? Here is a selection of tracks:
The Savoy opened in 1926 and closed permanently in 1958. It was demolished for the construction of a housing complex. A conmemoration plaque was inaugurated on 26 May 2002 by Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, on Frankie’s 88th Birthday.
There is plenty of material about the Savoy. I would recommend starting with Frankie Manning’s and Norma Miller’s biographies for a personal account of what the Savoy was like. These are some of the sources I used, by no means a full list of what is available. Some video documentary material is also available on youtube (The Savoy ballroom).