Sunday, October 15, 2006
"The Birth of Swing" with Frankie and Norma
Sheri and I find a lot of inspiration from watching and listening to the "masters" (a.k.a. "the old timers", as many modern swing dancers call them) In fact, when Sheri first saw Jack and Annie dancing (Jack Carey and Annie Hirsch), Sheri immediately said to herself: "I want to be them ... I want that for the rest of my life."
Fortunately for us, many of the masters are still alive and kicking (literally!). And there are many events all over the world that invite a master or two (or three or four) to come and share their stories.
One such event which Sheri and I attended was the Century Masters event up in Seattle, Washington (August 16-20, 2006). We chose this event because of the extensive guest list: Skip Cunningham, Dawn Hampton, Jeni LeGon, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Sugar Sullivan (with Barbara Billups), Chester Whitmore, and Chazz Young. What a lineup! It was a weekend full of fun discussions and classes with many of the masters (of both Tap and Lindy Hop).
(By the way the next event is August 15-19, 2007! Mark it!)
To give you a taste of what we experienced, below are excerpts from the "Birth of Swing" forum which was an hour long discussion with Frankie and Norma moderated by Guy Caridi of the Savoy Swing Club in Seattle.
(My notes are a bit messy ... attributions and quotes should be pretty close though)
(Of course to be sure one could always buy the Century Masters DVD if one becomes available ... something I would encourage all of you to do anyway).
"The Birth of Swing" with Frankie and Norma (excerpts from Ben's notes)
Guy: So there is a question of terms. So let's say "Swing" is a term which refers to music. "Lindy Hop" is a dance done to swing music. And "Jitterbugs" are people who did Lindy Hop. Your thoughts?
Frankie: I don't like the word Jitterbug. I am a (with emphasis) LINDY HOPPER.
Frankie: The word "jitterbug" is really just a nickname for Lindy Hop just like "Al" is a nickname for "Alex". You're still the same person. We were doing Lindy Hop and it was other people outside the dance that labeled us "jitterbugs". And I don't like to use nicknames for Lindy Hop.
Norma: Well, I heard it was from when Benny Goodman was playing the Paramount and kids were jumping up and down in the aisles and Benny said "Look at them Jitterbugs". So white kids called it "Jitterbug" and blacks called it "Lindy Hop".
Frankie: I disagree. We had BOTH black AND white Lindy Hoppers. I disagree. Sure that could be what Benny Goodman wanted to call them (Frankie laughs) but he ain't' here now and I am.
(applause and laughter)
Guy: So what about how you both got started in Lindy Hop. The Birth of Jazz was in the 1920's and the dance was the Charleston. The rhythm section then changed from the tuba and banjo to the bass and guitar and so the dance changed?
Frankie: I agree with that. During that period, Charleston came in and went to music that was up and down. The rhythm then changed horizontally. Fletcher Henderson started his band and played the same music but it moved horizontal. So the dancers started moving horizontally.
Norma: I got inspired by how Chorus Girls danced. And Chorus Girls in Harlem started jazz dancing. Leonard Reed fired a chorus girl and saw me dancing and asked me to be one of his Chorus Girls. When it got into the Savoy it became partner dancing.
Frankie: We started at the Renaissance. I would have been 17 then.
Norma: And I would have been 12
Frankie: Wow .. I was five years older than you?
Norma: You STILL are!
Norma: And we put down twenty five cents to see Louis Armstrong. LOUIS ARMSTRONG .. for only twenty five cents! Can you believe it?
Frankie: Ha haaa.. My friends and I never paid the twenty five cents.
Norma: What?! Now how did you do that?
Frankie: (mischievous smile) We just climbed up and snuck through a window on the second or third floor.
Guy: Now that you mention Louis Armstrong, tell me about your favorite bands.
Frankie: Well of course Chick Webb.
Norma: Chick Webb.
Frankie: Teddy Hill .. a lot of great guys came out of Teddy's Band. All the great bands in fact would raid Teddy Hill's band. Like Roy Eldridge. And then Teddy had to find another trumpet player who played like Roy Eldridge and did all these auditions. He finally found another young man by the name of Dizzie Gillespie.
Norma: And Teddy's bands kept getting raided. He eventually gave up his band and ran a club Minton's Playhouse and they had incredible jam sessions. Teddy would invite all his musician friends over and they'd JAM.
Frankie: The defining moment when swing was born is when the bands changed from banjos and tubas to the guitar and bass for the rhythm section. The music changes and the dance follows. . The bass and rhythm in music drives the dance. And by far my favorite rhythm section was Count Basie.
Norma: Basie always said 'Write the music to keep the dancers on the floor'. Basie SET the tempo for great dancing. He made us better dancers.
Frankie: Basie had more rhythm in two notes than most musicians in a whole run of notes!
Norma: Jumpin At The Woodside came out of a jam session at a hotel near the Savoy .. the Woodside Hotel. They would rehearse at the hotel. Guys would just walk in, pick up an instrument, and start playing.
Frankie: Bands in those days - they played for people to dance. And were inspired by the dancers. They'd be like 'That cat is swinging! I want to keep him swinging so I'm going to blow harder!' What changed was later musicians wanted you to listen to them and not dance to them.
Norma: Like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Whooo don't get me started there!
Frankie: The last time I worked was with Dizzie Gillespie in the late 1940's at the Howard Theatre in DC. He had the charts from Basie's band but the rhythm was too heavy. The percussionist was way too heavy and afterwards I said, 'Dizzie - what the F was that?' Dizzie just looked at me and smiled and walked away.
Norma: They changed the rhythm! Charlie Parker PUT us out of business. Put the nail in the coffin. It was good music, but you couldn't dance to it.
Guy: Any other stories about people you saw or listened to?
Norma: I remember one time Louis Armstrong was scheduled to play at the Apollo. This was big so my friends and I all played hooky from school. But something happened to Louis - his lip or something so he wasn't going to show. Instead they introduced someone who'd sing to us that had won the Apollo contest last week. In those days when you won a contest at the Apollo you performed there the next week. And we were so upset we weren't going to see Louis so we all booooeeed. Imagine all these high schoolers booeing this poor young gal .. until she sang and she quieted everyone. The young lady singing was named Ella Fitzgerald
(Ben's note: Interesting story I came across while researching Ella's history: The story goes that Ella Fitzgerald originally entered the Apollo contest intending to dance. But she got so nervous and couldn't move and so the stage manager said "Just do something! Sing or something!" and so she sang... and won)
Norma: Ella was sixteen. The first female vocalist. She really liked Whitey's Lindy Hoppers to travel with too because Ella LOVED playing Hearts and so we would all play cards with her. So we were Ella's favorite group to work with, especially on the road.
Guy: How was traveling on the road in those days?
Norma: Wooooeee it was CROWDED. We would all get packed in this old run down car. And have to travel everywhere. And the car would be rattling everywhere. It was old and we were packed in. And woooww.. yeah it was tough
Frankie: We were spreading Lindy Hop. There was no TV in those times.
Norma: No TV, no films. So we'd drive all over the US, go somewhere, put money in a jukebox and just dance.
Frankie: Those were some times.
Norma: Crowded times with an old car! And the manifold was broken so we couldn't put our feet down because it was too hot!
Frankie: Yeah but .. you know, I wouldn't change a thing.
Norma: I'd change that car.
Frankie: Whitey's principles were: Be the best you can be. Do the best you can do. And be meticulous out on that stage.
Norma: He didn't pay us well.
Frankie: The point was ... if you're working a gig and there's only two people, you hit that stage and do your best like they are 200 people.
Guy: And with that it looks like we are out of time. Thank you so much Frankie and Norma!
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