It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing

 

By Martina Krénová

 

Picture 5
At the Savoy Cup 2016. Eric Esquivel, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On hearing the phrase “swing dance”, many imagine old Hollywood movies with dancers dressed in sailor’s uniforms, which is not untrue of swing dance and music, but it is only a part of the swing era which in some form has survived to today. When looking into the history of swing dance and music, one realizes that it is so much more than a craze – it is a phenomenon that has overcome racial prejudice and inequality and connected millions of people.

 

 

The story of swing is partly about poverty, crime, and sex, but chiefly about race and it starts in New York in 1920s. Just as the US is segregated, so is the music scene. While white people listen to the music that developed from foxtrots and polkas, African Americans listen to the jazz of New Orleans. However, they all have one thing in common to forget the horrors of World War I and have fun, which means dancing. An important figure is Paul Whiteman, whose big band plays music that has jazz elements but at the same time relies heavily on classical music. He plays in hotels where white people can have fun, dance the Charleston, and forget about the war. Another important person is George Gershwin, who collaborates with Whiteman, and composes Rhapsody in Blue that also has jazz elements. But all these organised bands or orchestras are missing one thing – the improvised sounds of jazz.

There is one spectacular jazz player who captivates not only Paul Whiteman, but a great number of both white people and people of color – the one and only Louis Armstrong. If anyone is behind the origin of swing, it is Louis Armstrong with his incredible improvisation skills combined with jazz rhythm. He can invent new melodies on the spot and he sets the scene for those who come after him. He comes from New Orleans, a melting pot of different people with various musical backgrounds. New Orleans produces some of the best jazz musicians of the era such as Sidney Bechet, Tuts Washington, Louis Prima and many others. Jazz is a means for people to express themselves, to have their voice heard, and at the same time experience the joy of freedom and self-expression. As Emmet Price explains:

“People sing because they can’t vote. People play musical instruments because they do not have political power, social mobility… People sing or play music because they don’t have economic opportunities. People sing and play music because they don’t have a system of justice that is equal to what was going on in terms of citizenship, so music played very practical and functional role. It was the primary method, if you will, of means of expression and communication for people who felt ostracized and disenfranchised”.

This freedom of expression that comes from jazz music and Louis Armstrong’s exceptional skills draws the attention of outsiders. When a certain New Yorker, Fletcher Henderson, hears Louis Armstrong play, he, according to the jazz historian Stanley Crouch, tells everyone that he has heard someone who can really swing. It is the first time this phrase has been used and the fusion of these two musicians starts the era everybody has heard of: swing. Henderson starts putting the music they produce on paper, which big bands can later reproduce. The arrangements are written in a way that when big bands play, people want to dance to their music: a section of the band plays the melody, the others back the up with riffs or shouts and then they exchange their parts, and it results in something unique, the so-called swing formula.

While most people listen to musicians such as Gershwin, Harlem listens to swing. Although the emergence of swing coincides with the Harlem Renaissance, the movement does not include swing. Nevertheless, Harlem becomes the place where African Americans are free to express themselves, so it should not come as a surprise that the popular new music flourishes there. Duke Ellington, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century comes to Harlem and takes swing to a new level, and by the late 1920s swing has become the most popular music there.

As swing is produced so that people want to dance to it, it is not surprising that dance becomes inseparable from the music. In 1926, the biggest and most famous ballroom of Harlem is opened – The Savoy. The ballroom can hold up to 4,000 people and it is unlike many ballrooms in one aspect – it has no-discrimination policy. Though the majority of people dancing there are African Americans, there are nights when the participation of white people and people of colour is 50/50. The new dance, which will become the most common swing dance, has been created and perfected there – the Lindy Hop, which African Americans have adapted from the Charleston, danced by white people (there are other types of swing dance such as the Charleston, Balboa, Shag, etc., and even within those there are subgenres). One of the first and most famous dancers of the Savoy Ballroom, Shorty George is credited with giving the Lindy Hop its name. According to legend, during a 1928 dance marathon in New York City, a reporter sees Shorty George break away from his partner and improvises a step in the current of the style of the Harlem dancers and asks Shorty to name the step. With newspaper headlines of Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight (or “Hop”) at the top of people’s minds, Shorty pauses for a second and then responds that he is “doin’ the Hop…the Lindy Hop!”

George H. Snowden (stage name Shorty George), is one of the legends of the Savoy Ballroom who forms the first professional Lindy Hop dance group. Snowden’s stage name comes from his height; he is barely 5 feet tall. He uses his height for comedic purposes as well and creates one of the most famous steps – the Shorty George – which lowers him even more. With Big Bea, they form an unforgettable dance couple and it is their signature move – Big Bea walking Shorty on her back off the stage – that inspires the future star Frankie Manning to come up with “air steps”.

The challengers to Shorty’s dance group are Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Whitey, or Herbert White – who gets his nickname because of his streak of white hair – is a former boxer who has a knack for seeing talent in the dancers of the Savoy. Whitey sets up a group of talented dancers and a friendly rivalry with Shorty George’s group begins. Battles between them are of friendly nature and mostly about joy, fun and learning new steps (The video is only a reenactment of the Savoy battles). Whitey’s group quickly rises to fame and even appears in some Hollywood films such as A Day at the Races, Hellzapoppin’, etc. Although they rise to fame and are free to express themselves at the Savoy, when performing elsewhere they are often the targets of racial prejudice and discrimination. Frankie Manning, one of the dancers of the troupe recalls that one day when they opened for Billie Holiday, they were told to leave the audience after they sat down to watch her perform. When they tell Billie about it, she tells the hotel manager that unless they are allowed to be there, she will stop performing. This kind of discrimination is not uncommon; African Americans can perform for white people, but they are not allowed in the audience with them. They cannot appear on the same stage or in the same photos as white people either, as Ruthie Reingold recollects. Ruthie and Harry Rosenberg are Jewish dancers who have been invited to perform with Whitey’s group. When performing in nightclubs for mostly white audiences, people scream in shock when they see a white couple performing on the same stage with people of colour. And when official photos are taken, Ruthie and Harry cannot be included.

Picture 2
Frankie Manning and Norma Miller at the Savoy Plaque Dedication. larrykang, flickr.com , CC BY-NC 2.0

But racial discrimination cannot stop them and Whitey’s group produces swing’s most famous dancer, now also the ambassador of the Lindy Hop – Frankie Manning. Frankie starts dancing in the Savoy in his teenage years and quickly becomes one of the best. Inspired by Shorty and Big Bea, he invents air steps, or aerials, which helps the group rise to fame. Although he never thinks of himself as a choreographer, he choreographs the spectacular recorded sequence in the movie Hellzapoppin’. The swing dance era is interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, Frankie joins the Army, which he describes as the worst time of his life and he does not like to talk about it. Frankie stops dancing actively in the 1950s and for the next thirty years swing is on the wane, but in the 1980s swing experiences a revival and Frankie is a part of it. One day he gets a phone call from a swing enthusiast who asks him to teach her some moves, and from then on, swing dance is on the rise again. Frankie participates in many festivals all over the world, as his son Chezz describes, Frankie dances forty weekends a year. Swing experiences a revival on Broadway as well and Frankie’s choreography of Black and Blue earns him a Tony Award in 1989.

But it is mostly Frankie’s attitude that makes him such a great ambassador of swing. When asked about being a target of racial discrimination and coming to terms with it, he gracefully replies:

You said it’s very difficult. It may be very difficult to you, but it was never difficult to me. Because I never dwelled on those things. I never said ‘oh why did I have to be black and suffer through this’. I had never thought like that. My purpose was just different from that. I am not bitter and I never was … I guess I look upon it as ‘this person is ignorant because he does not know me, he does not know how I feel, what I can do, what my capabilities are, he can only see the color of me and that’s what he is looking at’”.

His personal feelings reflect what the policy of the Savoy Ballroom was in the 20s and forward, which was about the capabilities of the dancers, not the color of their skin. People went there to enjoy the dance, not to dwell on racial differences, which was unusual in that era. Frankie recalls: “Most of the time the Savoy was primarily black; this was just a regular night. But when they had somebody like Benny Goodman and Chick Webb there, that place was half and half”. Benny Goodman earns the credit for bringing swing to Hollywood. Although Benny Goodman does not look at skin color, he is afraid of the ramifications of having a multiracial ensemble in his band, therefore when touring, he brings only white musicians with him.

Swinguj za jeden den 30.7.2016
Swing Wings teachers talking about swing dance history in front of the wall of famous dancers and musicians. Photo Courtesy of David Poul .

After swing is revived in the 1980s, Frankie starts dancing actively again and becomes an ambassador of swing. Even after his death in 2009, he continues to inspire thousands and thousands of new and old swing dancers with what had been his positive attitude to dancing and enjoying life to the fullest. In one of his interviews he even says that many of the world’s problems would be solved if everybody danced. He says that swing protected them from getting into trouble or drugs, because the joy it gave them was better than any drug, i.e. dance was their drug. Adults of the era also compare its effects with the effects of drugs, but in a negative way a psychiatrist Dr. A.A. Brill put it: “Swing acts as a narcotic and makes teenagers forget reality. It is like taking a drug.” This statement corresponds very much with what Frankie Manning says, but its effects were not dangerous – unlike what white adults, who were slow to adjust to the new youth pop culture, thought. In retrospect, although swing has never served as a political agenda, and its main purpose is to have fun, it has also overcome racial prejudice and discrimination, and connected people. Nowadays its popularity is growing and the message of sharing love, joy, and fun is being spread more and more. For every individual swing means a different thing, for some it is about community, for some about performances and competitions, for others about meeting new people, communicating through dance, or having fun, but it never restrains and only commands one thing: It has to swing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *