Sunday, December 9, 2012

Swingin' with Frankie

In the book Frankie Manning – Ambassador of Lindy Hop I came across the titles of many swing tunes, some of which I had never heard before. In honor of Frankie, and as a way of celebrating my 20th Swing Mix on I decided to make a mix of 8 tunes that Frankie used to dance to. Follow the link Swing Mix #20 or press play on the Swing Mix #20 player on the right side of this blog.  
Below, in book (not track) order, are the excerpts in which the songs (in bold) are mentioned and some YouTube videos with songs that are mentioned but do not appear in my mix.

#1 Savoy Lindy hoppers liked dancing to fast tunes (like Chick Webb’s “Clap Hands! Here Come Charley,” flag wavers as he called them, which meant crowd pleasers), but not all the time, so orchestras didn’t play fast numbers all night. Dancers today like doing jam circles to “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but we never jammed to music like that. We didn’t even like “Sing, Sing, Sing.” There was too much drum. I’d dance to a fast tune if it was swinging and I liked it. Otherwise, I’d sit it out. (70)

#2 In late 1934 Frankie Manning and his then partner Hilda Morris got to perform at the Apollo Theater as part of a revue and ended up working with Duke Ellington and his band who were on the bill for that week. Frankie remembers: Now, we used to go see Duke all the time at the Apollo and the Harlem Opera House, and we loved his music, but there wasn’t anything I’d heard that was all that danceable. It was fantastic music, and it was exotic – we used to call it jungle music – but his band just didn’t work for the Lindy hoppers. This was 1934, so it was before he came out with all those swing tunes like “Jack the Bear,” “Cotton Tail,” “In a Mellotone,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” I’d been listening to “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and all this other beautiful music, but nothing that was swinging. Finally, Ellington said, “We have a tune called ‘Stompy Jones.’ Would you like to hear it?” I said, “I’ve never heard of it, but just play it and we’ll dance.” So Hilda and I performed the whole week to “Stompy Jones,” which worked just fine (84)
Here's Ellington's famous "Take the 'A' Train" from the film Reveille with Beverly from 1943:

#3 …the tune we always used in contests was “Christopher Columbus.” But earlier in the evening, Chick [Webb] had played “Down South Camp Meeting,” which is this real swingy tune. If you heard it, you’d dance to it. I had found that I could catch all these little breaks in the music, so I said, “How about ‘Down South Camp Meeting’?” “You got it," he said. “What tempo do you want?” “Something about right here,” I said, snapping my fingers. That little humpbacked man up there on the drums hit off the tempo, and those cats started swinging! (99)
#4 Soon after I introduced the first air step, I was at the Savoy dancing to Jimmie Lunceford’s “Posin’,” either while he was rehearsing in the afternoon or during one of those battle of the bands. As I’ve said, I used to like to catch breaks in the music, and “Posin’”, which he had just come out with, had a nice stop rhythm to it. Each time Willie Smith sang “Evvv-ry-bod-y pose!” and the music stopped, I would freeze my body, then begin dancing again when the band started up after holding for eight counts. Nobody else was doing that, but I did it with my partner because I was so in tune with the music” (103).

#5 In March 1936, we had a two - or three - week run at the Roxy Theater, the first time there for a group of Whitey’s dancers….Around this time, truckin’ was the new vogue, and everybody was doing it. A song titled “Truckin’” had recently come out that went something like, “They had to have something new, a dance to do, up here in Harlem – so, someone started truckin’. To truck, your feet shuffle right, left, right, left with the right side of your body leading as you move diagonally forward, and your right hand shakes while your index finger points up in the air. People said truckin’ was a dance, but it was really just one step, like the black bottom or the Suzie-Q. Whitey was always trying to add the latest dances into the Lindy to make it more exciting and more marketable. In order to make a routine for the stage out of any of these movements, you had to put them with other jazz steps or the Lindy hop. We went into the Roxy as truckers, according to the program, but we just mixed it into our Lindy solos, so the audience would say, “Yeah, they truckin’” (114). The version of "Truckin'" I included in my mix is by Duke Ellington with vocals by Ivie Anderson. Fats Waller's version, however, I have to admit is my favorite:

#6 Frankie recalls when he and Whitey’s Lindy hoppers toured with Cab Calloway back in 1937. At Cab’s first rehearsal for the tour…he asked if I had sheet music, which I didn't. Since I was supposed to know what I was doing by then, and every act was supposed to have its own music, I told him I would bring it the next day. That evening, I ran out and bought the music of Benny Goodman’s “Jam Session,” then stayed up all night listening to the record while I followed along. I couldn’t read the notes, but I counted everything out, visualizing the steps I wanted the Lindy hoppers to do. Sometimes I got up and actually did the movements. The next day, I told Cab I wanted so many choruses of thirty-two bars each of this section, so many of that section (I wanted to make the music longer), then jump back to this spot, and finish it out. Cab was laughing because, as I know now, “Jam Session” is in sixteen-bar choruses (130).  

#7 Later that spring I worked with Count Basie for the first time. I had been listening to Chick Webb since I first began going to the Savoy, but by early 1937 some of us were turning into Basie-ites. To me, Basie swung more than any band out there....Nowadays, whenever I hear Basie, it always makes me want to dance. Some of my favorite songs for dancing are "Shiny Stockings" and "Moten Swing." If I want to show off, I use "Jumpin' at the Woodside" or "Every Tub" (132-133). Of "Moten Swing" there are many Basie versions on YouTube. I am guessing this is probably closest to the version that Frankie would have danced to. I wanted to add it to my mix but 8tracks regulations do not allow you to add more than two tracks by each artist. 

#8 "John's Idea" is a very swinging tune by Count Basie that Frankie used initially in order to choreograph his version of the Big Apple routine back in 1937. Frankie says: Whitey asked me to make up a big apple routine for the Lindy hoppers, so I got to work. At first, as I read the letter and tried visualizing the movements, I thought, What the hell is he talking about? Then I began playing some music and actually doing the steps. I used Count Basie's "John's Idea," initially, but then I switched to "One O'Clock Jump" because it was a little slower and more swinging" (143). [see also my post The Big Apple]

Saturday, November 17, 2012

House Rent Parties

According to Wikipedia, “a rent party is a social occasion where tenants hire a musician or band to play and pass the hat to raise money to pay their rent, originating in Harlem during the 1920s. The rent party played a major role in the development of jazz and blues music…many notable jazz musicians are associated with rent parties, including pianists Speckled Red, James P. Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and Fats Waller, although rent parties also featured bands as well.” [1]

Frankie Manning remembers: “…house rent parties…were a way for people to raise money to help pay their landlord. They were held right in someone’s apartment, and you’d pay 25 cents to get in. Once you were inside, you’d have someone playing stride piano and blues for food and tips, pig’s feet and potato salad to eat, bathtub gin for 10 cents a mug…and dancing.” [2] 

Louis Prima explains it all in “House Rent Party Day”. Pay attention to the lyrics! 

“You haven’t seen slow dancing until you’ve been to a house rent party. When people wanted to get funky, they’d do the black bottom, the mess-around, and slow drags – honky-tonk dances, what they did to slower music. If it was a blues number, everybody would be out there shakin’ butt. You’d hear someone say, ‘Turn the lights down low and let the party get started!’ Or, as Fats Waller used to say, ‘Put out the lights and call the law.’” [2] 

No idea if the party on this old video is a house rent party, but it might as well be. The song is "The Joint is Jumpin'" and Fats Waller is on the piano.

"When they played hot music - fast music, ragtime or Charleston-type music – if someone started getting a little wilder than everybody else, the crowd would back up and form a circle. Everybody would stand around clapping for the people in the middle, who would start shining, what we called ‘showing off’.” [2] Manning is referring to the 'jam circles' or 'jamming' - more about them in my post Jam Circle.

© Bettman/Corbis

[2] F. Manning & C.R. Millman, Frankie Manning - Ambassador of Lindy Hop, 25

Image: Jam circle at the Savoy Ballroom, circa late 1930s. Herbert "Whitey" White encourages Ann Johnson (with leg bent) to enter circle with George Greenidge (facing Ann). Johnny Innis stands to Whitey's left (F. Manning & C.R. Millman, Frankie Manning - Ambassador of Lindy Hop).

For further reading:

One Year Anniversary

It’s just over a year now since I started learning the Lindy hop, the leader’s part mind you, since we were lacking boys and some of us girls had to volunteer to dance the boy’s part. I haven’t regretted volunteering one bit!! I really enjoy the leader’s part – it’s much more challenging, interesting and jazzy than the girl’s part, so I am still taking classes and seminars as a leader. However, I sometimes feel a bit of an alien because I am not dancing as a follow at all, plus I also get the feeling that sometimes it’s looked down upon for a girl to dance the leader’s part. That’s why last week I took my first class as a follow and hopefully a year from now I won’t be as lousy a follow as I am now….Still, I think I will always be a much better leader.

One year ago I also started this blog as a sort of notebook for myself and others to learn more about the swing era, the music, the fashion, the society. As a one year anniversary present of sorts I bought myself these two books representing two eras (the '20s and the '30s), two different dances (the Charleston and the Lindy Hop), but also two sides of me: the leader part that is often looking to Frankie Manning for styling, and the girl part that is always looking to the Flappers for styling. The '20s and the Flappers I have loved for almost two decades now, who knows why. My obsession with Woody Allen movies and his obsession with the '20s might have something to do with it. In college, I even took an entire seminar on the 1920’s and the 'lost generation' of writers and even wrote a paper on the Flapper herself. As for the '30s and Frankie Manning, I got to learn a lot about them this last year, and hopefully you have learned some things along with me through this blog.

Last night I started reading Frankie Manning - Ambassador of Lindy Hop and I thought that maybe some future posts on this blog might be about various subjects mentioned in the book, with the hope that they will inspire you to go on Amazon and buy the book yourselves. It’s a wonderful edition, beautifully narrated by Manning himself, and I think every Lindy hopper ought to own a copy.

I hope you stay tuned for future posts and if you enjoy the ambiance of this blog, you can also come join My Swing Archives on Facebook for a trip back in the '20s, '30s & '40s.

Swing Heil!!

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