the center of the dance world -- 4/10/15

Today's selection -- from Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch. In 1941, in Harlem, just around the corner from the Great Black Way, stood the center of the dance and big band world -- the Savoy Ballroom:

"The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem [was] perhaps the most famous dance hall in the nation. ... That was where the heavyweight battles of the bands took place, where [a band] made it or lost it. There were no judges, in the strictest sense, working the Savoy; that work was done by the dancers who came intending to party the night away, twirling and bucking and stuffing and pivoting and bending and putting rhythmic spins on the balls of their feet for swirling combinations of steps that counterpointed the slippings and slidings of their partners, each couple a pair of torsos inspired to elasticity by the swing of the band with the strongest beat. ...

Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson at the
Savoy Ballroom in 1941.

"[It was around the corner from] Seventh Avenue and 141st Street. This part of Seventh Avenue was known as Black Broadway, 'the Great Black Way.' It was the widest boulevard in Harlem and the scene of the neighborhood's famous Easter Parade, which Kansas City bandleader Andy Kirk called 'the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life.' Here was where the cream of the crop and the cream of the crooks showed off their taste and their finery or attempted to bring some polish to the scurrilous ways in which they made their livings. The bulk of those seen on that thoroughfare personified the viscous vitality of the music -- a beauty so rich it stuck to the mind. The skin tones of the residents rambled the gamut, inspiring the Negro people to say of their race that it was like a flower garden, including 'everything from lily-white to blue-black.' There were Negroes from all over the world there, some from as far as Africa. The aristocracy of taste and individual grandeur set styles and walked heads up, sometimes in creme-colored shoes, sometimes in suede, sometimes in alligators or leather soft as the proverbial baby's ass. They seemed the royalty of their race. ...

"The Savoy was built for continual ritual. Inside its mammoth dance hall, two bandstands stood side by side, so that as soon as one band's set was over, the next could pick up without a pause. The music went on from nine until two. The Savoy had become the dance hall in New York -- because of the bands that played there, but also because of its customers, whose reactions to the bandstand rhythms set standards for style, giving rise to dance steps that would spread across the nation. As the Savoy grew in fame and popularity, its clientele spread to include rich whites, movie stars, visiting Europeans, and Negroes from out of town who came to find out what all the noise was about.

"The Savoy was owned by two Polish Jews, the brothers Moses and Charles Galewski, who had changed their surname to Gale. Opened in 1926, the dance hall was fronted by manager Charlie Buchanan, an uptown real estate agent who played owner and supplied the Negro mask for the public window.

The Savoy

"The Savoy was built for continual ritual. Inside its mammoth dance hall, two bandstands stood side by side, so that as soon as one band's set was over, the next could pick up without a pause. The music went on from nine until two. The Savoy had become the dance hall in New York -- because of the bands that played there, but also because of its customers, whose reactions to the bandstand rhythms set standards for style, giving rise to dance steps that would spread across the nation. As the Savoy grew in fame and popularity, its clientele spread to include rich whites, movie stars, visiting Europeans, and Negroes from out of town who came to find out what all the noise was about.

"[Bands in rehearsal at the Savoy would] set up their music stands and drums, get the bass in place, and soon they could hear the illusory sound of the hall -- a sound that would change so much once so many bodies had crowded into the room, absorbing their notes, adding sound of their own. You had to play two or three or four times louder during a show than you did in a light rehearsal."


author:

Stanley Crouch

title:

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

publisher:

Harper Perennial

date:

Copyright 2013 by Stanley Crouch

pages:

8, 9, 12-14
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