Let’s Dance

“Let’s dance” may be a call to action, but it was also the name of a short-lived, but very popular radio program (Dec. 1934-May 1935) that launched the career of Benny Goodman. The format of the New York show was unique in that it was five hours long with three rotating bands, but only three hours of music were “aired” in each time zone. Starting at 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast, the last three hours of the program were heard on the West Coast beginning at 9:30 p.m. and it actually had a much larger audience in the Pacific time zone due to its earlier start time.

While the program was extremely popular, a labor dispute at Nabisco, the show’s sponsor, caused it to cease all sponsorships, and the show was canceled. That summer Goodman took his band on the road, but was met with limited success, as the audiences were indifferent to the band’s performances because they played “stock arrangements” that were not all that “swinging.” Goodman was broke and close to quitting, but that all that changed on the night of Aug. 21, 1935, when the band opened at the Palomar Ballroom, a famous dancehall in Hollywood. The crowd came to dance, but when the band played the same material they had been playing that summer, the dancers were non-responsive and it looked like the end was in sight for the band. However, it was Goodman’s drummer, Gene Kruppa, that turned it all around. Between sets that night he said to Goodman, “If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” Goodman went “all-in,” opening the next set with Fletcher Henderson’s swinging arrangements of “Sometimes I’m Happy” and “King Porter Stomp.” The dancers went wild, bursting into applause and gathering around the bandstand to watch the band play. What Goodman learned that night was that the crowd was there because they had been listening to Goodman on “Let’s Dance” and they were waiting for the opportunity to do just that … to swing dance. At the end of the three-week engagement, Goodman’s position as the “King of Swing” was firmly established.

So what is swing dancing? Well, let us start with the music that is danced to: “swing” is jazz that has a propulsive drive with musical accents related to a fixed beat. When you hear it, you know it, as you instinctively want to click your fingers and tap your feet and the music has that “swing feel.”

The origins of swing dancing can be traced to Harlem in the 1920’s and 30’s. Known variously as the Jitterbug, Balboa, Shag and Boogie Woogie, and many more colorful names, the most widely adopted of which was the “Lindy Hop.” Its roots go back to African rhythms meddled to European dance conventions – partner dancing. Besides providing sheer joy to the participants, it allowed the dancers to improvise with aerials and other techniques that captured the imagination of young people who did not want to dance like their elders. Sound familiar?

The Lindy Hop got its name from the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose 1927 solo flight from NY to Paris brought “Lindy” world fame for his “hop” across the Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, a newspaper reporter asked a dancer what was the name of the wild dance the crowd was performing, he responded, “the Lindy Hop,” and the name stuck.

Ground zero for the Lindy Hop was the Savoy Ballroom, located at 141st and Lenox Ave. in Harlem. Known as the “Home of Happy Feet,” the cavernous dancehall could accommodate 4,000 dancers and was opened seven nights a week with an admission charge of $.60 after 6 p.m. and $.85 after 8 p.m. It had an elongated dancefloor anchored by two bandstands – one at each end of the dance floor. When one band stopped to take a break, the dancers moved to the other end of the floor and without missing a beat, the next band began to play. The Savoy was the scene of many band competitions, or “cutting contests,” as they were known. The most famous swing-era bands led by Count Basie, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and many more, did battle at the Savoy and it was the inspiration for the great swing-era tune, “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”

Most importantly, the Lindy Hop and the Savoy played an important role in the beginning of the desegregation of the races in America. Annual attendance was 700,000 with an estimated mix of 85% black patrons and 15% white patrons, but some evenings it was 50-50. White dancers went uptown to the Savoy to be part of an evolving dance scene, which would ultimately become a dance craze that would sweep the nation and lead to the tearing down of barriers between the races. The Savoy was in reality a social experiment, not just a dancehall, especially when contrasted with another very famous Harlem establishment only a few blocks away, The Cotton Club, a “whites-only” venue. It was controlled by the “mob” and catered to the wealthy, featuring top black entertainers with an all-black service staff. Decorated with a jungle motif, it reeked of overt racism and the best that can be said for it was that it launched the careers of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Lena Horne.

So let’s dance!

Vail Jazz presents “Swing! Swing! Swing!” at 8 p.m. Friday, March 30 at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. The evening of swinging dance and live music from the Tony Gulizia Sextet celebrates the 20th anniversary of Vail Jazz Goes to School.  

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Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Winter Series and the Vail Jazz Festival.