The dancical has always encouraged choreographers to reimagine the winning number for the climatic dance scene at the Savoy Ballroom. The picture above depicts how Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson-- bleeding from razor and knife cuts-- might look like just before he launches her over his shoulder and into legend.
Ryan Francois keeps popping up on our radar.* As stated in the play, we encourage choreographers to reach into the future for dance steps that will win the climatic dance contest at the Savoy Ballroom. Because the protagonists Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson are professional dancers at the Cotton Club, we expect to see tap introduced in the Jitterbug break-- and anything else that will blow the jaded Savoy crowd and, of course, the audience.
Mr. Francois is a choreographer specializing in the Lindy, teaching it around the world to sold out classes. Here he is with Lana Williams riffing on the sublime and showing that you don't have to reach into the future for a winning routine that showcases each dancer's skillset.
*Click the highlighted link above to see Francois in a 2017 video by scrolling to the bottom of the post.
Inspiration. It can come from anywhere. In the case of one of the dance numbers, it came from an old picture of men standing in line hoping to get hired during the Great Depression.
Jitterbug! opens with the dancical's hero Billy Rhythm returning to Harlem during that spirit-killing time after failing to make it on the TOBA* circuit, the black entertainer's vaudeville. And for years he just crossed 7th Ave to stop by the clubhouse of his gang, the Jolly Fellows.
But it wasn't until seeing this picture that I got the idea to add a song and dance number. Finding the song was easy. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, two nice 20-something Jewish songwriters, were already in the script because they had been hired by the mobster owners of the Cotton Club (also in the play) to write a new show for them. At that time Arlen and Koehler had a national hit called "Get Happy," which was like an unofficial anthem for the Great Depression, promising "a land where the weary forever are free..."
Now when Billy crosses that street-- once known as the "Boulevard of Dreams"-- he sees an unemployment line of gray sad faced men holding onto a rope that keeps them from spilling out onto the sidewalk and although there may be music and dancing in the streets when the curtain rises, the audience is quickly reminded of the tough economic times with the perfect song.
And, since this is a "dancical," the men in line use the rope as a ballet barre, holding onto it with one hand while "trucking" with the other as they "plié, rise, kick-out, and lock step forward while the LIGHTS SLOWLY DROP on them until they disappear in the shadows."
And since this is also "musical realism," the music filters into the theater from a radio sitting on a tenement window. Ella Fitzgerald is singing this later truncated version that's just long enough to get Billy across the street.
On stage, this growing separation between the hopeless men in line and Billy is a metaphor symbolizing his indomitable spirit, propelled by his dancing away from despair toward hope which is found on the other side of the stage, the sunny side of the street, if you will, just behind the legendary "Tree of Hope."
*Theater Owners Booking Association
"Norma Miller, who danced the Lindy Hop on Harlem sidewalks as a child, and as a teenager dazzled crowds on international tours in the 1930s and early ′40s doing the same kicks, spins and drops that had made it a Jazz Age jitterbug craze, died on Sunday at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99."
She truly was "something else" and was our last touchstone with the original Lindy Hoppers. Blessed with an indefatigable spirit, sharp wit, athleticism-- and courage, too when you're talking about allowing yourself to be launched into space while doing the jitterbug-- she will be sorely missed.
The New York Times did a fine job with her obituary and is well- worth a read. Just click her name above.
"More than fifty years ago, John Coltrane drew the twelve musical notes in a circle and connected them by straight lines, forming a five-pointed star. Inspired by Einstein, Coltrane put physics and geometry at the core of his music.
Physicist and jazz musician Stephon Alexander follows suit, using jazz to answer physics' most vexing questions about the past and future of the universe. Following the great minds that first drew the links between music and physics- a list including Pythagoras, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and Rakim- The Jazz of Physics reveals that the ancient poetic idea of the Music of the Spheres," taken seriously, clarifies confounding issues in physics."
You can watch Alexander explain what Coltrane came up and find other videos with him explaining the connection of jazz and hip hop with science here.
All of this reminds us of our post about the Cotton Club being the Center of the Jazz Universe.
Possibly the greatest theater ever built opens tomorrow in NYC. Known as The Shed, the multipurpose space is ginormous. Its architecture is breathtaking and groundbreaking (it can move its 8-million pound enclosure with a small 180-hp electric motor, about the size of one found in a Prius).
Seeing that voluminous space got us thinking: Jitterbug! could be mounted as an immersive experience with the audience following the story through the streets of Harlem and into the tenements and legendary clubs and ballrooms that are long gone and rapidly fading memories; where the ghosts of Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Bojangles, and the Cotton Club gangsters are still very much alive singing, dancing, and killing.
You can learn more about the making of The Shed by watching this short video below.
Hanna Poikonen's University of Helsinki's doctoral dissertation has developed methods for understanding the processes that dance generates in the cortex. She found that dancers would make good gunfighters in that their brains react quicker to changes in music-- even faster than musicians and much faster than those who are neither musicians nor dancers. In fact, the reaction in the brain is so fast, it happens before the dancer is conscious of it.
Dancers also showed stronger synchronization powers (our word) which link to memory and emotion which are "central to all personal interaction and self-understanding," ie, the stuff that makes us human. She reminds us that the synchronizing elements of dance are "touch and cooperation," that "without them, there can be no dance."
Flow is also an integral element of dance, the phenomena where people become fully immersed in an activity to the point that they are more relaxed while in synch with the processes on a subconscious level. Like musicians in a band or in an orchestra, once dancers' brains are in synch, seamless cooperation flows.
To learn more, please click here.
Owney "The Killer" Madden was a badass and not to be trifled with. In 1910 as an 18-year-old member of the Gopher (pronounced Goofer) gang in Hells Kitchen, he was making about $200 a day "selling" protection to store owners ($5,300+ in 2018 dollars). After serving 9 years of a 20-year sentence for murder (possibly his 5th killing), Madden was released from Sing Sing prison in 1923. He was 32-years-old, scarred by 11-bullet wounds, and penniless. Most of his original gang were either in prison, dead, or working as bootleggers. The most successful was Larry Fay who made his old friend his chief enforcer in a racket set up to gain control of the most profitable cab stands along Broadway. During this period, Madden hired an old friend from the hood to be his personal driver. His name, George Raft. Madden would later bankroll a Hollywood career for him (as he did with Mae West whom he also grew up with and later dated while backing her Broadway Sex show which she wrote and starred in until law enforcement shut it down).
Madden quickly realized that lots of money could be made because of Prohibition and within months of his release from prison teamed up with gangland partners and began opening nightclubs and speakeasies that sold illegal hootch that he controlled. Harlem's Cotton Club became his most famous and lucrative operation. Originally known as Club Deluxe, it was owned by the first black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson. Rumor has it that Madden and his boys made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
The Cotton Club soon became the spot for rich white folks (blacks weren't allowed except as performers) looking for excitement, entertainment and, of course, access to booze. To keep them coming back, Madden made sure to hire the best talent-- especially up-and-comers who were, for the most part, unknown like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, and Lena Horne (16-years-old at the time) who would work as cheaply as they were willing to go.
That included the 20-something songwriting team of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Despite coming off a hit record (Get Happy), they took on the job as songwriters for the Club's 1931 revue Rhyth-mania for $50 a week and all the food they could eat. Twenty-something Cab Calloway was chosen to replace Duke Ellington who had gone to Hollywood to make his first movie.
And this is where the Jitterbug! story begins as young black Americans Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson struggle against all odds in a Jim Crow world made all that more dangerous by working for the mob. They fall in love and through sheer perseverance and a little faith in God, overcome death threats and bloodshed by dancing unknowingly-- but triumphantly-- around the spinning center of the Jazz Universe, a black hole named Owney Madden.
Here's the REAL Dr. Don Shirley in rare 2001 concert footage performing George Gershwin's The Man I Love. He's played by Mahershala Ali in the movie "Green Book" with Viggo Mortensen as his driver Tony Lip. His choice of music reminds us of one of Jitterbug's themes: how the Depression and Prohibition threw people of all colors and faiths together to make musical magic and magical dance. In the dancical. two young Jewish songwriters, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, are writing hit songs for the mob-ran Cotton Club's new 1931 revue, Rhyth-mania. Cab Calloway and his Orchestra are performing them with black performers. We also use Gershwin's Liza, the go-to number used by Chick Webb to "cut" any band that had the temerity to challenge his Savoy Ballroom house band in a Battle of the Bands. Only in America.
The free monologue is available at the Educator Resources link on the left. It's timed to a free video (available upon request through our Contact portal) that includes music and archival film footage.
Multi-hyphenate with a penchant for writing.