If you live in NYC, you may have passed the Petland Discounts store on W 8th Ave and 28th Street more than once. But did you know 85-years-ago the store was the site for the infamous machine gun murder of Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll? We knew it because that killing appears in Jitterbug! Coll, just 22 at the time, was in a phone booth inside the London Chemists (now Petland) talking to Owney "The Killer" Madden about his ransom demands for the safe return of Madden's Cotton Club manager and fellow gangster Big Frenchy Demange. You can learn more about the "setup" here. Just scroll down to the end of that page to read the whole story which includes archival photographs and a newsreel. That Jitterbug! website page has info and pictures (including current photos) devoted to all the sites found in the dancical. It also includes a map to make it easier for anyone wanting to visit the locations.
Lindsay Shields is the first high school teacher in America to use the dancical Jitterbug! in the classroom. We love that she will be using it in one of her English Language Learning classes at Flushing High and taking her students on field trips to see the actual places found in the play. But, because she is a drama teacher, she is also planning on performing site specific excerpts from the play at each spot.
This is a great way to introduce kids to America's history by using this uniquely American story that showcases how great things can come from hard work, not giving up, and people of all colors working together. Plus it frames the evolution of jazz through the dancical's selections from the Great American Songbook, ranging from a turn of the 20th Century's simple use of a couple of piano chords from the "Buck Dancer's Lament" in a tap dance smackdown scene between the dancical's hero Billy Rhythm and the legendary Bojangles Robinson, through 1930's swing music and finally through the use of Ornette Coleman's invention of "Free Jazz" to accent the smackdown of the dancical's hero. We love it!
Ms. Shields expects to begin working on this project by December or February (January is a testing month). You can bet we will keep you posted.
God love her!
Jody Gottfried Arnhold makes $4.3 million gift to create a Doctoral Program in Dance at Columbia's Teachers College
Along with her husband John Arnhold, their generous endowment is designed to create master dance educators, researchers, policymakers, and all-around leaders in dance education. As reported in the WSJ, the gift will also pay for the program chairman and scholarships. Pending state approval, the program could start as early as next fall.
Considering NYC is the world capitol of dance, there couldn't be a more fitting place to grow such an exciting program.
Or to incorporate Jitterbug! in the Classroom, the free educator's program based on the National CORE Arts Standards in Dance, Music (Composition and Ensemble strands), Theatre, Literature, and History/Social Studies.
I first learned about Al Minns and Leon James in the wonderful Jazz Dance book by Marshall and Jean Stearns. Al Minns, fresh out of high school in 1936, is credited with other young dancers at the Savoy Ballroom for getting the Lindy "off the ground" with "air steps," ju-jitsu type moves that tossed the female around her male dancing partner like a rag doll. Stearns writes that the Savoy's "old guard"-- Leon James and George "Shorty" Snowden (a member of the Jitterbug! Creative Team)-- "disapproved" because the youngsters were not respecting the traditional and intricate steps associated with the Savoy-- and especially the street gang The Jolly Fellows and its legendary dancers in "Cats' Corner" who had made it big in Hollywood as members of "Whitey's LIndy Hoppers." This famous dance troupe was named after Herbert White, founder of the Jolly Fellows. As Stearns tells it, James-- now referred to as "King James" around the Savoy-- had just returned to Harlem following his appearance in 1937's A Day At The Races (he's the one mugging for the camera in the clip) and everyone at the Savoy couldn't wait to see him. Well, he made them wait until around midnight when he finally strode in wearing
"a riding habit with gleaming knee-high boots. The pants were champaigne, the blouse iridescent burgundy, and the ascot powder blue. His right hand flicked a riding crop against his leg." As Al Minns recalls: "Leon waited till everybody had noticed him and then sauntered disdainfully across the floor to Cats' Corner. He was so nonchalant that he could hardly see where he was going."
As it turned out, if anyone had come to see King James dance, they would have to wait even longer. When he finally took the floor and danced with an unknown partner and finished, no one else danced in the Savoy Ballroom's revered Cats' Corner-- even though the Chick Webb Orchestra was still playing and the "squares" outside of Cats' Corner were still dancing. Stearns writes that an "invisible rope sprang up around the Cats' Corner... anyone of any importance stood respectfully still."
And then "the kid," Al Minns, grabs his partner and starts dancing in Cats' Corner, "performing the latest Savoy routines" and throwing in-- literally-- a few air steps. This was so shocking that nobody surrounding Cats' Corner could move. But when they found their composure, they-- the Jolly Fellows-- gathered around King James to see if he wanted them to "tear Minns apart."
Fortunately for Minns, James declined to retaliate because he is quoted by Minns as saying, "This cat is doing our steps. Maybe he knows something."
Following his performance in front of the "King," Minns walks up to his majesty and said with a daring, barely hidden disrespect, "Gee, Mr. Leon, I hope someday I can dance as great as you."
And James replies, "Well, boy, you keep on practicing and someday you will."
Stearns writes that for a year following Minns introduction of himself to James that "an armed truce existed between them." But by 1939 after working together in the same dance troupe, they had become fast friends.
So, it is with great fun and surprise to learn that this circa 1960 clip exists, that it shows these two great dancers and friends showing us the history of jazz dance beginning with the cakewalk. And Stearns telling Hef across a piano with cigarette in hand that what people see on TV variety shows is not jazz dancing, but a combination of ballet and modern. Jazz dancing to Stearns is a black street thing with roots in the south and slavery. And don't forget it.
Sadly, James and Minns have passed on. James went first in 1970 at the age of 57. Minns held on to 1985. He was 65. Our loss. Heaven's gain.
How cool is this? A TV show for and about choreographers and choreographing. Produced by Nigel Lythgoe (So You Think You Can Dance), this online streamer is now in its second season and can be found at the Go90.com site. Every Single Step has 10 choreographers competing against each other for a top prize of $25,000.
The Jitterbug! creative team embraces the concept where, for example, the recent second show in Season Two challenges choreographers to come up with dance routines for a big budget Hollywood musical.
Lo, for it is written in the dancical, that the playwright encourages choreographers to reach beyond the Jitterbug-- blasphemy!-- into the future for dance moves the Savoy Ballroom had never seen before to win the climactic dance contest.
We wish Lythgoe and his creative team a long, long run with the show. And we're sure Astaire, Bojangles, Busby, Fosse, Robbins and all the other choreographers-- known and unknown-- who have passed on to that great dance floor in the sky are thinking, "Who knew?" And smiling broadly and proudly and even in amazement at what their children are doing today.
The magic of jazz improvisation was what Whitney Balliett called "the sound of surprise." He was the longtime jazz reviewer for the New Yorker. Thanks to the epic work by Loren Schoenberg, the founder and chief historian at theNational Jazz Museum in Harlem, this tiny "museum that could"-- after a 30-year search-- is releasing through Apple Music the long lost 1930s-thru-early-40's radio broadcast jazz recordings made by legendary pioneering sound engineer Bill Savory.
This is the "sound of surprise" for the Jitterbug! team since The Savory Collection touches upon the historical underpinnings of the dancical's music and story which are set in 1930's Harlem. And the Cotton Club where some of the earliest live national radio broadcasts were made.
The Savory Collection, a treasure trove of over 1,000 proprietary discs and hundreds of hours of music, is built on the revolutionary recording techniques developed by Savory. Instead of using standard discs suitable for 78rpm records, he used larger discs and recorded at a slower speed. This allowed for longer recordings and encouraged improvisation by jazz musicians. Although the discs were discovered in 2010, it has taken this long to catalog, restore, and remaster them for the collection's first digital release on October 14th : The Savory Collection, Volume I-- Body and Soul: Coleman Hawkins & Friends. This first volume features one of the best examples of what Savory's technique allowed: the increased length of Coleman Hawkins' signature piece Body and Soul.
For us, however, it's knowing that this first volume includes music by members of the Jitterbug! "Creative Team:" Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, and Fats Waller (who also have parts in the dancical!).
Congratulations to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (which is smack dab in the middle of where most of the action takes place in the play-- just south of the legendary Lafayette Theatre and north of the long forgotten Plantation Club and not too far away from the long gone Savoy Ballroom and Cotton Club). We look forward to future releases.
You can learn more about this epic journey and hear the Coleman Hawkins recording here.
Multi-hyphenate with a penchant for writing.