Image by Swifty
Every once in awhile I get a bit discouraged about the lindy hop scene in New York. As the fertile ground where swing jazz and swing dance was innovated and developed during the 1930s and 40s, today the modern swing musician and dancer has few places where they can get their groove on in New York City.
Some of the finest swing musicians of our day can be found at humble establishments, bars and restaurants where they are often just background music for the diners and barflys. And lindy hoppers, who once by the thousands flocked to see Chick Webb battle Benny Goodman at the Savoy, gather a few dozen at a time in sterile dance studios and school auditoriums to practice their craft.
Luckily there’s a gang of intrepid jazz enthusiasts and dancers who are committed to, in their own small way, preserving the historic connection between swing musician and swing dancer, one kick ass party at a time. That’s my friends at Jelly Roll Productions.
Last Friday, after an exhausting day planning and executing the Frankie Manning book launch party up at Riverside Church, I made my way down to a small bar on West 40th Street to catch Jelly Roll Production’s latest event. They had managed to assemble the Gorden Webster Trio, George Reed on drums, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, and dancer-cum-singer Steven Mitchell on vocals.
I arrived at around midnight to find 100-some folks crammed onto the dance floor, surrounding the sextet laying down some solid swing jazz. Wycliffe spoke volumes through his trombone, George Reed banged out infectious beats, the bass got every head nodding. Steven Mitchell, to be honest, is not much of a singer, but he’s an amazing entertainer. Throughout the dance, he was bouncing around, scatting with the musicians, and leading calls and responses.
Meanwhile the dancers were packed onto the tiny dance floor, moving with economy and grace with hardly a collision to speak of. Folks on the sidelines were clapping along with the band, grooving in their seats. Sometimes the music would be so good, we’d just stop dancing and applaud the soloist, then resume dancing.
During the band breaks, instead of heading out for a smoke, the musicians hung out with the dancers and grabbed their girlfriends’ and boyfriends’ to get their own groove on.
Frankie Manning talks about how during the Swing Era there was this tight connection between the band and the dancers that was just electric. Musicians would perform little phrases during their solos that the dancers would try and mimic with their steps. Or the musicians would see the dancers doing something and respond in their playing. It was a musical conversation, Frankie says.
On Friday night, in a little corner of Manhattan, I feel like I got a little taste of that. I feel very blessed to be here in this time, in this place, dancing for my life. Thanks, Jelly Roll.