Today I was fortunate enough to participate in the most swingin' funeral I have ever attended. Today, we laid Frankie Manning in his final resting place.
As I entered the Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church in Harlem, I was greeted by the powerful sound of the full Harlem Renaissance Orchestra playing on stage. I saw assembled in the small chapel hundreds of friends, family and fans of Frankie from all over the US, and even a few from as far away as Sweden and the UK. And at the front of the altar there was the body of Frankie, lying in state, looking so peaceful and at rest.
So many old and new friends were there, including my first dance partner Nina, some of my first swing instructors like Paul Grecki and Bill Kline, many "retired" lindy hoppers, and many swing celebrities like Norma Miller, Dawn Hampton, Steven Mitchell, Erin Stevens, Sylvia Sykes, Callede, W, and several other Rhythm Hot Shots from Sweden, Simon Selman from London, and many, many more familiar faces. I guess it takes sad events like this to draw together folks who rarely assemble in one place.
The ceremony was presided over the the Reverend Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and featured short remembrances by various folks who were close to Frankie. It was great getting this full spectrum picture of a man who lived such a rich and fascinating life.
Norma talked to us about Frankie's early days as a dancer, leader of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers and apparently strict taskmaster to the other dancers. His granddaughter Kai gave us a wonderful image of Frankie as a grandfather and a loving presence in his family. Jazz historian Phil Schaap explained how he first met Frankie as a fan of swing jazz and a postal worker, noting how much more shy and introverted of a man Frankie was back then. Then Erin Stevens described how she and Steven found Frankie in the mid-1980s, and coaxed him back into the swing world. Elliott Donnelly explained how far Frankie's influence had spread around the world in the last ten years, as truly the ambassador of lindy hop.
At the service, I wondered how solemn and serious it was going to be, since Frankie was such a joyful and laughter-filled presence in our lives. I shouldn't have worried. By about the second song that the orchestra played, people were dancing in the aisles, clapping and beaming from ear to ear. And that spirit of joyful remembrance continued throughout the service and into the rest of the day.
After the ceremony, the family and close friends of Frankie went to the burial in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The rest of us headed up to the Harlem Stage Gatehouse at 135th Street for the "repast." It was a fitting continuation of the celebration, featuring the George Gee Orchestra and a delicious soul food buffet. (Sadly there was no sweet potato pie, Frankie's favorite.) I had a fantastic time dancing, eating, socializing and sharing remembrances of Frankie with fellow lindy hoppers.
Here's Dawn Hampton and John Dokes dancing to Count Basie's "Splanky." I've seen Dawn and John dance to this song probably dozens of times, but never better than this. Wow.
The event closed with a jam circle and a final Shim Sham (of course) during which I got to dance with Frankie's long-time girlfriend Judy Pritchett. What a perfect send off to the man who taught so many of us what swing was all about.
Before the funeral, I was talking with Atalanta about how interesting it was seeing the diverse assortment of hundreds of folks who were part of Frankie's life. Atalanta replied, "It's like being at a funeral of a Head of State" which I think was just so perfect. We often call Frankie the "international ambassador of lindy hop." Frankie was our leader, our inspiration, our mentor… he was the President of the United Republic of Swing.
I feel so fortunate to have had Frankie in my life.