If I could go back to any one year in Swing, it would probably be to 1938. One has to think about these things so that one won’t delay in the event that some random guy with shaggy hair shows up with a time machine and a bored look on his face.
Here’s why 1938:
First stop would be New York in January. Benny Goodman held a famous concert at Carnegie Hall, and though I’d go to it, I’d also be itching to attend the headline event that happened later that night: when Count Basie battled the great Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom. It was not only a momentous night for Swing music in general, which was elevated to the level of concert music by the Carnegie Hall concert; it also marked the point Basie’s incredible rhythm section and the “Kansas City Sound” had ‘made it’ in the wider world of jazz. And, to top it all off, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were the rival singers of the bands.
So, the chance to hear Goodman, Basie, and Chick within a couple miles of each other in the same night, and hear Ella and Billie on vocals? Not a bad night.
It was also a pretty interesting night for the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. According to Norma Miller, Chick Webb had told the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers that he didn’t need them, so the Whitey’s staged a strike and only danced to Basie’s band. Chick Webb reportedly gave in after a few sets. Frankie Manning recalls the story differently (claiming the dancers simply took sides with which band they liked the best), and so it’d be interesting to see what really happened. Regardless, it was one of Frankie’s favorite nights of dancing at the Savoy, and Basie had become his favorite band. The opportunity to see a young Frankie dance all night to one of his favorite bands alone would be worth the price of admission.
Here is a newsreel from a Basie performance that same year.
Chick and Ella’s “A Tisket- A Tasket” would be the major hit of the year. “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” would be a minor one, and I’d try to be there when Frankie Manning heard for the first time what would become one of his favorite songs, and the one that would inspire the Hellzapoppin’ choreography, just to see the look on his face. (By this point he might be wondering who the six-foot-two white guy is hanging around in the bushes.)
I’d get a lot of chances to see social dancing at the Savoy Ballroom, as well as the weekly contests. (I’d have to fight strongly the urge to dance myself, just to feel what it was like, lest I alter Lindy Space–Time. Would I buckle?) As film clips tell us, some interesting things are happening in Lindy Hop in 1938. It’s becoming refined. The Whitey’s are making the switch from leather shoes to sneakers for their performances; the followers’ arms are getting more extended in their basic dancing, allowing for a more linear style; and Frankie Manning is starting to rise above his peers to be the best-looking and most creative Lindy Hopper in Harlem. Dancers like Snookie Beasley, Leon James, and Willa Mae Ricker would be veterans on the dance floor, whereas Joyce James, and Al Minns would be new kids making names for themselves.
In fact, I’d get to see the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball, which one of my favorite original dancers, Al Minns, won with an incredible mostly forgotten follower, Mildred “Boogie” Pollard.
Throughout the year I’d take trips out to California and spend extended periods of time there: The Venice Beach clip is being filmed in September. I’d get the names of the other dancers we don’t know in it and find out exactly why they’re there (we’re pretty sure it’s a contest promotion, but it’d be nice to know for sure). I’d stalk Jack Helwig and Genevieve Grazis (the couple in white) and learn more about them. We know that Maxie Dorf and Lolly Wise are at a high point in their dancing and with the Ray Rand Swingers at this time as well, since they filmed Start Cheering around this time. According to Willie Desatoff’s high school yearbooks, we know that 1938 is the year in which many of the signatures in his yearbook refer to how good a dancer is, suggesting that by this time he’s started to shine himself.
I’d find a way to catch Fred Astaire practicing and preparing for his and Ginger’s movie Carefree.
I could see Jewel McGowan before she became Dean’s famous partner, when she was still a Swing [early form of Bal-Swing] dancer. Dean Collins will have only recently moved into town at that point, and I could see him starting to spread his Lindy Hop throughout Southern California.
Before I left it all, I’d make sure I got my hands on a varsity sweater with the year “1938” on it, you know, for a souvenir.
Sure, I’d try to encourage The Doctor to let us stay over into 1939 a bit, or maybe check out social Lindy Hop and LA swing in the early 30s; but I wouldn’t want to spend too much time in the swing dancing past. After all, we’ve got a future to make in it.
Dear Readers: Any differing opinions? Which year in swing/jazz history would you go to?
5 responses to “My Favorite Year: 1938”
I am so with you on this – that night at Carnegie Hall and the Basie/Webb battle has been my “if I could go back in time for one day” day for years. I love that you highlighted all these other wonderful things from 1938, too!
Nice Doctor Who reference there.
beat me to the DW comment.
Don’t forget the Lawrence Welk short (approx. 10 minute) musical video “His Champagne Music” filmed about 1938-1939. Variety of music, vocals, dancing, in early 20th century jazz and popular styles.
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