Birth of the Jitterbug
THE JITTERBUG — as it became known — was born in Harlem and nurtured there at the famous Savoy Ballroom, home of the great Swing big bands. Almost as if in a movie script, the dance was associated with street gangs, violence, Hollywood stars and dazzling fashions.
George “Shorty” Snowden was one of the winning dancers at an 18-day marathon in 1928, during which he won money from side bets by dancing with his partner in a more galvanised way than his exhausted competitors.
While doing this he amazed everyone by flinging out his partner in a break-away and dancing some flashy solo steps — which he shrugged off as merely being the Lindy. Named after Charles Lindbergh’s aeroplane “hop” across the Atlantic in 1927, the Lindy Hop dated back much earlier and in fact breakaways were an integral part of the Texas Tommy in 1913.
One of Shorty’s own breakaway steps was to be named after him — the Shorty George.
Shorty was a member of one of Harlem’s many secret gangs – known as “clubs” — the Jolly Fellows. Started in 1923 by Herbert “Whitey” White, who was older than the others and had an interest in dancing, it became the club for dancers and grew to over 669 members by the Thirties.
Although there was a violent and bloody relationship between the rival clubs, they all observed a strict code of formality and honour which they copied from gangster films. More disciplined than the other clubs, the Jolly Fellows unofficially but literally ran the Savoy Ballroom, with Whitey as head bouncer!
The Savoy, where Chick Webb’s band originated ‘Stomping At The Savoy’, would feature two bands competing in a “battle”, driving each other and the dancers so hard that the music became known as Swing.
Shorty and the regular dancers used to compete with each other in their carefully guarded “Cats’ Corner” of the dance floor, which was closed to all but the bravest of dancers from other clubs.
During the breakaways their self-expression and invention were put to the test, as convention forbade any dancer to copy another’s step. Celebrities and film stars came to watch and tip them, and all the big bands – white as well as black – were keen to play for them.
As big band jazz progressed into the Thirties, it spurred on the dancers and they, it. In 1932, Bennie Moten’s band re-energised the music and speeded up the dancing by making it flow to guitar and bass instead of jerky banjo and tuba. From there, things got even faster.
In 1936 the acrobatic style of slinging partners through the air began to appear, by chance at the same time as Benny Goodman emerged as a white bandleader capable of holding his own alongside the Savoy swingers.
In 1937 a team of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were seen in the Marx Brothers’ ‘A Day At The Races’, and before long the exotically dressed Leon James, their star dancer, had joined his one-time rival from another club, Al Minns, to make the airborne style world famous by 1939.
Despite all this activity in Harlem and other black areas, the white public generally believed that the Jitterbug (as the Lindy became known) erupted out of nowhere when Benny Goodman invented Swing! During the latter Thirties his audiences were “jitterbugging in the aisles” and making headline news – as did Bill Haley’s later Rocking followers.
Soon, teams of Lindy Hoppers (many managed by Whitey) were guaranteeing success to stage shows and night club reviews, and the style of dancing spread into the War years amongst white big band fans. Typically, the white fans tended to prefer the white bands, leaving the black originators to split up and simplify their music into the roots of R&B when demand dried up.
The true Lindy-cum-Jitterbug could be called choreographed Swing, and while the airborne acrobatics helped make it a sensation the intricate footwork was more important to purists like Shorty Snowden. The Jive-like basic step of the Lindy was taught when Rock ‘n’ Roll evolved out of early R&B, and a slower modification is being taught now as the Swing-Hustle.
Thus, like the Twist, the Jitterbug has never died . . and that ain’t no Jive!
BENNY GOODMAN: ‘Stompin’ At The Savoy’ (RCA 2657)
Adding further fuel to the jitterbug fire, Benny’s classic 1936 swinger gets a maxi coupling with the dreamy ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ and the jumpin’ jive ‘Swingtime In The Rockies‘, which cooks and cooks! A must for adventurous jocks.
GLENN MILLER: ‘Make Believe Ballroom Time’ (from LP ‘The Legendary Glenn Miller, Volume 10’, RCA LSA 3237)
Here’s the famous 1940 radio theme, long deleted, on one of the latest volumes in this great ever-growing series of all Miller’s studio recordings. Other goodies on this volume are ‘Five O’Clock Whistle’, ‘Yes My Darling Daughter’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’, while of course the theme itself makes the ideal intro to your Swing spot.
ANDREWS SISTERS: ‘Bounce Me Brother With A Solid Four’ (MCA 232)
Follow-up to their ‘Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar’, this 1941 boogie-woogie offshoot is full of precisely harmonized rhythm, while the ‘Booglie-Wooglie Piggy‘ flip is rather like ‘The Flat Foot Flogee’ (With The Floy Floy)!
JH PICK Continue reading “February 28, 1976: Birth of the Jitterbug, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Andrews Sisters, Boswell Sisters, Eddie Drennon & BBS Unlimited”