Known by many as the “Queen of Swing,” Norma Miller holds an important place in jazz history. She is among the originators of the Lindy-hop, an energetic swing dance that began in Harlem in the late 1920s. The Lindy-hop became a dance craze in the 1930s and remains popular to this day.
"Prototype Online: Inventive Voices" is a production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written and hosted by Paul Rosenthal. Audio production by Benjamin Bloom. Theme music by Will Eastman. Art Molella, executive producer. Norma Miller was originally interviewed on 7 and 8 September 1992 by historian Ernie Smith as part of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program; podcast released 25 April 2007.
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Paul Rosenthal: From the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, welcome to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices," brought to you by the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention of Innovation. I'm Paul Rosenthal.
If you are a regular listener to this podcast, you'll know that, from time to time, we like to explore the boundaries of what an invention is, rather like a pendulum that swings from the latest whiz-bang technical gadget to a simple fabric sling, and then completely in another direction, such as innovation in performing arts.
Since April is Jazz Appreciation Month, we're going to have that pendulum swing directly to the Queen of Swing, Norma Miller. One of the great jazz dancers of her time, Miller and her dancing feet hold an important place in jazz history. She's among the originators of the Lindy Hop, a swing dance that swept the nation from the 1930s and into the 1950s.
It's a dance that originated with the Charleston, but distinguished itself by a swing-out move, which provides separation between the dancers and allows them to improvise. The Lindy is also marked by air steps, acrobatic moves done by the dancers when they're flung in the air.
The Lindy Hop started in Harlem in the late 1920s, and its epicenter was the Savoy Ballroom. From there, the dance spread like wildfire, making its way to far-flung ballrooms across the country and into major motion pictures, one of the most famous appearances being in 1937's "A Day at the Races," which featured the Marx Brothers. Norma Miller has some serious words about that portrayal, too.
Now, walk into the Savoy on any given night and you stood a good chance of hearing a jazz legend. Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie are only the tip of the iceberg of legends who played there.
[jazz music plays]
Paul: That's the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra playing "Go Harlem," a song that Chick Webb and his band played at the Savoy. When the beat was swinging like this, the floor at the Savoy would fill with dancing couples. And among them were the best dancers of the day: people like Leonard Reed, Frankie Manning, Twist Mouth George, Shorty George Snowden--and Norma Miller, who was born in 1919 in Harlem, and grew up within earshot of the Savoy.
Too young to get into the club, she, her sister Dottie, and their friends danced on the streets. Before she knew it, she had danced her way into the Savoy, finding herself at the very beginnings of a dance that would sweep the country. As a teenager, she joined Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, a professional dance group led by entrepreneur Herbert White. The group was made up of the best and most creative dancers from the Savoy, and they were in demand.
Norma Miller remains an active figure in dancing. She teaches master classes and at dance camps around the country, and last year at this time, she was here at the National Museum of American History to help us celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month.
For this podcast, though, we reach back into our archives to an interview recorded on September 7th and 8th, 1992, as part of the Smithsonian's Jazz Oral History Program. Norma Miller is interviewed by jazz historian and swing dancer Ernie Smith.
So, with credit to Jay Ward, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and particularly to Mr. Peabody, we invite you to sit back as I fire up the Wayback Machine, and come along for this trip to a place of invention. Let's visit 1930s Harlem, where innovative, talented, and creative people established a music, a dance, a fashion, and a style all its own.
Ernie Smith: When the concept of swing started, the beat changed to four-four.
Norma Miller: Exactly.
Ernie: And there are folks who describe Lindy Hopping as choreographed swing music. I mean, it caused dancing to become more smooth, more horizontal...
Ernie: ...instead of vertical up down. It smoothed out...
Norma: Lindy became the syncopated rhythm of swing music. In other words, when you heard the music you was able to respond to what the band was playing. It's the reason why the marriage was so successful -- because the dance was formed from the music that was beginning to be played. In other words, dancing become what the music is. When you hear it...ba domp, ba domp, bomp...bomp...bomp...
Norma: The dance began then. So he was able to take a step and fit that step to that portion of the music. Hence the Lindy Hop, or whatever dance it was called, it was given the name Lindy Hop, became identified with swing music. And the dances went the way of the music. And the two things married and melded together in perfection.
That was the one part that made the dancing so beautiful. It was how you were able to increase the tempos we were able to dance because the music was so perfect. You didn't have to think about where you were in the dance step. You just knew it because you heard it in your ear.
Norma: Just like the musicians...you heard it the same way the musicians played it. That's what made the combination so successful.
Ernie: Well, later on, and I'm jumping quite a ways ahead in time, but it got so that jazz became, and swing, which is another name for jazz at that time...
Norma: Well swing evolved out of jazz.
Ernie: Out of jazz, what was known as jazz.
Norma: Right. Prior to that you had the Bunny Hug, the Charleston. Now remember the music you played in those days. Now just think, when you think of what they call the Bunny Hop -- Dink dink dink dink-dink dink-dink dink dink.
Norma: You know what I mean? That's what the dance did. You got that jerky type...
Norma: ...of dance, right? Now you're getting to the place where you've got da de da, [sic] a one two, one two, one two. That's when they started doing what they call two-step. You see?
Norma: Now you're not into real swing music. This is pre-swing. But you're going into swing, because you've got dances now such as the Turkey Trot. Now just think, Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug. Now we're getting into bomp-bomp...bomp-bomp...bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp bomp bomp. Now you're getting into Charleston. And Charleston became the craze.
Norma: 'Cause anybody could do it. You had all kinds of versions of Charlestons. People would Charleston up and down. I mean Charleston was the dance of America.
Norma: The dresses were the flapper. The dresses were short and the girls was kickin' their heels and everybody was Charleston. Now they combine the Charleston with a two-step. Now you've got the beginning of what's going to become what we named the Lindy.
Norma: Because the Lindy's nothing but a two-step with the girl, now Twist Mouth George and all them are all dancing in the ballrooms.
Norma: And while he's doing this Charleston he begins to throw the girl out.
Ernie: The purpose of throwing them out is?
Norma: So he can do his step.
Ernie: So he can do something fancy.
Ernie: In that instant.
Norma: And bring her back in and they kept the time was perfect together. And that was the beginning of what we now know as the Lindy Hop.
Ernie: There's been an observation and a criticism that in these feminist days that lindy hopping was a male dominated, male oriented dance.
Norma: Yes, because the male leads. Women don't lead in the Lindy Hop.
Ernie: Well it's not just even a question of lead. It seems as though the men were doing all the fancy.
Norma: Well, she was doing a lot of twisting.
Ernie: She was?
Norma: Certainly. That's why Edith Matthews did the twist.
Ernie: Because in most dances the men leads.
Norma: Yeah, but the men leads.
Ernie: The tango, or.
Norma: You can not do any lindy with a girl leading. Period. So that's why I said it was always chauvinistic.
Ernie: So, here you are, slow but sure, you're at the Savoy. In 1934. You're a regular there and Whitey was there already.
Norma: Well, Whitey came and got me.
Ernie: No, but Herbert White was working there in some capacity.
Norma: Yes, I think, what was he, he was a bouncer at one time. He was a dancing waiter. He had dancing waiters, guys that did trays and things.
Ernie: Yeah, I know that. Twirling of the trays in that business.
Norma: He had his dancers doing that. Whitey was always involved in some kind of way that had something to do with people.
Ernie: So, here were the folks on the floor doing the lindy, or some form of swing dancing, but obviously the lindy. And, Whitey apparently saw some potential in that, beyond merely a social dance.
Norma: Oh yeah.
Ernie: He saw, he saw monetary potential in it.
Norma: Exactly. Well see, when you think back, here is a dance that has taken off. I mean, this dance spread like wildfire. It was like Topsy, it just grew. Now, he can't control the dancers that sdoing it, so he was talking to Shorty and them, wanting to arrange bookings with them and he wants to organize them.
But, they're his peers. They're not hearing it. They don't want no part of it. What are you talking about? We don't need you! We do blah, blah blah. But, he was smart. He started canvassing the ballrooms for kids to do it. And that's what happened. He found a bunch of kids that could dance. And then not only that. He put them in the ballroom and started training them to dance how he wanted them to dance.
Ernie: So, he knew something about dancing.
Norma: Oh, yeah.
Ernie: I mean, he was an accomplished enough dancer himself that he could assume that kind of role.
Norma: He was the one that put the format of the teams together and had them dance together. He started that. Shorty never didn't do it. Shorty had them dance as individuals. Understand?
Norma: Whitey made a routine out of it.
Ernie: So you did unison dancing.
Norma: And he did unison dancing. When I came back in 1936, and he took me to the Apollo Theatre to see Frankie and them, and they were.
Ernie: Came back from where?
Norma: From Europe. And he said, and he took me into the theatre, and didn't tell me nothing that was going on. And all of a sudden when that music hit, here came, three dancers, flying out of the wings. That was the new format. And that was the sensation. I mean, they were sensational. And that's why he said, now, I'm going to form a group around you. That's how it started.
Ernie: But, just to roll the tape back a bit. So here was Herbert White, working as a kind of combination bouncer, whatever, at the ballroom. He was kind of a tough guy.
Norma: Tough guy.
Ernie: I mean he had a tough guy background.
Norma: Fighter. Boxer.
Ernie: With a thin veneer over it, of, you know, Norma: Charm.
Ernie: Charm. Right. He was a charmer from what all I gather.
Norma: Oh, he knew how to charm. Yeah. Oh yeah.
Ernie: And, he spotted you and I think your partner Sonny Ashby when you were young dancers.
Norma: No, he saw us at the Apollo; we won a contest!
Ernie: You won a contest.
Norma: And took the money away from his dancers.
Ernie: Where was this? At the Renaissance?
Norma: Apollo Theatre.
Ernie: Apollo Theatre.
Norma: See, we went into contests for a fluke, me and Sonny.
Norma: Because we used to dance in the ballroom. "Look, the Apollo Theater's going to have a Lindy Hop contest. Why don't you guys go do the contest?" It wasn't Savoy. But see, we had no idea who was in the contest, we just signed up as a fluke.
Ernie: Yeah, and you won.
Norma: And we won. And that's how that started.
Ernie: You had these rigid rehearsal schedules. You'd rehearse all day.
Norma: All day.
Ernie: Every day.
Norma: Every day.
Ernie: And then you had the performance part.
Norma: Every night.
Ernie: Three, four performances a night.
Norma: When we played the Apollo Theater, well, that was harder. We had to work all day.
Ernie: That's a grind.
Norma: Well, you ever see what the ballet dancers go through?
Ernie: And you were doing aerials and all of that, and that's tough to do.
Norma: Every day. Right.
Ernie: You must have all been running around with band-aids...
Norma: Have you ever been around a ballet company?
Ernie: [laughing] Not too much.
Norma: You know how many hours a day they practice?
Norma: Well, you can imagine they practice all day.
Norma: And I mean, they take classes every day. You cannot let down on your bodybuilding when you're a dancer. The only way you keep that body moving is you must rehearse and do that every day. There's no other way. Even now, I still work out. I'm 72 years old, I work out every day. I have to. Consider the alternative: I'll be stiff as a board if I didn't.
Norma: So that discipline carried me over 50 years.
Ernie: That's a key word with Whitey, discipline.
Norma: Oh yeah. But it's a key word in dancing. You can't be a dancer without being disciplined.
Ernie: So here was this guy who was essentially a bouncer at the Savoy, with a good eye for dancers, and not a bad dancer himself--not a great dancer, but a dancer...
Ernie: Organized all of you. He saw commercial potential in it, got you all together, formed the thing called Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, and then he ruled you with an iron hand.
Ernie: And very few of you rebelled, because you were enjoying what you were doing.
Norma: None of us rebelled.
Ernie: You were getting paid for what you'd do anyway. You liked to dance.
Norma: Exactly, exactly.
Ernie: But he was making bucks on his own.
Norma: Well, he began making bucks when he got with Hellzapoppin'.
Norma: That's when he started having thousand dollar bills in his hat band.
Ernie: But for all his style, you learned things from him, too. It was a two-way street. You learned about discipline. Some of the rub-off was beneficial.
Norma: Oh, very beneficial, because it trained you how to survive in one of the roughest businesses in the world, show business, and survive as a dancer. A person's life years in dancing, if they get a good five years, they're lucky, in dancing. It's the hardest profession in the world.
Ernie: The Lindy Hopping, when the air steps came in, became a very, very physical dance. I mean, there's no other way to describe it.
Ernie: Were you acrobatically trained?
Ernie: So, that must've been something, to learn these...
Norma: Air steps.
Ernie: Air steps. And you weren't trained as an acrobat. You weren't on tumbling teams or something.
Norma: No. Listen, we had a lot of injuries, because we didn't know how to do it. Did you know Ed Sullivan sent for some great acrobatic person to watch me do the step I did, handspring down the back.
Norma: He said to find a way for me to do it without me pounding my feet the way I used to. And I did that naturally...
Ernie: I know you slid down and...
Norma: ...and landed. I broke the stage in Mini Giras, doing that stuff.
Ernie: Yes, you mentioned that. But you also suffered injuries from time to time.
Norma: All kinds of injuries. Had a bad back.
Ernie: Pulled tendons.
Norma: Oh, my feet are so tender now, if I touch them, they hurt.
Ernie: The price you pay.
Norma: The price you pay to be the great [speaks with French accent] dancer.
Norma: That's why when I go swimming, I lay on my back in the water. And all I can do is float on my back, but it feels like a water mattress. [laughing] I said, "Gosh, nothing is pressing against my back!
Ernie: Did you have nicknames for each other? I mean, did you develop...
Norma: We had Long George was George Greenwich. His name was Long George.
Ernie: Long George because he was tall.
Norma: He was tall. William Downs name was Susqueue because he was named after [inaudible] George. We had Stompin' Billy, because he used to have a real stomp in his feet when he swung out. We had, what was Leon's name? Leon had Crazy Legs, or something like that, we called Leon. But everybody had, course you always had.
Ernie: How about you? Did you have.
Norma :I was called Bunny.
Ernie: Just Bunny.
Ernie: How about, did you have any special names for the dancers you considered square, or not so good on the floor? Did you.
Norma :No. We never even thought of them. We just never gave them a thought.
Ernie: I mentioned that when I was learning to dance, I mean, the arrogance of the better dancers was to look down on the not such good dancers, and they came up with names, I remember, like they would call them Corn Huskers, or Finale Hoppers, or people who pumped their arms, would be called Water Pumpers. You know, don't dance with that person, cause she's a Water Pumper, stuff like that. You didn't have anything like that.
Norma: No. Well, we didn't dance outside of our sphere. We didn't dance with outsiders.
Ernie: You didn't?
Norma :No. We only danced in a group.
Ernie: n other words, if some new dancer came in, and came over to Norma Miller, and said, "Would you dance with me, miss?" what would you do?
Norma: No! We never danced with outsiders.
Ernie: Because you were not allowed by Whitey?
Norma: We just never did.
Ernie: You just never did.
Norma: We just never did. I mean.
Ernie: So how did somebody break into this hallowed circle?
Norma: Just be a good dancer! If you were a good dancer, everybody looked at you say, yeah, you know, they recognize a good dancer.
Norma: You know, but if you were just an ordinary dancer, you just didn't mean nothin' over there. But any good dancer could come over there. And a lot of them came. That's how come it was always being replenished.
Ernie: See, today, there again, there's these militant dancers who look upon that as some form of discrimination. That.
Norma: It might be.
Ernie: You know.
Norma: So, it's discrimination.
Ernie: I can understand. It's very hard to dance with somebody.
Norma: I'm very discriminating in dancing. You know? Believe me, I don't dance with everybody. But, everybody know that so nobody ask me to dance. Period. They know better. So, am I discriminating? Of course I'm discriminating! I'm more so discriminating today than ever. I'm confined down to two people, you and Frank Manning. [laughter] And y'all ain't in town.
But I dance a lot when I go into Swing Society come over to. Play the starters. I dance with all the kids. I danced with Mario.
Ernie: Well, yeah.
Norma: Sure. I like Mario's dancing.
Ernie: I want to talk a little bit about, as much as you can remember, I know when I was learning to dance there was a ballroom style that the dancers affected, both male and female. The men always tried to look extremely sharp and the women had their styles. I want you to talk about what you remember, how the males, for instance, came to these dances. Did they come superly casual, were they always dressed up or what?
Norma: Oh well, men in those days were always dressed up. Well, the Savoy had a dress code. So when you came to the Savoy, you were always dressed in your best. But, men in those days, well, if they didn't have nothing else, they had a shine on their shoes and their suit was pressed. That was a must. And, however they did it, if he had one suit, it was pressed. A man was always well dressed in the Savoy ballroom.
Ernie: Well, what I'm trying to get at, beyond that, that's men in general, but were the hip dancers, did they affect any other style? Did they wear special kind of shoes or...
Ernie: They did?
Norma: Yeah. Remember they wore, well, at the beginning, in the 20's, you had the Acey Deucy.
Ernie: What's that?
Norma: That's the suit, that tight waisted thing you guys wore, and you had a flair around the back. And it was wide shouldered, with the big, wide-shoulder lapels.
Norma: The men wore bell bottoms. Then from the bell bottoms, they went to the peg leg; which was, I think, around '38 that the peg leg pant came in.
Norma: I think. Is that about right? Around '38?
Ernie: That's about right.
Norma: Right. And they went double-breasted.
Ernie: Well, peg leg, you mean pegged trousers.
Norma: Peg trousers, yeah, with the cuff.
Norma: Then you went to the double-breasted suit, because if you noticed, Bill Robinson always wore a double-breasted suit when he danced. All his suits were double-breasted.
Ernie: No, that's not true.
Ernie: I'm going to have to dispute you on that.
Ernie: I have him on film in single-breasted suits with a vest underneath.
Ernie: The coat dangled open, and you could see his vest underneath.
Norma: You mean the thing that he did with Jeni LeGon?
Norma: He was in a double-breasted suit. You sure?
Norma: Well, maybe I'm wrong.
Ernie: All right. How did the women dress? What was their standard dancing getup?
Norma: The flounce dress with the flair skirt.
Ernie: Flair skirt.
Norma: So it can move. You didn't wear tight skirts. The long skirt came in someplace late in the '30s. I noticed a lot of pictures we were on, we had on long skirts.
Norma: So it's because the style had changed to that long type of look at one time.
Ernie: They were pretty tight until about he knee, and then they flair out.
Norma: And then you had the split-open on the side.
Norma: But then we started cutting our dresses to above the knee, so we could have more room.
Ernie: What kind of shoes did you wear?
Norma: Well, we always wore the saddle shoes.
Ernie: Saddle shoes.
Norma: Because we would begin doing air steps. So it was just like anything else, it was better to do... We were a professional dance act before we put on heels. That's when we wanted to get dressed up. But prior to that, it was always skirts and blouses and the type of saddle sneakers...
Norma: ...a kind of a sneaker. But most of the time, with the saddle shoes.
Ernie: I was going to say, many bits of film I have, and even in pictures, when you look at them, the men, oddly enough, were wearing high-top tennis shoes to dance in.
Ernie: Athletic tennis shoes.
Norma: Not in our act.
Ernie: Not in your act, but I mean dancers in general. I'm trying to expand it beyond your act. I have a piece of film, taken at the Savoy, and there's a dancer there and he's wearing tennis shoes.
Norma: That's unusual.
Norma: It must've been only one, because you very seldom saw tennis shoes on the Savoy Ballroom floor.
Ernie: Management didn't like it.
Norma: We just didn't see it.
Norma: We were the first to wear the tennis shoes on the floor, because we began doing such acrobatic things. So that's what was the reason why we put on... But most of the girls--see, you remember, Shorty Snowden and all of them--they wore high-heeled shoes. Bea and them, they all wore high shoes. And Little Bea wore REAL high-heeled shoes.
Ernie: Yeah. You think it would be hard to dance in that kind of a thing.
Norma: Well, they did all floor work.
Ernie: All floor work.
Norma: They did floor work, and they were good at it.
Ernie: Did your mother come to see you dance?
Norma: Oh yeah, many times.
Ernie: So she approved? She liked?
Norma: Oh yes.
Ernie: Where did you live between gigs?
Norma: Well, when I didn't have a job, I went home.
Ernie: You went home.
Norma: Oh, Momma was always there.
Ernie: Did you share your earnings with her?
Norma: Whenever I had a couple of bucks, I always gave it to her, certainly.
Ernie: How about Dottie? What was she doing then?
Norma: Well, she started working in the hospital, and she became one of those nurse's attendants. For many, many years, she worked at the hospital.
Ernie: But she danced in the movie, "A Day at the Races."
Norma: "Day at the Races."
Ernie: How did that come about?
Norma: Well, she was traveling with Whitey. Whitey took her out of New York because she was having a difficult time, and Whitey took her to California with him. He wanted somebody to ride in the car with him. He had a chauffeur, and him and Dottie. So while we were traveling on the bus going out west, they were coming in the car, and they met us in California.
Ernie: Well, as long as we're talking about "Day at the Races," that's a Marx Brothers' movie.
Norma: Marx Brothers' movie, 1935.
Ernie: Did you meet any of those Marx Brothers, or not?
Norma: Met all of them.
Ernie: You did.
Norma: Harpo... The first time I heard him talk, I was sort of surprised, because I didn't know he could talk. [laughs]
Ernie: Anyway, that was the first great Lindy Hop sequence to reach the American screen...
Ernie: And all the European Lindy Hoppers today...
Norma: Are still using it.
Ernie: I ask them where did you learn to do this dance? We watched that movie. I said, you learned it all from just that little, couldn't be more than two or three minutes.
Ernie: It's amazing what that little piece of film has done. How many people have benefited.
Norma: Yeah, it's amazing how they take off and just go and copy our stuff and just do our dance they're going to come back and dictate terms to us about our dance. I said, when you create something of your own, then you can talk. But don't tell me nothing about this dance, and you've copied everything we've done. I said, have you ever added or contributed anything to the Lindy? Have you ever invented a step? I mean, you're using everything. You're like parasites.
Ernie: But you see those kinds of public performances are fair game to be ripped off by anyone.
Norma: Of course.
Ernie: I don't care who it is.
Norma: We're not questioning it. But don't come and talk to me as if you created something.
Norma: I know where the dance come from. I know where the step come from.
Ernie: It's like ideas. If you tell someone an idea and they cash in on it, you have a hard time proving it was your idea to start with.
Norma :But we don't have a hard time provin' about this. I mean there is no one anywhere dancing any place in the world. I use Lindy Hop and I can tell you where the step come from. But you can't tell me where the step come from.
Ernie: That's true.
Norma: Like I tell them, I said, listen, you can say what you think you know. I know. That's the difference. You can't dispute what I'm saying. I was there when it was invented. I know who did it - every step, every step, not a step in Lindy Hop.
Ernie: Truckin', Suzy Q..
Norma: Truckin', Suzy Q, I can tell you the origin of every step. You didn't create nothin'. We did. It's ours.
Now we're not objectin' to nobody using it. Nobody ever put no claim on it - you can use this. We love the world doing it. But don't act as if we don't exist. Because you got that dance from us and that came out of the Savoy Ballroom. And I defy anybody to tell me different.
That's what I stand on.
Ernie: Well, there's general agreement on that.
Norma: They have to agree on it - there's no issue.
Ernie: Although if you go out to California and talk to dancers out there...
Norma: I do the same thing out there.
Ernie: They talk as though they invented everything.
Norma: No they don't. Not in front of me. Smiley and all of them tell you. I argue with that Mary Dean. I don't care who it is. No one came before we - whatever you're doing you got it from us. Doesn't matter where it is. Now you can take any picture, anything, whatever dance you did, if it's the Lindy Hop, you got it from us.
Ernie: I was going to ask, was this southern factor in the population shift was this evident on the Savoy Ballroom floor?
Ernie: You didn't...
Norma: We didn't have that problem in the ballroom per se.
Ernie: I'm just saying, did the southerners bring something of their dancing styles with them when they....
Norma: They did our dancing style.
Ernie: They did your dancing.
Norma: Certainly. Nobody brought a style into the Savoy. The Savoy created the style. Anybody who came to the Savoy... Remember the dance of the 30's and the 40's and into the 50's was swing. Wasn't until bop music came in that the dance patterns started changing. We didn't have no dance patterns really.
Ernie:And what did bop do to it?
Norma:Well, you couldn't dance to it.
Ernie:You couldn't? Not even the best of them couldn't?
Norma:You couldn't dance to bop. It didn't swing. You can't swing to bop. Bop became the listeners' music.
Ernie:Well, I remember that.
Norma:And you sat down and listened to the bop.
You see, you didn't sit and listen to swing.
Ernie:There were tap dancers that could dance to bop though.
Norma:Oh yeah, Baby Lawrence.
Norma:Yeah, but you didn't go on no ballroom floor and did no tap dancin'.
Ernie:Because the ballrooms pretty much dropped dead. I remember that myself.
Ernie:But that was not just due to bop, although that was a big factor, if you couldn't dance, what's the point?
Norma:But the point is you didn't have the band...
Ernie:The times changed.
Norma:Times changed. It started in the early '50s.
Ernie:And ballrooms, one by one, began closing across America...
Norma:Closing, one after the other.
Ernie:Because when I was coming up, and I guess it certainly must have been the same, besides the ballrooms, you could dance in any club. Any little roadhouse or club you went to had a postage size dance floor...
Norma:Right. A small paradise.
Ernie:...and at the very least, a jukebox, but usually a two or three piece band.
Ernie:So you could dance wherever you went. I mean, it was inconceivable to go somewhere and not be able to dance.
Norma:But then you got clubs that came in like Birdland.
Norma:And places where people just sat down and listened to music.
Norma:And that became what I call the Stone Age.
Norma:Because they sat there stoned.
Norma:"Man, that's far out..." And the patterns in our society began to change. The fabric started falling apart.
Ernie:There are many musicians that you talk to who are resentful of the earlier jazz period, the swing and all that, because they felt they had to carry on too much for the average person that was part of the listening public. In other words, they just wanted to play.
Ernie:And that was very indicative of the bebop era, where they rejected the audience.
Norma:They got into their music. That's right, turned their back on you.
Ernie:And they wouldn't do anything.
Ernie:They wouldn't even announce the tune half the time. You took it, and if you didn't like it, good-bye. But in the dance years...
Norma:You had to cater to the dancers.
Ernie:...dancers. Many musicians forgot that the whole reason for the swing era was the dancing.
Ernie:I mean, without it, I don't know what direction the music might've taken.
Ernie:Maybe bop was an answer to where it was going to go, but for those years, for any... I don't want to put words in your mouth...
Norma: What you're saying is right.
Ernie: But for my opinion, jazz wouldn't have existed if it wouldn't have been for the dancers.
Norma: Swing wouldn't have existed, not jazz.
Norma: Basie said it.
Norma: Basie said, when he went into the ballroom and his whole band was to keep the dancers on the dance floor, and play that music that they could dance to. And he catered to that.
Ernie: And there was nobody better for dancing than Basie.
Norma: Nobody better.
Ernie:Because he had that great rhythm section.
Norma:Best in the world.
Ernie:And soon as that starts, your foot starts to move. You have to get up and dance, at least, in my opinion.
Norma:You still do.
Paul:Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, a place of invention and creativity, as told by dancer Norma Miller, one of the originators of the Lindy Hop. She was interviewed by jazz historian and swing dancer Ernie Smith, on September 7th and 8th of 1992, as part of the Smithsonian's Jazz Oral History Program.
If you enjoyed this podcast and want to look more at this intersection between invention and music, I encourage you to listen in to the podcast that we did last year for Jazz Appreciation Month, where David Baker told us about the sound of color and Jon Hendricks spoke about inventing a new jazz vocal style.
You've been listening to "Prototype Online," from the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, at the National Museum of American History. We're glad you had the opportunity to tune in. I'm Paul Rosenthal.
We're anxious to hear your thoughts about this program or any others from the Lemelson Center. Send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And learn more about us on the web at invention.smithsonian.org. Be sure to check back with us again soon, to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices," to hear more from great innovators and inventors of the 20th and 21st centuries.