The past two months for me have been quite an amazing whirlwind, and only now do I have the time to write down all of what has happened.
I’ve always been a collector; when I was young it was baseball cards and comic books, starting in college I gravitated to Jazz music, and in the past decade I’ve added Jazz Dance-related films and artwork to the mix. This story starts about six years ago when, in my thirst for finding new-to-me dance clips, I stumbled upon an out-of-print VHS tape called Chicago And All That Jazz. It was originally one of two television specials sponsored by DuPont in the early 1960s that featured Al Minns and Leon James, the great Savoy Ballroom dancers and members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.
Not long after getting the VHS I decided to digitize it and upload the video to Youtube. It’s been nearly six years since then as of this writing, and out of everything I’ve ever uploaded it has gotten the most views and the most comments by far. It’s a great clip and I’ll let it speak for itself.
Over the years there would occasionally be interesting comments on the video, and sometimes I would respond. Out of the blue, however, came the comment this past August that briefly stated, “God, how my father loved to dance!” The username: Kevin Minns. Upon seeing this I immediately started writing an email (sort of gushing, I admit) about how big of a fan I was of his father and how I’d love to talk to him.
Before sending the message, my fanatical collector’s brain served me well: I remembered a magazine I had discovered a couple of years ago, which featured Al and Leon, with Al’s kids and Leon’s kids dancing alongside them. I pulled the magazine out and to my delight, there was Kevin, only four years old, right on the cover.
I mentioned this in the message, thinking he must know and have a copy of the magazine himself. Kevin’s first message to me began, “This is the best news i’ve ever heard.” He then proceeded to tell me how had never seen photos of himself when he was young– he never even knew what he looked like as a child until that day. I soon came to understand that the discovery of the magazine photos were instrumental in easing some pains that he has held during his life. How valuable it must be to see yourself so happy after an entire life of not knowing or remembering those years!
After a number of emails back and forth, I set up an online video chat with Kevin. What I thought might be twenty minutes turned into an hour and a half of talking, laughing, and reminiscing. I was especially excited to share some of his stories with everyone, since I arranged, with his permission, to record the conversation. The technology gremlins struck that evening however as I discovered the recording didn’t work.
Before I go on I should say during all of this, my teammates at Groove Juice Swing and I were in the thick of organizing the 15th Annual Steven and Virginie in Rochester workshop weekend, held this year in early October. Steven Mitchell and Virginie Jensen have been an instrumental part of our dance lives, and I had talked with Steven a year ago about having the theme of the 15th year be “Tribute”, to the music we love, to the history of the dance, and to the people that have formed Lindy Hop into what it is today. We had some ideas but not a lot had gelled until I met Kevin.
I had the idea in my mind that if the conversation went well, I would ask him to come up for the event to be part of a tribute to his father. If he didn’t have much to say, or didn’t seem to be a the type that would be into that sort of thing, then I’d just thank him and that would be that. Kevin made my decision very easy: he was animated, he was funny, and he had lots of great stories both about family life and his dad’s professional life. When I proposed the idea, I still expected him to think it over. Instead he immediately replied, “Yes! I’d love to!”
From the moment Kevin arrived he was a wonderful presence at the event. He had never been to a Lindy Hop event before, and he was wowed by the joy that this dance brings to people. He was especially excited to learn how to Lindy Hop, to quite literally follow in the footsteps of his father. Kevin danced early in life but admitted to me he hadn’t danced since youth. A special moment I will never forget is witnessing him in class, swinging out for the first time. He also stayed up with all of us at both late night parties, talking for hours to everyone interested in his story and sharing recollections of Al and Leon.
Having Kevin in for this particular event was especially appropriate since Al was the first old timer that Steven Mitchell contacted and learned from, even before he and Erin Stevens found Frankie Manning. We brought Manu Smith in to facilitate the tribute, which consisted of a historical photo and film presentation I prepared, followed by Manu, Steven, and Kevin talking about Al’s life and dance history. The talk turned out to be even better than I had hoped. In my opinion, the stories Kevin told helped humanize Al Minns. He was no longer just a legend we had all seen in Hellzapoppin’ and other films; he was now, to us, the man and the legend.
I think a truly amazing thing about the event was that, for the amount it touched all of us to hear these stories from him, it was at least as touching to see how much this meant to him. Here was a person that, for most of his life, had just known of his father as “Pops”– not as some famous legend. Dancing was his dad’s profession, and it was taken as such. Now, 27 years after Al’s passing, Kevin is finally seeing how much of an effect his father has had on people, and how much joy this dance brings to those who dance it.
We videotaped most of the talk (and will release the best parts of it before too long, don’t worry!) but there were so many great moments over the weekend that aren’t captured anywhere. He even gave a heartfelt farewell during the Sunday musicality class. His goal is to come back next year and be good enough to really get out there and share in the dance that his dad loved so much. He told us that this weekend and this whole experience has changed his life, and that he truly feels part of “The Lindy Hop Nation”. He bonded very tightly with all of us and we all can’t wait to see him again.
This experience has inspired me to do more research and filming with the intent of one day making a documentary on the lives of Al and Leon. It’s a daunting task and I am sure it will take many years to complete, but I feel there is a great story here to tell.
I’m going to end here by posting a little fun anecdote about Kevin’s childhood, from a session that will hopefully be the seed from which the documentary will grow:Posted in Dance
1 April 2016: A small update for those interested.
I was at my friend Jojo‘s house about a year and a half ago, watching some old VHS tapes of dance stuff she had. Among the home movies she had was a taped documentary featuring Cab Calloway. He was checking out this amazing cartoon map of Harlem from back in the 30′s and remembering all the places. Since then I’ve been trying to find a readable copy of it. A while ago I found that the title is “A Nightclub Map of Harlem” and it was drawn in 1932 by E. Simms Campbell, a cartoonist who went on to great success with his drawings in Ebony Magazine. My searches for it turned up little that was actually legible — until this week. Check out the link to view a closeup on Flickr:
I love the great depictions of Harlemites and the little comments everywhere… “Specializes in fried chicken – and it’s really good!” … “Nothing happens before 2 a.m. Ask for Clarence.” Cab Calloway made a joking comment about what a deal those marijuana cigarettes seemed at the time of filming, “2 for $.25″.
Unfortunately it seems that every copy I’ve seen is cropped on every side so we are missing a portion of this great work. My new side project is to find the original drawing and get the rights to print it as a poster. It might even be in the public domain, depending on whether rights were renewed. How great would it be to have this framed up on your wall?
As far as I can tell, the last place the original was shown was at an exhibit at the Smithsonian in 1996. I’m hoping that it is still there; I’ll post updates if I make any progress!
I read that Life Magazine has put about 20% of their photos online via Google (with plans for 100% in the next few months), and I immediately thought of the great Lindy Hop photos from the 40′s featuring Leon James, Willamae Ricker, Stanley Catron, and Kaye Popp.
The simplest search revealed all the photos available from the session, which includes many not featured in the original magazine.
I then recalled the earlier feature on Frankie Manning, where if memory serves me, a reporter went to a bar where he happened to be dancing and snapped this photo.
Here are some more quick searches I did:
Savoy Ballroom, which features a cool costume contest.
Comment with any other interesting searches you can find!
I occasionally keep an eye on Ebay for vintage sheet music, dance programs, and other jazz related stuff.Â Here are a couple of Savoy Ballroom related items I picked up recently:
Images of the inside of the Savoy that aren’t of the dance floor are harder to come by. I do find it kind of odd that the focus of the painting is the ugly chairs and that the view of the dance floor is blocked. You can make out the side-by-side bandstands in the back though.
Here is a cool advertisement I found in a fancy dance program. It was titled “Harriman Democratic Club Spring Festival and Dance” and was held at the Audubon Ballroom, Sunday Evening May 19th, 1957. The program is full of pictures of the members of the club, advertisements from local Manhattan businesses, and little else. I’m kind of surprised at how well put together (and hefty!) the program is. 120 pages, printing in blue, black, and silver ink. I think I may remove the Savoy page and frame it.
Here’s the detail of the ad. Love the design. Looks like it was a larger ad that they scaled down for this. I think it’s supposed to say something below the dancers but the print size makes it impossible to make out. At least we can make out “The Home of Happy Feet”!
After my laptop’s 5th death and complete reinstall, I can finally get my thoughts out, even if they are a few weeks old.
You know a dance weekend is good when you hear three different people independently exclaim “I love my life!” in the midst of the weekend’s events. Stompology 2008 was kind of a dream come true for us on almost every level: the music was out of this world, the classes were top notch, and the parties were awesome. Unlike previous years, I didn’t worry myself with videotaping everything for a vaporware DVD, and I was able to actually enjoy the weekend as a result. The only thing that could have been better is that we just barely squeaked out a tiny profit. We all kind of expected this though, as we spent way more money this year than previous years. If we had to do it all over again though, I wouldn’t have tried to do anything differently since the event itself was so awesome.
The highlight of the weekend for a lot of people was the late night on Friday, in which Gordon Webster teamed up with George Reed and the amazing Wycliffe Gordon. I told Gordon after the show that it was the best night of music that we’ve had in town, ever. I wasn’t exaggerating.
The weekend was also a big deal for me because of the great Sunday night pool party hosted by Corinne and Colin. It marked the first time in more than a decade that I played my saxophone in front of people. Mike and Andy played guitar, Colin and Ryan played drums, Steve played upright bass, and Naomi sang. I was really shy about joining in at first, but after warming up on the kazoo for a couple of songs, I figured what the heck. We played On the Sunny Side of the Street and Perdido, and it was a lot of fun. The problem I have is that I need to have sheet music in front of me in order to play. I can fool around and improvise a little bit, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I can sightread pretty well, but I have always lacked the ability to translate the ideas in my head and sounds in my ears to movements of my fingers. It’s definitely something that I want to improve upon, and Sunday night definitely made me want to practice and pretty much play all the time.
What will next year’s Stompology bring? One thing I’d really like to see is more dancers. Mike commented both this year and last that he was surprised more people didn’t flock to this event since it was the only one of its kind. I think I initially thought the same way but I guess it could be considered a bit of a niche market, even though traditional jazz movement forms the basis of Lindy Hop. Alex and I have both talked about how awesome it would be if Stompology got big enough to allow tracks, but one good thing we currently have is a nice intimate feel to the weekend, and I think it’s something that Rochester always has during dance events. I think we could still keep that feeling even if we grew bigger.
Coming off of back to back workshops in town (the very successful Northeast Girl Jam was at the end of April) it will be nice for us to take a bit of a break before hosting the 11th Annual Steven and Virginie weekend in November. I’m looking forward to not having heavy-duty planning for at least a little while.Posted in Dance