Frankie95 Highlights and Observations Pt. IV

Part four of my Frankie Manning’s 95th Birthday Festival recap. Again just a few grammatical edits.  You can see a compilation of videos from Saturday here on my site.    This note was originally posted on June 11, 2009.

You would think everything would have gotten easier after we settled into the Hammerstein Ballroom, our home for the last half of the event, but not so much.

Saturday was the first day of workshops. Theoretically, over 1000 people were eligible to take workshops. According to a survey we took a month before, closer to 800 had plans on taking them.

Again, the thing that always killed me bout this event was proportions. Even if only half of those surveyed people decided to show up, that’s still on par with the largest workshop events in the world.

All the tracks were open to self selection with the exception of the Masters track where people had to audition early on Saturday morning. Auditions were originally meant to be a pretty lengthy process on Friday, but obviously plans had to change. Personally, I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with that. I’ve organized masters auditions before and my reaction tends to vary between hugging and slapping the people who show up for these things.

I drew the Advanced-Intermediate track over at St. Michael’s . . . excuse me, 424 West 34th St. Why the distinction if it’s the same place? Because some people are just crazy.

Back to the workshops: The best thing about working the lower levels of a self tracked workshop is that no one tries to crash them, so it made managing them easy. So easy that after the first one was done, I was able to leave them in the capable hands of the volunteers, Emily Sowden and Stephanie Keim.

I will say that it did give me the opportunity to come face to face with how disconnected some of our scene is. Frida and Skye taught the first class of the morning. Quite a few people came in asking where Erin Stevens was teaching, with most of them wondering who these Skye and Frida people were.

We like to pride ourselves as pretty well connected online community, but this was a reminder of the large swaths that don’t keep track of the latest goings on nationally and internationally. I ran into one guy at one point who was asking about tickets for the evening and mentioned that the last event that he was at was Frankie’s 80th birthday, 15 years ago.

So I guess one of the nice byproducts of the event was to bring together different parts of the scene that don’t normally interact with one another. Not just generationally either. We’ve become very segregated in terms of musical preferences and styles of dance like blues and balboa. It was good to have everyone together if only to toss big fish in little ponds back into the vast ocean that Frankie helped to create.

It also reminded me that of one of the ironies about the DC scene: while it is home to some of the most renowned dancers in the Lindy community, they’re better known outside of the city than inside of it.

Comfortable with the fact that the workshops were in order, I headed back to the Manhattan Center because I thought it would be a nice quiet place to edit that night’s production schedule. As soon as I walked in, I ran into the whirlwind that is Chester Whitmore.

Chester had taken over the lobby, to the dismay of the registration staff, to teach several dozen people a routine that they would be performing and recording later that night at Times Square . . . After the dance was over . . . sometime before dawn. It made me tired just thinking about it, and they went at it for the rest oft the afternoon.

Despite all that activity, it was a relatively casual pace until we hit about 4 pm.  A couple of hours before the doors open? Cue mayhem.

It’s not that a lot went wrong, it was just one thing. But everything was set up like an assembly line. When the first thing gets screwed up, everything down the line gets held up until it’s fixed.

I know what you’re thinking: then you should have it set up so everything’s not dependent on the thing before it. Oh, if it were only that simple, but the laws of physics are immutable, not to mention a little difficult to change within a two hour deadline.

Just imagine lighting equipment being readjusted, sound equipment for 3 big bands being set up, riggers hanging those 30 foot banners, and five dance teams all practicing all at once. I was there, and I had a tough time taking it all in.

For some reason the thing that stood out the most in this chaos was catching glimpses of Peter Strom standing in the spotlight, working with the lighting designer for the Silver Shadows routine. It seemed like a little detail at the time, but it’s a very powerful part of their piece.

I keep telling him that lighting will be the new trend in performance pieces. People will stop bringing musical instruments and instead pack their own spotlights.

While this was going on, a very interesting gathering was taking place in the downstairs lobby. The early evening panel discussion featured a talk with some regulars of the Savoy Ballroom, Frankie’s peers that haven’t gotten as much exposure for whatever reason. But before that panel we gathered those people, some Mama Lu Parks alum, and a few others for a private screening of some rarely seen footage from Mura Dehn’s documentary “The Spirit Moves.” The purpose of the screening was to hopefully identify various dancers in the clips. I wish that I was able to eavesdrop more on this gathering, but I was distracted.

We were under the gun big time at this point. Doors were supposed to open at 6:00 pm, with the panel discussion starting at 6:30 pm. By 6:00 pm we were looking at an hour and a half delay. They were still struggling with the banners, the mics and connections for 50+instruments still had to be completed, and George Gee’s band needed a sound check as well as do a run through with the New York All Stars who were performing to the very first song of their set.

It came down to the EG Audio guys with help from George Henick and Steven Wexler to get everything ready under less than ideal circumstances. They were able to cut the delay down while I worked with Elliot Donnelly and Terry Monaghan to make sure the panel discussion didn’t go long.

We actually only started about 45 minutes late and were back on schedule by 8:30. In the end I’m not sure many people noticed.

The rest of the evening went relatively smoothly. From the opening performance with the New York All Stars to the Hellzapoppin’ finals with the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, and our various presentations and performances.

Organizer green room, Saturday night in between band sets. Jonathan Stout on guitar shows up a day early and jams with Peter Vawter as Manu Smith chills out in between MC'ing duties

I still can’t stop talking about Akemi’s Shim Sham video. It’s not just that it was a moving video. It’s the thought that it was created by someone that I’ve known for almost as long as I’ve been dancing; someone that I’ve personally connected to in a way that transcends any kind of written definition I can think of. I wrote something about her awhile ago hoping to convey that feeling, but she herself created something that connects a community spread out though the entire world in a way that I didn’t think was possible.

I’ve talked about about the Houston and New York people, but I’m also glad to say that I was really proud of the former and current DC people like Akemi that helped out.

  • There was also Mike Marcotte who was the man in the DJ booth for the main part of the night, and had his moment with his save of the Ninjammerz performance.
  • Rayned Wiles came in and batted clean up (along with Jesse Miner) when the live music ended.
  • Naomi Uyama was a part of getting the Frankie Show together.
  • Naomi, Skye, Nina Gilkenson, and Andy Reid, were part of the Frankie tribute performance by the Silver Shadows. Even Luke Albao chipped in by directing the lighting guy during that performance.

It’s indicative of how many little communities make up and impact the larger Lindy community.

We saw the Jitterbug Kids from Harlem; the future hailing from the dance’s birth place. A place I hope that the larger scene develops a stronger connection to in the future.

As many performances as there were, I’m glad we gave everyone the opportunity to perform with the with the Frankie95 Worldwide routine. That routine didn’t go off the way I envisioned it, but it was fun to see all those people get up there and do it.

Later there were the Harlem Hot Shots whose routine included many members from past incarnations of the troupe, from the original Rhythm Hot Shots all the way to the current version of the team. While we’re celebrating our history with Frankie and the other old timers, I think it’s important to note that the Hot Shots have been an institution that goes back to the dawn of the revival.

Then came the new new school with the Ninjammerz who threw down with members from France, Canada and the US, showcasing the talent that is being cultivated worldwide. They were originally going to recreate the Hellzapoppin’ routine before the Sunday show really developed.  That show fittingly appropriated that piece for its finale. However, I think it worked out better for the Ninjammerz to come out with something of their own to showcase.

And of course there were the Silver Shadows. A lot has been said about this piece already. It’s one of the few Lindy Hop routines that I’ve seen that has caused people to well up with so many strong emotions. I feel like that is one of the last areas that Lindy Hoppers, in general, have to really explore: to invoke a broader array of emotions in people than what’s typically associated with Lindy Hop like excitement, happiness, bad-assery, etc. The Hot Shots and the Ninjammerz are tough acts to follow, but the Shadows did it with the kind of respect and class you would expect of a tribute to a man like Frankie Manning.

The Silver Shadows right before their Frankie Manning tribute performance on Saturday night. Andy is thoughtful or falling asleep while Peter wonders if the light on Ramona should be three inches to the left or two feet back more.

Everything went pretty well until the three big bands took the stage. Seeing everyone do the Shim Sham was an incredible sight. However, my amazement was tempered by my disappointment at the news that the bands had decided to ditch our original plan.

One of the last suggestions that Frankie himself made for the event was to have the bands draw straws before they started their final set. The band that drew the longest straw would go first and then they would then take turns with each band playing a couple of songs before jamming together and culminating in the combined version of Shiny Stockings.

By the time we got to the finale, most of the musicians decided that they were done for the night and cut the program short. Can’t say I was surprised because a couple of the band leaders had already made some noise about not even doing the finale a week before the event. I really have to thank George Gee for rallying his peers to that idea and doing what he could to make the experience happen at all even at his own band’s expense.

What surprises me is that in deciding to cut the finale set short, those musicians didn’t just rob us of the opportunity to play out one of Frankie’s last wishes, they also denied themselves of an opportunity they may never get ever again. There were almost 2000 people begging and pleading them to play one more song. That huge ballroom was filled with with applause and encouragement that crescendo’d a few times.

Some dedicated artists go their entire lives without ever seeing that kind thirst for what they have to offer, but you should have seen those guys clear out on Saturday night. Some of those guys didn’t even stop to think about it. A few of them didn’t even bother to acknowledge the crowd as they were packing up their instruments as soon as they finished their last note. I just don’t understand that.

Benny Powell, the legendary Basie trombonist who played for Frankie’s memorial service on Friday and was scheduled to appear with Wycliff Gordon on Monday, showed up earlier that night. We thought he just got his schedule mixed up, but he heard what was going down on Saturday and decided that he just had to be a part of it. He and former Ellington trombonist, Art Baron, were telling people on Monday night that they hadn’t seen the sight of that many people dancing to their music in over 50 years.

Benny was literally one of the last guys to leave on Monday, he was so moved by the experience he just had to soak up as much of it as he could. I remember going up to him and shaking his hand as he stood in the empty ballroom at the end of that night. He just looked around him trying to remember every detail of the place. He couldn’t believe it.

Even fellow Basie alum Frank Foster felt it. Foster has been retired for some time, but he made an appearance with the band he founded just for Frankie95. It’s a lot of effort for him to attend something like that these days. The original plan was for him just to conduct a couple of songs with his band before he turned it over to the current leader. But he got in such a groove that they literally had to kick him off the stage to give time for singer Jon Hendricks and Catherine Russell to sing with the band–two other people who took time out of their schedules just to be in New York for this event.

Watching that dance floor that night was like a religious experience. When Chazz said that it was time for the Shim Sham, the balconies emptied. Everyone was on that floor. When everyone was just dancing, you couldn’t help but notice the pulse. You know that pulse that Frankie always talked about. Just a gentle bob and sway of almost 2000 people swingin’ out. Sometimes you would see whole sections of the floor ripple with syncopations to certain breaks and hits in the music. It was like watching a very musical hive of bees. At that moment, it didn’t matter how long you had been dancing or how good you were. You were just a part of something indescribably special.

1800 people Shim Shammin to 3 big bands playing all at once. Give or take a hundred or so. Feel free to tag yourself.

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