Stompin’ at the Savoy

The Savoy Ballroom located in Harlem, New York City, was a medium sized ballroom for music and public dancing that was in operation from March 12, 1926 to 1958. It was located between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue.[1] The Savoy was a popular dance venue from the late 1920s to the 1950s and many dances such as Lindy Hop became famous here. It was known downtown as the “Home of Happy Feet” but uptown, in Harlem, as “the Track”. Unlike the ‘whites only’ policy of the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom was integrated where white and black Americans danced together. Virtuosic dancers, however, excluded others from the northeast corner of the dance floor, now referred to as the “Cat’s Corner,” a term not used at the time.[2]

The ballroom was on the second floor and a block long. It had a double bandstand that held one large and one medium sized band running against its east wall. Music was continuous as the alternative band was always in position and ready to pick up the beat when the previous one had completed its set. The Savoy was unique in having the constant presence of a skilled elite of the best Lindy Hoppers. Usually known as “Savoy Lindy Hoppers” occasionally they turned professional, such as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and performed in Broadway and Hollywood productions.[4] – Wikipedia extract

Stompin’ at the Savoy (m. Benny Goodman, Edgar Sampson, Chick Webb, w. Andy Razaf)

Early popular recordings include the following:

  • Chick Webb and his Orchestra – 1934
  • Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra – 1936
  • Benny Goodman and his Orchestra – 1936
  • Benny Goodman Quartet – 1937

Why Webb and Goodman are credited as co-composers isn’t clear. The only hint of an explanation I’ve read so far about this is that, quoting Wikipedia, they “got their names added to the song when their bands recorded it. ” Perhaps their arrangements were distinctive enough to be considered compositional amendments to the original by Sampson. When the lyrics were written is obscure, but Jazzstandards.com’s dating of the song 1936 suggests that a new copyright registration was filed that year, presumably with the lyrics added.

savoy-ballroom-1935-posters-Webb-Fitzgerald-1Chick Webb-rear-Ella Fitzgerald mid 1930s-1

Chick Webb and his Orchestra – Date unknown. Webb recorded two hit versions, 1934 and 1936.

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Some of my readers may expect to find information on this site regarding the legendary “battles of the bands” at the Savoy which pitted the house band of Chick Webb against rivals such as the bands of Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. I’ve thus far side-stepped comment on this because of the conflicting reports I’ve read as to who “won” the competitions. For example, Wikipedia’s Chick Webb profile says,”By the end of the night’s battles the dancers seemed always to have voted Chick’s band as the best.” But they immediately contradict that statement by declaring that Webb lost to Duke Ellington in 1937 and tied Count Basie in 1938. No sources are cited to back these alleged results.

One the problems with the above claims is that they tend to suggest that these “Battles of the Bands” were annual events. But I haven’t found any evidence to support this. The same Chick Webb profile (Wikipedia) cited above states that the Savoy often held such events. Elsewhere I have read that the events were common Sunday features at various Swing venues of the late 1930s, popular competitions with the contestants often being bands from different regions, Chicago vs. New York, North vs. South.

Count Basie and his Orchestra, undated, photo by Popsie Randolph

We find evidence that reports of a band having won such a competition should be taken with a grain of salt when examining and comparing contemporary articles covering a single event.

In an article at the site swingmusic.net on a 1938 “Battle of the Bands” at the Savoy, the topic is the much anticipated battle of the bands featuring the Chick Webb and Count Basie bands which took place on January 16, 1938. This happens to be the same night as Benny Goodman’s legendary Carnegie Hall performance, a circumstance which goes a long way toward explaining why this particular “battle” might also have drawn more attention at the time than scores of similar events, and why it might be long remembered.

The article employs a newspaper piece published shortly after the event and quotes from a memoir of one of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Norma Miller, who was present at the event, to show that the results of the event might have been skewed by a rift between Webb and proprietor of the dance troupe, Herbert White. Miller reports that due to a misunderstanding Webb had loudly insulted the dancers and Whitey had responded by ordering them, prior to the event, to leave the dance floor whenever Chick Webb and his band arrived on the bandstand to play.

Reporters, the article suggests, would have noticed the decline of enthusiasm by the dancers whenever Webb and his band came on. Sure enough, in the newspaper piece (right, from the Swingmusic.net article) it is noted that the dancers were more appreciative of Basie’s band, while Chick Webb’s drumming stole the show. The article, titled Webb “Cuts” Basie in Swing Battle, indicates that voting on the bands was accomplished by ballot. Results of the ballot showed “Chick Webb’s band well in the lead over Basie’s.” However, despite the title of the piece and the apparent Webb victory in the polls this was the event which Wikipedia says ended in a tie. In its conclusion, the article suggests that it was almost too close to call:

General consensus of opinion agreed that both bands played magnificently making the decision a close one. There was good feeling all around, and it was decided that there would be a return battle in the near future.

According to the main article on Count Basie at Wikipedia, a different result of the same event was reported by Metronome Magazine, at least in the title of the piece cited. Wikipedia quotes a Metronome piece titled Basie’s Brilliant Band Conquers Chick’s, via the book The World of Count Basie by Stanley Dance, 1980, p. 208:

“Throughout the fight, which never let down in its intensity during the whole fray, Chick took the aggressive, with the Count playing along easily and, on the whole, more musically scientifically. Undismayed by Chick’s forceful drum beating, which sent the audience into shouts of encouragement and appreciation and casual beads of perspiration to drop from Chick’s brow onto the brass cymbals, the Count maintained an attitude of poise and self-assurance. He constantly parried Chick’s thundering haymakers with tantalizing runs and arpeggios which teased more and more force from his adversary”.[41]

Basie may not have been dismayed by Webb’s forceful drum beating, but I am…by such bad writing, in a convoluted, ornamented style which has me perspiring super-casual beads of sweat, and searching frantically for cymbals, or something, to smash a few times. Metronome was a music-guide magazine published from 1881 to 1961 which focused primarily on jazz after the onset of the Swing era (1936). Wikipedia indicates the most likely suspects:

Notable writers for the magazine were co-editors Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov[3]

Benny Goodman and his Orchestra – 1936

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Benny Goodman – A medley of Don’t Be That Way and Stompin’ at the Savoy – “Aurex Jazz Festival” 3 Sep 1980 at Budokan (Tokyo,Japan) cl:Benny Goodman, p:Teddy Wilson, tp:Tony Terran, tb:Dick Nash, g:Eddie Duran, b:Al Obidenski, dr:John Markham

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Clifford Brown – Clifford Brown – 5 August 1954. Brown (tp); Harold Land (ts); Richie Powell (p); George Morrow (b); Max Roach (d).

Video to be replaced

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Louis Armstrong – Stuttgart Germany – 1959 – Louis Armstrong – trumpet,
Trummy Young – trombone, Peanuts Hucko – clarinet, Billy Kyle – piano, Mort Herbert – bass, Danny Barcelona – drums

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Ella Fitzgerald – on British TV show in 1961.

Fitzgerald joined Chick Webb’s band as a vocalist in 1935 and according to the site bigbandlibrary.com “quickly became one of its featured performers.” Ella might have sung this song with the band as soon as lyrics were available; but I haven’t found any evidence yet.

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George Van Eps and Howard Alden — from a concert in Schorndorf, Germany, October 1993, with Bob Haggart (the composer of “What’s New”) on bass and long-time Count Basie drummer Butch Miles

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