Dubbed the "Home of Happy Feet," the Savoy Ballroom was Harlem's first and greatest swing era dance palace; for more than three decades it was the premiere showcase for the greatest of the swing big bands and dancers.
At the time of the Savoy's opening—on March 12, 1926, at 596 Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st streets—Harlem boasted no dance halls to match the opulence of the Roseland and Arcadia ballrooms in midtown Manhattan. Instead, there were primarily cramped, rundown, and often illegal clubs. The Savoy featured two mirrored flights of marble stairs, leading from street level up to a chandeliered lobby, and to the orange-and-blue room itself, which measured 200 by 500 feet and could hold up to 7,000 people. There were two bandstands, a disappearing stage under multicolored spotlights, and a vast dance floor, which was worn down and replaced every three years. Despite the elegance of the setting, the ballroom attracted a working-class audience who paid low-priced entrance fees for an evening of swing dancing. However, none of the Harlem ballrooms that opened after the Savoy ever approached the Savoy's opulence.
Every black big band of note, and many white ones as well, eventually performed at the Savoy. Opening night featured Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, and in the late 1920s Duke Ellington, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong brought their orchestras to the Savoy. In 1932, Kansas City swing made its New York debut at the Savoy, as Bennie
Moten brought a band that included the pianist Count Basie, the trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page, and the saxophonist Ben Webster. Although Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans served as the house band, Chick Webb's orchestra, featuring the vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, became identified with the Savoy during its 1932 to 1939 stay. An arranger and saxophonist with Webb, Edgar Sampson, composed the ballroom's anthem, "Stompin' at the Savoy," in 1934.
Often more than one band was booked into the Savoy for an evening. As the bands alternated tunes and sets, a " battle of the bands," in which the two ensembles would vie for the acclamation of the audience, would ensue. Among the most memorable confrontations was Chick Webb's 1938 victory over an orchestra led by Count Basie.
In the 1940s the Savoy encountered competition from the Golden Gate, the Apollo, the Alhambra, the Rockland Palace, and the Audubon Ballroom. Nonetheless, in the early years of the decade, Coleman Hawkins, Erskine Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Louis Armstrong all led big bands there. In 1942, Jay McShann's appearance at the Savoy and on radio broadcasts from the ballroom introduced the saxophonist Charlie Parker to a wider audience. In the summer of 1943 the temporary closing of the Savoy was a precipitating factor in the Harlem riots that August. More than 250 bands eventually performed at the Savoy, including those of Earl "Fatha" Hines, Don Redman, Jimmie Lunceford, Teddy Hill, and Andy Kirk. Unlike the Cotton Club and Connie's Inn, which enforced a strict whites-only clientele, the Savoy welcomed both black and white patrons and performers.
The dancing at the Savoy was as remarkable as the music. The ballroom was the center for the development of Lindyhopping, the energetic and acrobatic style of swing dancing that made a dramatic break with the previous conventions of popular dance in the 1930s. In the 1920s and 1930s dancers such as Leon James, Leroy Jones, Shirley "Snowball" Jordan, "Killer Joe" Piro, and couples such as George "Shorty" Snowden and "Big Bea" (and Sketch Jones and "Little Bea") created and perfected patterns such as "The Itch" and "The Big Apple." The extraordinary inventiveness and agility of the Savoy dancers was credited not only to a cross-fertilization with the bands on the stage but also to the unwritten rule against Savoy dancers copying each others' steps. In the mid-1930s a new generation of Lindyhoppers, including Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, Joe Daniels, Russell Williams, and Pepsi Bethel, favored leaping "air steps," such as the "Hip to Hip," "Side Flip," "Over the Back," "Over the Head," and "the Scratch," which came to dominate the older, more earthbound "floor steps."
During its thirty-two-year existence, the Savoy represented a remarkably successful example of an interracial cultural meeting place, an embodiment of the wide-scale acceptance of black urban culture by whites during the 1930s and 1940s. But unlike the earlier settings of the Harlem Renaissance, the Savoy's music and dance were presented without racial exoticism. The Savoy flourished as long as white audiences saw Harlem as an attractive and safe spot for nightlife. Unfortunately, the heyday of the Savoy lasted only until the postwar economic decline of Harlem. Also, with the rise of bebop and rock and roll, big-band jazz ceased to be America's dominant form of popular music, and the owners of the Savoy found it harder to continue to book new big bands each week. The Savoy's doors closed in the late 1950s, and the building was torn down in 1958 to make way for a housing project.
Charters, Samuel Barclay, and Leonard Kunstadt. Jazz: A History of the New York Scene (1962). New York: Da Capo, 1984.
Engelbrecht, Barbara. "Swinging at the Savoy." Dance Research Journal 15, no. 2 (spring 1983): 3–10.
Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (1964). New York: Schirmer Books, 1979.
jonathan gill (1996)