J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Frankie Manning, Ambassador


Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop
By Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman
Temple University Press
1-59213-563-3


Youtube must be just about over now that publishing houses are using it. Although it is satisfying to see that the book wowing the industry for its youtube savvy, is actually a jazz related title. Clips of Lindy hop dance great Frankie Manning performing the air steps he invented (and commemorating his ninety-third birthday) were impressive enough to drive a spike in sales of his memoir, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, for the industry press to notice.

As a result, many readers are now enjoying Manning’s reminisces of his role in developing the Lindy hop, his preferred term and capitalization for the style of swing dancing commonly referred to as the jitterbug. Manning had an eye witness view not just of jazz dance history, but of the big band era, as a regular of the late great Savoy Ballroom. Often their favorite bandleader Chick Webb held court there, who Manning fondly remembers:

“Now, Chick Webb always played for the dancers. There was this wonderful communication between his band and the Lindy Hoppers. If it wasn’t crowded and we were able to dance in front of the bandstand, he would often focus on somebody doing a certain step, and he’d catch it.” (p. 98)

Manning would become a professional exhibition Lindy hopper, and eventually tour internationally. However, his memoir is not all about his show business glory years. He covers challenging years as well, particularly his military service during WWII, when he faced fire from Japan and Jim Crow from home. Throughout his story, Manning clearly used humor to face adversity, as when confronted by segregation while training at Fort Hood in Texas. As Manning recalls:

“All the buses had signs about three-quarters of the way down the aisle that said ‘colored.’ One day my buddy Claude, and I got on a bus that was practically empty and, for a joke, moved the sign up to the front, so there were only three rows left for white people. Rather than go into the colored section with just the two of us, these folks kept getting on the bus, crowding themselves into the little front area. It was hilarious to see them packing in like sardines.” (p. 193)

Eventually MPs would give chase, but Manning and his friend lost them. His military stories take a more serious note when Manning movingly describes how an unconscious act of bravery on his part changed the heart and mind of a previously racist Southern Sergeant.

Manning would survive the War and the following years of obscurity to emerge as the living fount of Lindy wisdom during the swing revival of the 1980’s and 1990’s. In telling his tale, he raises some interesting points, suggesting a strong link between social dancing and performance dancing that does not seem to be as common a connection for many now. Social dancing was a part of the lives of his friends and colleagues at the Savoy and for countless others during the swing era. Clearly, it kept Manning vital well into his nineties.

Based on the pages of his book, Manning has aged gracefully in spirit as well, sounding likeable and constantly refraining from grinding axes or settling scores, in what is a very readable memoir. OK, now check out the video:

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