Wednesday, April 29, 2009

BABBLE weekend and the passing of Frankie Manning

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to have been in NYC DJ'ing the 2nd Annual Big Apple Blues, Balboa, and Lindy (BABBLE) Exchange. Fortunate, because what was supposed to merely be a great weekend of dancing will be forever imprinted with the memory of where we were when beloved Lindy Hopper Frankie Manning passed. We were in the shadow of Harlem’s once famed Savoy and we were dancing the lindy hop.

The Blue Vipers of Brooklyn opened Friday night’s dance in style and, although friends shared news that Frankie was in the hospital, we were all sure he’d be back in fine form again for his upcoming 95th birthday celebration. At the late night dance Solomon Douglas dedicated an impressive repertoire of Count Basie and Duke Ellington blues numbers to Frankie. Classics like “East Saint Louis Toodle-oo” would make many brass players tremble, but Solomon’s group turned out its most inspired playing to date. Not that we were surprised, but I think we felt like there was something special starting to happen this weekend -- even before the organizers respectfully informed us that Frankie’s condition was deteriorating. It was at that moment, that BABBLE became more than just an exchange, it became a community of dancers celebrating a great man who was living a long and wonderful life.

Saturday night’s main dance was a posh event in a restaurant in vibrant Little Italy and the dance community turning out in their finest. Of course, being NYC, part of the experience was getting there. On this night, the experience was made more memorable by a group of Hari Krishna chanting and dancing down the street in yellow robes and shaking tambourines. However, this group also had a New Orleans Second Line style trumpet player leading them! As they stopped for a traffic light, Beth Midavaine and I jumped in with some swingsouts and soon found ourselves surrounded by whirling dervishes in bright yellow. Only in NYC, my friends!

When we arrived at the dance and entered the ballroom, I noted the table where I’d photographed Frankie sitting at last year’s Yehoodi 10th Anniversary party. That night I'd heard others sharing their stories about the international dance legend, who was also their local friend Frankie. That night’s performer, Gordon Webster and Friends, was an amalgam of NYC’s hardest swinging musicians. They had the diversity to deliver a steamy version of Fever, the most blistering version of “24 Robbers” you could ever imagine, and Tamar Korn filling the room with Milenberg Joy. Gordon was on a completely different level of playing than I’d ever seen. The brass players (Jesse Selengut and Matt Musselmen) left no doubt, we were witnessing some of the best swing music ever played.

Late in the evening Gordon asked for a moment of silence to pray for Frankie; just when it seemed like the prolonged silence might become awkward Gordon remarked, “that was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard” and announced he was closing with Shiny Stockings, Frankie’s favorite song. I particularly remember that dance with my follow Beth Midivaine of Rochester. For once, I didn’t have to remind myself, “don’t cock your head, look at your follow and smile”, it just happened. I noticed she was smiling, or beaming, and as I looked around, so was everyone else on the floor. After so many moments of feeling awkward or unsure on the dance floor as I'd struggled to learn this dance, that one perfect moment reminded me why I love lindy hop. Eventually the music had to end, yet we all lingered on the floor, saying thank you and giving our leaders or follows an extra hug or gentle squeeze of the hand and smiling at those around us.

Sunday afternoon we gathered in Harlem as Tin Pan Blues Band filled the bandshell and Marcus Garvey Park with wonderful music. But the afternoon was as much about sharing stories of Frankie as much as dances and despite there being no electrical power to run the equipment needed to DJ band breaks, it didn’t matter. It was a gorgeous day amongst friends in NYC and there was good food just around the corner.

That evening the New York Swing Dance Society held their dance with the Boilermaker Jazz Band in the basement of the St. Jean Baptiste Church, 2 blocks from Lenox Hill Hospital where Frankie had slipped into a coma. We knew his immediate family and friends were there; and here we were, gathering as Margaret Batiuchok dedicated that night’s Shim Sham to Frankie -- and for the first time ever, I nailed it! Me, alongside Dawn Hampton, Joe and Heidi, Evita and so many dancers who’ve inspired me for so long and I Shorty Georged and Boogied back like I’d never been able to do in my life. At the end of the night I remember Dawn smiling at me and touching my hand as she said good night (despite me still never having summoned up the courage to dance with her).

I DJ’ed the last set closing out the late night after party that evening. I remember someone saying they didn’t want to go home and close their eyes because they knew what they’d read in the paper the next morning, so they wanted to just stay out dancing and maybe we could keep Frankie dancing with us for a couple hours longer.

The first time I met Frankie I was DJ'ing the Vegas exchange and we heard he was coincidentally teaching a lindy hop workshop at a rec center near by w/ Chazz and Norma Miller. So about 3 dozen of us poured into this small building on the wrong side of town to stand alongside a collection of aging African American women and the few men they had dragged along with them. The organizers later invited Frankie to the dance that night and Frankie asked me what I'd be playing. I replied, "Basie, Ellington, some Lionel Hampton, the good stuff." Frankie smiled and said, "If you're playing the Count and the Duke instead of all that hip hop stuff people play nowadays, then I may just show up!"

So it was that I closed out BABBLE 2009 with Duke Ellington's East St. Louis Toodle-Oo for Frankie. Afterwards, back at our host’s in Harlem, I too fought to keep my eyes open. There were four of us, people who would never have met and become friends if it were not for Lindy Hop; the Jew from Virginia, a Mormon from San Francisco, an African American from Philadelphia and a NYC local… just four kindred souls in dance sharing stories about the legendary Frankie Manning.

When I woke in the morning I heard Frankie had indeed passed away during those hours. I broke the news to my host Joy and we hugged for a moment before I started to pack for my drive home.

So, I will forever remember where I was when Frankie Manning passed away. I was blessed to have been home, in NYC, amongst our mutual friends, and I was doing the Shim Sham.

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