Swinging Archives and Libraries
Guest Post by Karen Campos McCormack
In March 2018 I was lucky to spend a month in New York, in Harlem, researching the history of Lindy hop thanks to the support of the Frankie Manning Foundation. I had previously researched the history of swing via the internet, Amazon, second hand bookshops and the limited resources available on this topic at my local library in Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and Trinity College Dublin (Ireland), but this would be the first time I had the opportunity to research the origins of swing and Lindy hop at its birthplace. I have been working on translating Norma Miller’s book Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer into Spanish for the last couple of years, and now I would be able to follow Norma’s footsteps about Harlem, not to mention everything else Manhattan has to offer. Needless to say I was excited.
I was interested in exploring the roots of Lindy hop in Harlem and gaining a fuller understanding of its local context and significance at the time, considering issues like race and gender, as well how the dance developed in relation to music and other forms of dance. I was especially curious to find out more about some members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers who visited Europe in the 1930s and have received little attention. Underpinning my research were questions such as: what is the legacy of swing in Harlem? How can we contribute to recovering the memory of this African American dance as a mostly white swing dance community?
I did not think one of the most thrilling parts of my visit to New York would be visiting the libraries and archives. I had expected to enjoy the rush of Manhattan city life, and it did not disappoint, but the Lindy hop joys I found in libraries and archives were a surprise. This is a personal guide to the libraries and archives that I visited.
New York Public Library, 42nd Street (photo by author, March 2018).
The New York Public Library might just be the best library in the world. Having filled out a simple online form before my trip I was given a visitor library card, which grants full access to the NYPL’s digital and on-site collections for 3 months and the right to borrow up to 50 books (!) to any visitor to the city. If you are planning a longer stay in New York you could consider some “research tourism”. I spent most of my time at the New York Library for the Performing Arts (Lincoln Center) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Malcolm X Blvd), but also visited the Microform room at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (42nd Street), the Institute for Jazz Studies (Newark) and other resources, including access to some fantastic private libraries.
Searching the catalogue
In advance of any visit to the NYPL I would recommend a search of its online catalogue (https://catalog.nypl.org/), starting with generic terms like “Lindy hop”, “Swing” or “Savoy” for example, to draw up an initial reading list and scope out the locations for different items. Once on-site I found the library staff were generally very helpful when it came to navigating searches for more obscure items like articles, papers or film material.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 515 Malcolm X Boulevard (135th St and Malcolm X Blvd).
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (photo by author, March 2018).
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses a great collection of books, papers and photographs for the curious Lindy hopper. Located at the heart of Harlem on 135th St, directly opposite the school that Frankie Manning and Norma Miller attended, this library is of great significance for the neighborhood and African American culture. Arturo Schomburg was a Puerto Rican of African and German descent who moved to the United States and became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance for researching and raising awareness about African American history. His collections were purchased by the NYPL in 1926 and form the basis of the library, which was named in his honor. There is even a film clip of Schomburg in the original library c. 1937 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Bagy_ssQPk (thank you to Julia Loving for this information).
The Schomburg reading room, decorated with Aaron Douglas paintings, is an excellent place to start finding out more about swing era musicians, performers and Harlem venues. I enjoyed in particular Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, Babylon Girls by Jayna Brown and Jazz: a History of the New York Scene by Samuel B. Charters. No booking is required to access this room and books are usually delivered within a few minutes of placing an order. Staff were very helpful and it was even possible to scan many items for free.
The Schomburg holds some beautiful original documents relating to the Savoy. You can for example view the Savoy 25th anniversary booklet The Savoy Story, produced in 1951 (before its closing in 1956). My standout item of the collection is the catalogue for Richard Yarde’s Savoy exhibition Savoy: an installation. This exhibition was on view at the Harlem Studio Museum from June to September 1983. It included live-size cut-out images of dancers and musicians recreating the Savoy Ballroom and its opening was an opportunity for many of the Savoy dancers to gather and a celebration of the Harlem community.
Savoy: an installation (Richard Yarde, 1983), image from the exhibition catalogue (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).
I was not as lucky in my hunt for Lindy hop references in The Manuscripts and Rare Documents Division this time (I examined Alberta Hunter’s and Sam Wooding’s papers), but it holds several other collections of interest for future visits. A word of warning: getting an appointment in this division can be difficult and requires booking a few weeks in advance.
The Photographs and Prints Division has “Dance” and “Harlem nightclubs” collections that are worth viewing for their unpublished images of social dance and venues (appointment also required, usually one day notice will be sufficient for this division).
As any time handling original documents and photographs, these must be treated with great care and certain limitations are in place (some archives will not allow pens or personal belongings in the room, for example).
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Jerome Robbins Dance Division. 40 Lincoln Center Plaza (65th St and Columbus Ave).
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (photo by author, March 2018).
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has a fantastic collection of dance-related books, papers and films. In relation to the Lindy hop the star of the collection are Mura Dehn’s films and personal papers: it is one of only two places where you can watch the original five-hour The Spirit Moves documentary (the film is currently being digitized so viewing permission must be requested several days in advance).
Mura Dehn spent decades documenting and filming different forms of jazz dance and her legacy has provided us with unique footage of Savoy lindy hop dancers, both in the studio and dancing at the Savoy. Among her personal papers are several unpublished articles containing some interesting reflections on jazz dance and its history. These are available in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division Manuscripts section.
Unnamed dancers, image from the Mura Dehn collection at the NY Library for the Performing Arts.
“The source of Jazz is rhythm. Rhythm is what one has to learn. The movement is just a byproduct. A visual manifestation of each rhythm pattern which takes approximately the same form once the best solution is found.” (“The ABC or The Fundamentals of Jazz Dance”, Mura Dehn papers, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
A much shorter documentary that is recommended viewing at the Library for the Performing Arts is The Call of the Jitterbug (Sorensen, Winding and Ross, 1988), a Danish film that includes interviews with Savoy dancers and musicians like Norma Miller, George Lloyd, Delilah Johnson, Bill Dillard, Dizzy Gillespie and Sugar Sullivan, among others. Some clips may be available on Youtube but the entire film is not easily found. America Dances! 1897-1948 (Carol Teten), also available at the library, provides a comprehensive compilation of different dance clips, starting with the Cake Walk and including the Lindy hop.
“Dancing was our high.” (Sugar Sullivan in The Call of the Jitterbug, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Milstein Microform room. 476 Fifth Avenue (42nd St and Fifth Ave)
This is the most famous NYPL building and I recommend visiting it even if it is only to admire its architecture or to access the internet on its public-use computers. The NYPL offers many digitized newspaper collections (including the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper that is still in print), however, other newspapers such as The Daily News have not been digitized and must be viewed onsite at the Milstein Microform room.
The Daily News sponsored the first Harvest Moon Ball in 1935, which was a major launching pad for the Lindy hop and the Savoy dancers. In fact, the contest was so popular that the first edition on August 15, 1935 had to be cancelled and rescheduled to August 28 due to over 100,000 attendees overcrowding the park. Leon James and Edith Matthews were the Lindy hop division winners of this first edition and a very young Norma Miller (just fifteen) and Billy Hill were also among the finalists who later went on to tour Europe. I found many articles and photos in relation to the preliminary contests and the finals. The Daily News had several editions each day and it is laborious to work through them on microform, so it is highly advisable to know specific dates for searches. No appointment required for this division (only a NYPL library card).
Leon James and Edith Mathews, first prize winners in the Lindy Hop Harvest Moon Ball competition (Daily News, August 29, 1935).
NYPL Online resources Among the many NYPL online resources I would highlight A People’s History of Harlem: A Harlem Neighborhood Oral History Project (http://oralhistory.nypl.org/neighborhoods/harlem). I have only started exploring this resource that deserves further attention, as it contains some accounts by residents who remember the swing era in Harlem and can provide some unusual insights into this fascinating neighborhood. For those who are not in New York, the digital collections resources are also worth checking out https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/ .
Institute for Jazz Studies, Newark.
Rutgers University, 185 University Avenue, Newark, NJ 07102. The heart of the Institute for Jazz Studies (IJS) is the Marshall Stearns collection. Author of the fundamental book Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance, he was the first to pay academic attention to this form of dance. The collection containing his research papers for this work gives an indication of the breadth and depth of his study (although with some notable gaps in relation to Lindy hop). I spent a very enjoyable day at the IJS exploring 10 boxes of papers (although there is a wealth of material) and seeing his notes on interviews with “Shorty” George Snowden, Leon James and Al Minns.
The absolute highlight for me was holding in my hands letters from Fred Astaire (where incidentally he clarifies that he does not see himself primarily as a tap dancer “I dance according to my own rules – in other words I just dance as it comes to me.”) and a beautifully handwritten letter by Fayard Nicholas, where he discusses his career with his brother (The Nicholas Brothers).
Letter from Fayard Nicholas (Marshall Stearns collection, IJS, Newark, photo by author).
I contacted the IJS in advance of my visit but there was no problem scheduling a visit for the next day and I found the staff to be extremely helpful.
My guide to the libraries and archives I visited during my research stay in New York would not be complete without a special mention of the personal collections to which I was given access: Cynthia’s Millman’s and Lana Turner’s home libraries were a pleasure to explore and I am very grateful for their generosity and support in this endeavour.
Beyond the library…
When I was not at the library I made the most of my visit walking about Harlem (I recommend the Harlem Swing Dance Society tour), visiting exhibitions, listening to amazing live music, dancing and getting to know more about the local swing scene and dancers –too much to include in this single article.
Institute of Jazz Studies, Newark, photo by author.
The most worthwhile part of my trip was the people I met: other Lindy hop researchers and local New York swing dancers, teachers and artists. These conversations have been immensely interesting and valuable for my research and thinking about Lindy hop history. I want to thank Cynthia Millman especially for her support organizing my trip and during my stay, Buddy Steves and Rowena Young for an incredible Lindyfest experience in Houston, the Frankie Manning Foundation for making my trip possible, as well as the following people: Judy Pritchett, Barbara Jones, Margaret Batiuchok, LaTasha Barnes, Shana Weaver, Samuel Coleman, Robert P. Crease, Bobby White, Mike Thibault and Julia Loving, with a special thank you to Alice Pifer and Lana Turner.
New York Public Library https://www.nypl.org/ • Plan your research visit https://www.nypl.org/about/locations/using-the-library/plan-your-research-visit • Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture https://www.nypl.org/about/locations/schomburg • Jerome Robbins Dance Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts https://www.nypl.org/about/divisions/jerome-robbins-dance-division • Stephen A. Schwarzman Building https://www.nypl.org/about/locations/schwarzman • Digital collections https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/ Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University (Newark) https://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/jazz
Karen Campos McCormack