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Hot House A Night at the Savoy

Published July 21, 2023

Hot House A Night at the Savoy

by Chuck Reider

The Reno Jazz Orchestra presents “Hot House – One Night at the Savoy Ballroom”

Jazz and dance grew up together in America and the Reno Jazz Orchestra’s (RJO) “Hot House – One Night at the Savoy Ballroom” celebrates that union. Join us July 29th at the J Resort or July 31st at Sand Harbor and bring your dancing shoes. Jazz was born in New Orleans in the early 20th century combining African rhythms and European harmony and instruments. In response to this new music, dancers began incorporating African dance which was more improvisational, mirroring jazz solos, with popular European dances like the cakewalk into new dances such as the Charleston and the jitterbug. Then came the Lindy Hop. Legend has it that during a dance marathon dancer George “Shorty” Snowden decided to do a breakaway (fling his partner out and improvise a few steps) to break up the monotony of the marathon. It electrified the participants and Fox Movietone News was there and took a close up of Shorty’s feet. An interviewer asked him what he was doing with his feet and he replied “The Lindy.” The Lindy Hop was born and was quickly associated with Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight. The Lindy Hop was all the rage during the 30’s and 40’s and the Savoy Ballroom was the place to go in New York City to hear the greatest big bands of the day and see the greatest dancers. 

Photo: Plaque Savoy Ballroom, Harlem, NYC

A full city block, the Savoy could accommodate an audience of 4,000 and when there was a battle of the bands thousands had to be turned away. Amateurs and professionals alike would take to the floor and “The Home of Happy Feet” became the Savoy’s tagline. In fact, there was a special area reserved for a professional dance group called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, of which Shorty Snowden mentioned above was a member. Frankie Manning was also a member and prime choreographer. Manning continued his dance career and at age seventy-five was co-choreographer for the Broadway musical “Black and Blue” for which he earned a Tony Award in 1985. Take a look at the “Hellzapoppin” youtube link and you will be amazed.  The Savoy was also the first ballroom/night club that was integrated. Both black and white audience members were welcome, unlike other famous clubs like the Roseland Ballroom and the Cotton Club where black musicians performed on stage but only a white audience was permitted to attend. 

The Savoy had two bandstands so the music never stopped and it was the home to some legendary battle of the bands. We all are familiar with the names Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman but how about Chick Webb? Webb had the hottest dance band at the time. The likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday got their start with his band. While holding sway at the Savoy the great bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman challenged Webb to a battle of the bands. Each performance was a sell out with the audience voting for the winner. 

The 17-piece RJO led by Jonathan Phillips will be joined by vocalists David Hayes and Aria Lynn. You will experience an evening of music, song and dance featuring some great songs you recognize like “Stompin at the Savoy” and “Birth of the Blues” as well as some you may not recognize like “Harlem Congo” and “Dipsy Doodle.” Hayes has a long resume performing the music of the Rat Pack and Sammy Davis Junior and you may have seen him in “The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas” or “Sammy: Celebrating the Legacy.” You can hear Lynn on the RJO album “Spirits” and we were so impressed with her singing we invited her to join us for these performances. It would not be a Savoy celebration without dancers, so we have invited two amazing Lindy Hoppers Mindy Barnhart and Ben White to join us. Barnhart fell in love with Swing dancing in 1997 and in 2005 turned her full attention to dancing. She took ownership of Portland’s Stumptown Dance in 2009. Ben White has been addicted to all things swing since 2004. He has studied Lindy Hop, Balboa, Tap, and Solo Jazz dance under masters from the original swing era and worked with world class contemporary swing dancers. He is the Artistic Director at The Syncopation Foundation, and frequently teaches swing dance all over the world. Do you remember I asked you to bring your dancing shoes? Barnhart and White will be at the stage at 6:30 PM, one hour before show time to give free swing dance classes. Come and learn some new moves that you can use during the concert!

Photo: Outside the Savoy, Whiteys Lindy Hoppers, and Inside the Savoy (From Left to Right)

Two Nights — Two Locations


Frankie Manning Hellzapoppin – 1941                           

Ben White at the Dragon Swing 2019 competition (Ben and partner start at about 1:52)

Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy 1950                                  

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This PBS Reno series delves into the local arts scene, looking at the lasting impact the arts have in our communities and beyond.

Chuck Reider is the Board President of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

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