A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from June 11, 2005
Battle of the Bands (Savoy Ballroom)
The term "Battle of the Bands" existed before Harlem, but Harlem's Savoy Ballroom (596 Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Boulevard) made it famous in the late 1930s. Chick Webb, Count Basie and others participated in these "battles."

Many were "slayed," but no one died.

55. Savoy Ballroom
Harlem Shadows - 596 Malcolm X Boulevard, between W. 140th and W. 141st Streets, 1926-58

Advertised as "The Home of Happy Feet," this famous Harlem hot spot opened on March 12, 1926. The club featured an elegant lobby with a marble staircase leading upstairs to the ballroom which was the entire length of the block. A double bandstand allowed for alternating bands to play continuous music late into the night. It was from one of these stages that the bandleader, Chick Webb, introduced a new singer, Miss Ella Fitzgerald. Webb's "Stompin' at the Savoy" debuted here in 1934. Always at the forefront for new dances, the Lindy Hop was introduced at the Savoy in 1936 and the cavernous ballroom was the venue chosen by Frank Manning to give the first demonstration of the aerial lift in swing dancing. The Savoy Ballroom was the height of sophisticated dance and music from 1920's to the 1950's.

Contests called "Battle of the Bands" were held pitting bands from New York and Chicago, north and south. These competitions were so popular and attracted such loyal fans, police were sometimes called to settle disputes between the crowds. A contest between Chick Webb and Benny Goodman in 1937 drew over 20,000! The Savoy fell victim to the wrecker's ball in 1958 in the name of urban renewal and was replaced by the nondescript row of retail space that adjoin Bethune Towers/Delano Village.

Savoy Swing takes its name from the Savoy Ballroom, a legendary swing music venue in Harlem, New York from 1926 until 1948. The Savoy Ballroom occupied the entire block of 140th to 141st street on Lenox Avenue. The Savoy, known as the " Home of Happy Feet, " quickly became the most popular dance venue in Harlem. Many of the jazz dance crazes of the 1920s and 1930s originated there including the Lindy Hop, which became the "jitterbug." The Savoy Ballroom was seminal in the development of "swing" music. The Savoy management often staged a "Battle of the Bands" which pitted some of the best known bands against each other. The bands included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, and many other big name bands of the day.

Big Band Music Battle At The Savoy

This was a show that was everything it was built up to be for jazz fans and swing dancers of the day. One of many "battle of the bands" at the Savoy Ballroom. Below is Down Beat magazine's assessment of the event and inside details written by Norma Miller in her book "Swingin' At The Savoy; The Memoir Of A Jazz Dancer."

William Henry "Chick" Webb, despite being under five feet tall, was one of the giants of swing and taught us all a lesson about overcoming handicaps. He was born February 10, 1909 in Baltimore. At a young age, he contracted spinal tuberculosis that left him with a hunchback and little use of his legs. Doctors recommended he take up drumming as a remedy for stiff joints. From then on, he took to drumming. First on pots and pans and oil drums. After selling newspapers, he saved enough to buy a drum set, which used special custom-pedals, so that he could reach them, due to his small stature. He moved to New York at the age of 17 and started playing with Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington.

In 1927, on the advise of Ellington, Webb formed a quintet called the Harlem Stompers. He started playing at one of Harlem's largest night clubs, the Savoy, and won over crowds with his flamboyant style. In 1931, he formed the Chick Webb Orchestra. The band became the house band for the Savoy, with such songs as Stompin At The Savoy, If Dreams Come True, and Blue Lou. Although Webb could not read music, he memorized every piece and led the band from a raised platform, cueing in the sections with his drumming. He was the consummate showman and because of his fluid and rhythmic style, he was perfectly suited for the swing era. He was also a major competitor. His orchestra owned the Savoy and faced down many challenges in "battle of the bands" contests, from the likes of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Gene Krupa reportedly spoke in shell-shocked tones of being in awe of Webb, after Webb blew him away when his orchestra dueled Benny Goodman's, which occurred only a few months before Webb died at the age of 30 of the Spinal Tuberculosis in 1939. Art Blakey and Ellington both credit Webb with influencing their music. Krupa credited Webb with raising drummer awareness and paving the way for drummer-led bands, which Krupa would later employ. His thundering solos created a complexity and an energy that paved the way for Buddy Rich (who studied Webb intensely) and Louie Bellson.

Posted by Barry Popik
Music/Dance/Theatre/Film/Circus • (0) Comments • Saturday, June 11, 2005 • Permalink