For all of you coming into town for the Bull City Swingout who are unfamiliar with Durham, NC, we are a food town – a foodie town, if you will. You will have the utmost advantage because much of Durham’s foodie food is located within walking distance of all the venues for this workshop and swing dance weekend. I’m not here to tell you where to eat because it would take too long, there are too many good options – pull up Yelp and figure out what type of food you want to eat and just go.
Three pro tips: 1) If you want to eat at Dame’s Chicken and Waffles, you need to make a reservation in advance and prepare to either have leftovers or be destroyed in the best possible way. 2) Get the ribs at Blue Note Grill on Sunday night for John Dee Holeman’s show from 6-8 p.m. 3) There’s a small grocery store a block from the Armory called the Bulldega if you need to grab drinks (regular and alcoholic), snacks, or something quick to eat.
Late night food can be hard to figure out and I’d also like to highlight some of my favorite cocktail places within the walkable area, so let’s take a little jaunt around downtown Durham to some of my favorite haunts:
The neon sign lights the way to the Jack Tar Diner, named for the original hotel chain that built this building.
LATE NIGHT FOOD
Jack Tar Diner (202 Corcoran Street) – this is a 1/2 block from the Armory and they serve food until midnight. Both main dances end at 11:30 p.m., so you’d have to go directly there to get seated and fed, but it’s worth it if you need a full meal after the dance. The menu is diverse and delicious, they serve breakfast all day, and the cocktails at their adjoining bar, the Colonel’s Daughter, are excellent. This is a two-for, since it’s also a cocktail recommendation – say hi to Kenny Smith the bartender for me, we went to college together.
Pie Pushers (117A W. Main Street) – the restaurant space itself isn’t open, but on Fridays and Saturdays they have a pizza window on the street level that’s open from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. where you can buy slices.
Parts & Labor (723 Rigsbee Avenue) – serving until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, this is the restaurant attached to Motorco Music Hall, which used to be an automobile dealership. They offer a number of small plate style to-go foods (1 for a snack, 2-3 for a meal), everything from poutine to Bahn mi to vegan tacos to cheeseburger sliders. Step up to the bar and order, opt to dine indoors or outdoors on their picnic table patio (or they may have the doors open and really everything becomes outdoor eating). This is across the street from the Living Arts Collective.
The bar at Hutchins Garage.
Hutchins Garage (402 W. Geer Street) – serving pizza and beer until 2 a.m., large table seating. I am less familiar with this place because it’s the newest, but the pizza I had there was good! It’s also next door to the Living Arts Collective, just walk past the Crossfit place and the unoccupied portion of the building, which also used to be an automobile dealership.
The Accordion Club (316 W. Geer Street) – maybe you need a little cocktail and a late night snack and want to do it like a local? Several of my friends claim this as their favorite bar in Durham, but what sold me on recommending this place is the Frito pie. Open until 2 a.m.
If you’re looking for something outside of downtown, go to Cosmic Cantina (the one on Perry Street, open until 4 a.m.) for delicious burritos and nachos or Cook Out (3 locations in Durham, open until 3:00 a.m. or 3:30 a.m., depending on which one) for burgers, BBQ, and epic milkshakes.
I love sitting on the right side of the corner of the bar, you can watch the magic happen…
Bar Virgile (105 S. Mangum Street) – this is my favorite cocktail bar because it’s the total package for me – classic cocktail menu, seasonal cocktails, a bar staff that can make me anything I throw at them, excellent food menu ranging from bites to entrees, cool and cozy decor, and it’s 3 doors down from my office. 🙂
Alley Twenty-Six (320 E. Chapel Hill Street) – my favorite chef, Carrie Schleiffer, presides over the kitchen at Alley Twenty-Six, which is a cocktail-focused bar and restaurant with an excellent cocktail program and Carrie keeps things seasonal and adventurous with the food menu. If you are looking for a stellar dinner and cocktails before the dance, this is my recommendation and it’s just around the corner from the Durham Armory. Would recommend making a reservation just in case, but even if you forget you still may be able to get a table or a seat at one of the dual bars.
The Roof at The Durham Hotel (315 E. Chapel Hill Street) – the cocktails are good, but I’m recommending this for the decor and the view. The Durham is a renovated bank building turned into something out of Mad Men, with impeccable MCM exterior and interior. Take the elevator up to the rooftop bar for one of the best views of Durham and recline on the couches with your cocktail as you take it all in.
Can I just hang out by the Unscripted pool all day?
The Unscripted Hotel’s poolside bar (202 N. Corcoran Street) – this is another one I’m recommending for the experience, which is also straight out of Mad Men, perhaps even more overtly since they have left the second floor poolside/balcony area pretty much intact from the 1960’s. There’s a cocktail hour planned here as part of the Bull City Swingout festivities from 6-8 p.m. prior to the Saturday night dance, but I’d also recommend coming here for a poolside cocktail and swim during the day if you’re not taking classes. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to use the adorable pool. Grab a Frosé (rosé and strawberry slushy) and don’t forget your sunscreen.
There are even more incredible restaurants serving wonderful cocktails downtown, so feel free to explore and make your own decisions. Also, feel free to weigh in on your favorites in the comments. Cheers and enjoy!
Photograph from Open Durham of the Durham Armory in 1950 – the site of the Bull City Swingout’s Saturday night main dance and many, many swing era performances.
In anticipation of the Bull City Swingout coming up the second weekend in July, 2019, I sought out information about early jazz and swing in Durham, North Carolina – I found that there was no anthology I could direct people to and the information I could find seemed to be incomplete snippets I had discovered over the years across the internet. This blog post is an attempt to compile some of this information, with a focus on jazz dance music, and I hope that I can add to this post as I find new information about Durham’s earlier jazz history and about its later jazz history that may be tied to the jazz age and swing era. Also, here’s a map I’ve compiled with the locations mentioned herein and brief notes on the significance of each pin.
A million thanks to Open Durham for being the consummate historian and source for a lot of this information (either directly or helping to make connections) and many of the Durham photographs. Thanks also to my fellow RDU swing DJs Sarah Ovenall, Ken Hanson, and Kirk Eisenbeis for your assistance and additions to the spreadsheet that launched this post.
I’m also going to give a content warning for racism – while Durham was a vibrant hub for music and dancing during the swing era, racism and segregation were a prevalent part of the lives of locals and touring musicians. During my research into this topic I came across multiple sources that reference and/or illustrate the overt racism that existed in Durham during the jazz age and swing era. Some of this racism is referenced in this post and some of it appears in the linked source material.
Photograph from Open Durham
Because jazz didn’t come to us in a vacuum, I can see evidence that brass band music was present in this tobacco town early on. We can see that the Durham Hosiery Mill (803 Angier Ave.) had a brass band, take note of the instrumentation, and make some assumptions about the music in 1910.
There’s also evidence of dance orchestras in existence and/or playing in Durham during the pre-jazz era. From 1902 to 1932, Durham was home to the Lakewood Amusement Park (2000 Chapel Hill Road), which held many attractions including a dance pavilion. From Open Durham: “Across from the skating rink was the pavilion, another large building, which called the Dance Hall by some. The sides were open, and typically an orchestra or band was playing; orchestras came from all over to perform while the crowds danced the night away. Joe King’s orchestra was a popular act. Other people would sit around on benches and just listen to music.”
Lakewood Amusement Park’s gazebo (left) and dance pavilion (right) – photograph from Open Durham
A studio portrait of Blind Boy Fuller, from Wikipedia
I would be remiss if I did not touch on Piedmont Blues as an essential part of the music and dance history of this area, with the style roughly originating in the 1920’s. Piedmont Blues is usually distinguished from Delta Blues by its ragtime based rhythms. Durham became an important center of blues culture, with the tobacco industry drawing rural Black people to the city with higher wage jobs and with Durham already established as an African-American business and financial center. Durham drew Blind Gary Davis in the mid-1920’s and Blind Boy Fuller in 1929 (two of the most famous Piedmont blues musicians, who incidentally made it onto the state historic plaque here in town), who would play house parties and on Pettigrew Street near the tobacco warehouses, along with Alden “Tarheel Slim” Bunn, Richard and William Trice, Floyd Council and other musicians who would contribute to the development of this art form. By the mid-1930’s the best of these musicians were playing clubs and making records. Durham had a thriving Piedmont Blues scene throughout the 1930’s until it started to see a decline in the 1940’s. Piedmont blues remains a tradition in this area and Durham is host to a blues festival, the Hayti Blues and Roots Celebration (formerly the Bull Durham Blues Festival).
Of course dancing is also part of the Piedmont Blues tradition, with a percussive dance people call flat-footing or buck dancing. The videos I keep coming back to to watch are from 1983, filmed on Algia Mae Hinton‘s porch at her home in Johnston County, which feature Hinton (one of the wonderful bridges to the past who is, unfortunately, no longer with us) dancing, John Dee Holeman (another luminary, who will turn 90 on April 4, 2019) dancing and playing guitar. There are a bunch of these videos on Hinton’s porch in the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube. They are so great, we are lucky to have them as source material.
EARLY JAZZ AND SWING AT DUKE
From 1926 to 1932, George “Jelly” Leftwich was the band director of Duke University, but his most popular ensemble was the jazz orchestra he formed, which I’ve seen referenced as the Duke University Club Orchestra, George Leftwich and his Blue Devils, and the Duke University Blue Devils. At a community performance at Durham High School (now Durham School of the Arts, 400 N. Duke Street), the Duke Chronicle reported that the band played “Who,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Stumbling.”
1926, the year Leftwich started working at Duke as its first director of music, was a notable year, as the student population demanded more dancing and dance music – the student body voted 704 to 6 in favor of on-campus dancing, in an attempt to sway the Methodist-affiliated university’s administration concerning the no dancing on campus policy. Perhaps the timing of this vote and the hiring of Leftwich/formation of the jazz orchestra were intentional, coincidental, or perhaps one bolstered the other. Ultimately, the student body won out and dancing to both recorded and live music became an on-campus activity.
My sources say this photograph of George Leftwich and his Blue Devils was probably taken in the East Duke building – from the Duke University Archives.
On Duke’s campus during the Great Depression, student financial constraints meant that they couldn’t always make it to whatever entertainment was available downtown, so they made their own. A gymnasium built in 1898 (nicknamed “The Ark“) was converted to more multipurpose dancing space by the Social Standards Committee of the Woman’s Student Government, who paid to have the floor refinished, purchased a radio/Victrola, and hosted bands every Saturday night and one Wednesday night per month. In 1931, Duke University constructed the West Campus Union building, which also housed a popular ballroom where bands performed.
While Jelly Leftwich was successful at directing bands for Duke, his success also inspired students to start their own bands, such as the Duke Collegians (founded in 1931), Nick “the Crooning Half-back” Laney and his Blue Devil Orchestra (founded in 1932), Sonny Burke and The Duke Ambassadors (founded in 1934), and other swing bands such as the Swing Kings, Blue Dukes, Blue Imps, Grand Dukes, and the D-Men. Laney’s band went on a summer tour of the northeast in 1932 and while on the road met an up-and-coming saxophone player named Les Brown and convinced him to come to Duke instead of the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1933, Brown took over leadership of the Blue Devils after Laney graduated. Under Brown’s direction (while still a student), the Blue Devils performed regularly on campus and toured throughout the east coast, with their tour in 1936 being particularly successful. They were signed by Decca Records and recorded in the fall of 1936, but disbanded the following year. Brown moved to New York (with some of the Blue Devils coming with him to form the Band of Renown) and the rest is history.
Photograph from the Duke University Archives
A final swing era note that occurred later in Duke’s history, from 1977 until her death in 1981, jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and all around badass Mary Lou Williams was a professor at Duke and led the Duke Jazz Ensemble (this was not Williams’ first experience in Durham, however – we’ll return to this later). In 1983, Duke established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture (404 Chapel Drive) which (among many other things) continues to host jazz performance series Jazz @ The Mary Lou.
SWING ERA – TOURING ACTIVITY
Was “In a Sentimental Mood” composed here? Photograph from Open Durham
Duke Ellington has a history of performing in Durham, with the earliest show I could find on record occurring on July 22, 1934 with his orchestra at Banner Warehouse (216-220 W. Morgan St.), roughly where the YMCA and Mr. Tire are located today. He returned on March 13, 1935, to play a show at the Roycroft Warehouse (401 Rigsbee Ave.) from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. (according to the Norfolk Journal and Guide published on March 9, 1935). As the legend goes, in 1935 Ellington composed “In a Sentimental Mood” at a performance at a party hosted by the NC Mutual Life Insurance Company, composed spontaneously to calm the mood after one of his friends got in a quarrel with two women at the party. The only record I can find of him performing in Durham in 1935 is this March 13, 1935 date, so it may be that this jazz standard was written in a Durham tobacco warehouse. The Durham Armory (212 Foster St.) opened in 1937 and Ellington came back to Durham on September 24, 1938 to perform there. He would return to Durham for later performances, but we are focusing on pre-war and WWII performances for the purposes of this post.
Ad image from the Hi De Ho blog
Cab Calloway was a frequent performer not only in Durham, but in other places in North Carolina during the swing era. Calloway’s autobiography says Irving Mills and a “Mrs. Knowles” put together his first southern tour in 1931. “In Durham, NC, we played in a tobacco warehouse that was as big as Madison Square Garden, and they put a rope down the middle of the warehouse and the whites danced on one side and the Negroes on the other.” Calloway’s biography goes on to mention other Durham performances, including a March 1933 performance that was “stopped by a riot.” On August 6, 1938, he made a stop at the newly opened Durham Armory, with the Carolina Times ad touting the Armory’s air conditioning and noting that admission for “white spectators” was $0.65 (sidebar to explain: dances and venues in Durham were segregated and there were promoters who would set up performances at the Durham Armory where Black attendees would pay for general admission – i.e. for dancing on the ground floor – and whites would pay to sit in the balcony and watch). He returned to Durham on March 25, 1940 for a performance at City Auditorium (now The Carolina Theater – 309 W. Morgan St.) for a performance the Monday after Easter. He also notes in his biography that the band needed a white bus driver to get them hamburgers somewhere between Raleigh and Durham on Easter morning. Calloway’s last swing era performance in Durham (that I can find) appears to have been on October 6, 1945 at the Durham Armory.
On November 26, 1937, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy performed at the Durham Armory (heated), but check out whose loveliness graces the ad, even if she’s not given top billing? As mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams would return to Durham on a more permanent basis in the 1970’s and this ad illustrates that she, even in 1937, was a respected jazz woman and a draw to audiences. Dancing from 9:30 p.m to 1:30 a.m. – basically my perfect evening dance time frame! Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy would return to the Durham Armory on February 26, 1943 and on June 23, 1943 to perform, boths times featuring June Richmond on vocals.
In March of 1938, Lucky Millinder‘s orchestra made an appearance at the Durham Armory – unfortunately, the only report available is through the lens of a white Duke student, The Duke Chronicle’s music columnist Hal Rees: “Did you notice that fine trombone soloist and section of Lucky Millinder’s at the Armory? Far above the average for a Negro band as was the alto sax who gave out quite a few boots on his horn…” (you’ll see earlier in the column where he has received complaints about said column, I’d say deservedly so). Millinder would return at least twice more time to perform at the Durham Armory on December 25, 1942 and on June 14, 1943 (which I’ll come back to below).
A 1939 ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Ken Hanson
On May 9, 1938, the Count Basie Orchestra – “America’s Newest Swing Sensation” – featuring Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing appeared at the Durham Armory, which was their last stop before heading to New York for a week-long residency at the Apollo Theater. Basie would return to the Durham Armory again on April 28, 1939, as shown in the The Carolina Times ad pictured here (thanks to local dancer Ken Hanson for digging through this newspaper source material and adjusting the resolution on these already fuzzy resolution ads). In some cases, we’ve resorted to looking at ads on buildings in photographs, such as this instances on the Open Durham blog – a photo of The Regal Theater taken in 1946 (324-328 E. Pettigrew St.) (though on the Regal Theater’s blog entry, the photo is a date range of late 30’s-early 40’s), we can see posters for Count Basie pasted to the side of this building, which I hope we can presume that Basie was actually performing at this venue – the Open Durham blog notes that Basie was among other luminaries performing at this venue, though it was predominantly a movie theater by the 1930’s.
The Regal Theater at night, 1947 – photograph from Open Durham. The Regal Theater was owned by George and Maude Logan and was part of Hayti, Durham’s African-American community/district.
A 1943 ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Ken Hanson
Incidentally, internet searches for Count Basie and Durham, NC are a bit stymied by Basie sideman, composer, and arranger Eddie Durham, but then I find that Eddie Durham came to play at the Durham Armory on July 1, 1943 with “his All-Star Girls Band” (also known as Eddie Durham’s All-Star Girls Orchestra). Due to the proximity of Camp Butner, established in 1942 as a result of World War II, and promoters such as Lin Holloway and Lathrop Warren Alston (more on him below) advertising to draw Black servicemen to shows in Durham, the service-focused All-Stars were a perfect fit for this time and place. The All-Stars “dedicated at least one night per week on the war effort and their activities included raising war bonds, uplifting morale, and performing at military camps and USO centers.”
Carolina Times ad, courtesy of Ken Hanson
Speaking of all-girl bands of the 1940’s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm graced the Durham Armory stage on June 4, 1943 just a few weeks before the All-Stars came into town – I can’t tell you how excited I am to know this, I only wish I could find more details! Just a few days before the Sweethearts were in town, Valaida Snow and the Sunset Royal Orchestra performed at the Durham Armory on May 28, 1943 – yes, ladies!
Backtracking a bit, on May 15, 1940, Glenn Miller‘s orchestra performed at Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (115 Whitford Dr., built in 1939) and broadcast the performance live as part of the CBS Chesterfield “Moonlight Serenade” program. I can’t imagine Cameron Indoor Stadium being a great acoustic space for a broadcast, but I can imagine that this was selected as the venue (over one of Duke’s ballroom spaces) due to its capacity – an estimated 12,000 people were in attendance. To give you perspective on the attendance, the seating capacity of Cameron today is 9,314, so imagine every seat full and the dance floor (i.e. the basketball court) packed! Of course this may have been an over-estimation, but the point is made. As a souvenir, we have an air check of the band playing St. Louis Blues. However, it was another recording that made me realize that Miller had performed at Duke – as I was going through uptempo tunes for competition music ideas, I came across a live recording of Miller’s orchestra playing Down South Camp Meeting, where the announcer at the beginning mentions Duke University and apologizes for something – I have no idea what the apology is for, but I’m definitely curious as to what happened!
Duke University commencement in Cameron Indoor Stadium, 1940 – perhaps just days/weeks from the Miller concert? Photograph from Open Durham.
On April 4 and 5, 1941, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, featuring Helen Forrest, Cootie Williams, and Charlie Christian, performed at Duke University’s Page Auditorium (402 Chapel Drive), but also appears to have played a dance or two somewhere on campus during this time frame, as well. The ad from The Carolina Times (courtesy of Ken Hanson) only references shows at Page Auditorium, with two matinees at 3:15 p.m. and evening shows at 8:00 p.m., featuring Bob Van Camp on organ (perhaps a Duke University senior at this time?) and “Kajar, Master of Magic” (maybe this guy?). The Page Auditorium shows were sponsored by Quadrangle Pictures, which formed in 1928 to screen motion pictures on Duke’s campus and was celebrating its 13th birthday party with this concert series. However, we also know from The Duke Chronicle that the Pan-Hellenic council was hosting their second dance of the year during this stop in Durham with the Goodman orchestra – if Goodman’s in town, it’s gotta be dance or bust, who wants to sit in an auditorium listening to this toe-tapping music when there are rugs to be cut? There’s also a photo of Goodman at this dance in the university archives (included below), perhaps snapped by a student or amateur photographer, which is clearly a dance (streamers, people standing around in tuxes/formalwear in front, and people facing each other dancing in the background). Perhaps the best thing about this photograph is Benny Goodman’s expression – did the photographer catch him off-guard or is the photographer the recipient of “The Ray,” Goodman’s infamous withering gaze?
CarolinaTimes ad from Ken Hanson
Another aside, my Duke University searches keep getting stymied by Duke Ellington…but I digress, there are worse things… 😉
The Ink Spots were frequent performers at the Durham Armory in the 1940’s – swing dancers today don’t often dance to their music, but they were super stars, with a #1 hit with their recording of “If I Didn’t Care” in 1939, which remains one of the best selling singles of all time (9th, according to Wikipedia at the time of this post). Fresh off their hit single, the Ink Spots first performed at the Durham Armory on March 8, 1940 and returned on June 20, 1941.
On June 14, 1943, the Ink Spots were slated to play a double bill with Lucky Millinder, featuring Sister Rosetta Tharp, at the Durham Armory. All the musicians were staying at the Biltmore Hotel (330-332 E. Pettigrew St., one of the preeminent hotels catering to African-Americans in the southeast during the swing era, so the likely place for traveling big name bands and musicians to stay) and it was here that things started to go horribly wrong for Lucky Millinder before the show even started.
The Carolina Times headlines, courtesy of Kirk Eisenbeis
Ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Kirk Eisenbeis
From The Carolina Times, dated June 19, 1943: “Orchestra Head Gets Cut in Argument Over Room, by Joseph Hopson. In a fracas staged in front of the entrance of the Biltmore Hotel, Lucky Millinder was seriously stabbed in the right hip by a woman companion of one of the Four Inkspots here Monday afternoon. The brawl is said to have arisen by Millinder arguing with the woman over his having rented the best rooms in the hotel for his bandsmen. The woman hailed a passing taxi-cab and went to the uptown section of Durham where she purchased a knife and returned and proceeded to cut Millinder without warning. By-standers finally succeeded in wresting the knife from her hands, but not before she had seriously cut Millinder in the right leg, severing an artery. Millinder was unable to appear with his band in the Durham engagement. The Inkspots left the show crew in Durham after the engagement at the Armory, but appeared with them in Raleigh on the following night. According to bandsmen, Millinder is doing “fair” at present.”
I have so many questions about this incident that will never get answered. We know Millinder made a recovery and remained active in music until the 1950’s, so that’s good, but who is this mysterious companion of the Inkspots? What the heck did Millinder say to her? Were the hotel rooms really worth it or was this about something else? Did Millinder’s band do the show without him? If so, can you imagine the tension on stage? Just…wow.
The last performance for the Ink Spots at the Durham Armory that I can find is February 1, 1947, appearing with Johnny Otis and his Orchestra.
On April 6, 1942, Claude Hopkins and his Orchestra performed on Easter Monday (was this a local tradition? See above, Cab Calloway performed on Easter Monday in 1940) at the Durham Armory, featuring Belle Powell. It looks like the promoter for this concert was the Auspices Junior Auxiliary of Lincoln Hospital, which means this show may have been a fundraiser or benefitted the hospital in some other way. Founded in 1901, Lincoln Hospital was the first hospital in Durham to provide care to African-Americans and a nursing school was established there in 1905. The Junior Auxiliary, at least in 1938, was focused on the children’s ward of the hospital, purchasing equipment and supplies, acting as hostesses at events, and decorating and providing children at the hospital presents at Christmas.
The Carolina Times ad, courtesy of Ken Hanson
Erskine Hawkins, “creator of Tuxedo Junction” / “the 20th Century Gabriel” and his Orchestra performed at the Durham Armory on April 10, 1942, along with Jimmie Mitchell, Avery Parrish, and vocalist Ida James. Note at the top of The Carolina Times ad to the left the “Gale Inc. Presents,” designating that this is a Moe Gale talent booking – this is not the only Moe Gale reference I’ve seen in my research, so it appears there is a direct link between this co-founder of the Savoy Ballroom (and the bands performing there) and the shows and bands being booked at the Durham Armory. Also, note that the time is listed as “7:30 P.M. – until?” I wonder if they also stayed up dancing until 4:00 a.m. like today’s swing dancers…
Hawkins would return to the Durham Armory for another show on April 16, 1943 and made a radio appearance on WDNC prior to the show. WDNC was Durham’s first radio station, going on the air in 1934. At the time of Hawkins’ appearance, he would have only had to go around the corner from the Armory to 138 E. Chapel Hill Street to get to the radio station.
Just a few days later on April 19, 1943, Earl Hines and his Orchestra featuring Billy Eckstine and Sonia Vaughn would appear at the Durham Armory, also with a radio appearance on WDNC prior to the show. There was no Sonia, this was a terrible typo – it was actually Sarah Vaughan, who had been “discovered” in the fall of 1942 at the Apollo Theater’s famous amateur night and had just replaced Earl Hines’ previous female vocalist on April 4, 1943. Vaughan was initially hired as a pianist for the band (though she also sang) so that she could be under the jurisdiction of the musicians union rather than the singers union, so the Armory crowd may have heard Vaughan on piano and vocals. The Carolina Times ad for this performance leads with “Jitterbug Contest!” – this is the only reference to a swing dance contest I’ve come across in these Carolina Times ads and I, of course, would love to know the format, what song was/songs were played for the contest, the tempos, all these things lost to time that I will never glean from these two magic words in a newspaper ad. One thing we do know is that this show would have been awesome and a dance contest with live music by Earl Hines’ Orchestra would have been a dream!
Royal Knights of King David Hall in 1922, from Open Durham
One of the most prolific promoters I’ve seen in these source materials is Lathrop Warren Alston (also seen in sources as Latha, Lath, and Lathe, as well as with the last name Austin, however this is probably a typo since Alston is an old Durham family name). Alston got his start promoting dances in the 1920’s at the Royal Knights of King DavidHall (702-704 Fayetteville St.). It is clear that Alston was great at this work, moving on to larger venues and big name acts, having a hand in some of the tobacco warehouse concerts (given the Royal Knights’ connection to NC Mutual Life Insurance, I’m curious to know if he promoted that famous “In a Sentimental Mood” concert). His success is apparent in the sheer number of concerts where his name is associated, particularly at the Durham Armory, given the limited resources I’ve been able to locate online – he is credited here (and elsewhere) for concerts with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Guy Lombardo, Fats Domino, and Les Brown. Alston went on to become the manager of the Biltmore Hotel (330-332 E. Pettigrew St.), where he continued to feature live music, such as concerts with Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, and the Ink Spots. I see that William A. Marsh, III (who I know as Judge Marsh, former Durham County District Court Judge) is credited as the source material on Alston, so I’ll have to ask him about it at some future Durham Bar function.
The Biltmore Hotel and Regal Theater in 1946, with the Count Basie posters pasted on the wall to the right, photograph from Open Durham.
Photograph from Open Durham
I wasn’t going to go past WWII, but I couldn’t resist posting about Turnage’s BBQ Restaurant (608 Morrene Road), where after WWII you could catch “Jazz at Turnage’s” – trad jazz/Dixieland jam sessions, performances, and dancing, in addition to some classic North Carolina BBQ. The photograph below (the real reason I’m posting about this – dance evidence!) is from 1952, quoting Open Durham: “It was evidently popular with Duke students as well – the picture is from the Duke Chanticleer, captioned “JAM SESSIONS, featuring Dixieland Jazz Combo and some fast jitterbugging, shook the rafters on Saturday afternoons of spring semester.”
Durham jitterbugs in 1951 – photograph from Open Durham
I am certain there is much more information about swing bands, dancing, and related local culture that I have not found in my online searches, but I feel like this is a solid start. Perhaps the most glaring omission are Durham-based hot jazz and swing bands (that perhaps did not reach the level of fame as those touring bands herein) outside of those formed by students at Duke University – if you have any leads or other sources of information, please feel free to leave them in the comments below! I’ll leave you with an ad relevant to my recent musical performance interests (but after the time frame of this post) and some more ads I couldn’t fit into the text of this post (all courtesy of Ken Hanson).
Addendum 5/25/19: You can listen to about 15 minutes of the May 15, 1940 Glenn Miller broadcast from Duke University at the Star Spangled Radio Hour podcast’s 4/14/18 episode, starting around time stamp 1:22:25. Thanks to Ken Hanson for the additional link!
I occasionally get asked the question, “How did you start swing dancing? What’s your story?” Everyone has a story about how they came to this subculture and, if you’ve been dancing for over a decade, that story must be like ancient history to the new generation of dancers. Prompted by both the Wandering and Pondering and ‘Taint What You Do blogs, I’ve put my story into words.
My story begins with a love affair with jazz music. In 1996/1997 I was in the 10th grade at Davie County High School, the only high school in a very rural North Carolina county. I was heavily influenced by the music on an alternative rock radio station based out of Winston-Salem, NC, but I can’t remember the call letters and I’m not sure they even exist anymore. I would listen to their music getting ready for school in the morning and it was through this radio station that I was exposed to North Carolina’s own Squirrel Nut Zippers. I loved the sound, bought the CD, immersed myself in it, and shared it with others. I developed a curiosity for this music and began to seek out other artists in this vein, but this was before widespread internet use so my resources were limited. At the end of 11th grade I did a project for my U.S. History class on my grandfather’s adventures as a Merchant Mariner during WWII and used SNZ’s “Good Enough for Grandad” as the background music for my video montage of photos. My grandfather would frequently talk about jazz and musicians from the 1930’s and 1940’s, as well as play music from this era on his turntables, and I slowly began putting all the pieces together in a historical context, where SNZ got their inspiration. This was just before all hell broke loose.
I remember riding around the next summer in my 1990 Honda Civic DX with my best friend Caroline, squealing whenever we heard the Brian Setzer Orchestra or Cherry Poppin’ Daddies on the radio – “Turn it up! We have to get this CD!” Somewhere in this time frame of 1998, the GAP debuted its “Khakis Swing” commercial and I was completely smitten, bitten, and infected with the jitterbug. There was a dance I could learn that went with all this great music? I had to do it, right then. But how? I was 17, living in rural North Carolina with overprotective parents, where was I going to find someone to teach me?
The ever resourceful Caroline had the idea that we would host our own swing dance at our high school. After a little digging, we discovered that we could use the gym after a football game for about an hour and that the high school band director did ballroom dancing with his wife and would be willing to teach an East Coast Swing lesson. We befriended the A/V guys who put together mini-commercials for the dance that aired during morning announcements, using dance clips from A League of Their Own and Swingers. I put together a set of my swing music (my first DJ gig!) and with a boom box we were set. Caroline and I donned our GAP khakis, took the basic lesson, did dangerous aerials with our friends, and left with a feeling of accomplishment – we learned how to swing dance!
Winston-Salem's Millennium Center, the site of my first real swing dance
I forget how the word trickled down to me, but a few weeks later I learned that the Millennium Center in Winston-Salem had swing dances. I rounded up a group of my friends to head into “the city” to attend a Supermurgatroid Productions dance at this wonderful venue, an old post office converted into an event space with miles of wood floors. I took another beginner lesson, this time with Joel Domoe and Salima Owen, and I was bursting with excitement. I’d get to dance with REAL swing dancers, not just the boys at my high school. I was in heaven. After the lesson, my friends were not as into it as I was and I remember leaving the dance earlier than I wanted, but I did manage to sneak in a few dances with more experienced dancers.
I continued to watch the swing craze play itself out over television, catching broadcasts of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and other neo-swing bands that may have appeared on shows (see video above from 1998 MTV Music Awards, dancers enter around 5:20 – do you know any of the dancers? Do they still dance?) and on late night TV. I remember seeing dancers in these productions, with brightly colored outfits, flipping and turning with gusto. I remember reading articles about the swing dance and vintage culture in Los Angeles, California, seeing photographs of men in zoot suits or three piece suits and women in beautiful vintage dresses and accessories. I watched Swing Kids and started collecting a few traditional swing and jazz CDs, in addition to neo-swing.
I didn’t return to swing dancing until after golf season and a bout with mono, but as I headed to my freshman year of college at East Carolina University, I sought out swing dance lessons on campus and discovered that the campus Methodist minister taught weekly lessons at the Methodist student center. The response for these lessons was overwhelming and we all packed into the tiny auditorium at the student center to get our weekly dose of East Coast Swing. There were only a handful of actual social dances at the student center, in spite of the amazing turnout, and some of us wanted more. Two Air Force pilots from Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro who commuted to the weekly swing dance lessons at ECU told some of the dancers about a weekly dance in Raleigh they had been commuting to, where all the best dancers in the state would come and dance every week. It was at a place called The Warehouse. I’d only been to Raleigh a handful of times in my life and I was dying to see people dance like the GAP ads. I was in.
Lindy Shopper storytelling shopping detour: I couldn’t show up to a big dance in Raleigh wearing just anything, especially after seeing the L.A. women in their beautiful dresses. Surely, the sophisticated dancers in Raleigh would all be wearing vintage! On a trip home to visit my parents, my mother took me to Winston-Salem to a vintage store called, I believe, Hello Betty. I had no idea what to look for, but my mother did, thanks to her sewing experience, her penchant for historical costumes, and her childhood during the 1950’s. Looking back, we actually found two really great dresses – the first was a pale pink late 1940’s rayon dress with mother of pearl buttons on the the bodice and black stitching detail (lost to moths a few years ago, tears ensued); the second was an early 1960’s black cocktail dress from Montaldo’s, which we later discovered (after ripping out the lining to tailor the dress) was a Ferdinando Sarmi design.
When we made it to the Warehouse, late on a school night, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. It wasn’t the GAP ad, but, in my opinion at the time, it was real swing dancing. Being around these dancers was intimidating, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the dance floor. I danced with the guys who came with us and maybe one other person, but kept to the side of the dance floor. I think one person commented on my vintage dress. I was the only person wearing vintage and stuck out like a sore thumb. Some things never change around here. 😉 I went to the Warehouse one other time before the flyboys were transferred to another Air Force base.
Guzzo and I at our GAP khakis best
During the second semester of my sophomore year of college, the campus Methodist minister started teaching us Lindy Hop, based on the Frankie Manning videos. A small group of us struggled to get the steps right, and it slowly began to make sense. At the end of the semester the minister sat us down and told us he had taught us everything he knew and that he wouldn’t be able to teach next year because of his duties. Would a couple of us be willing to take over the lessons? Somehow, the torch was handed to me and my dorm-mate of the past two years, Mike Guzzo, to take over the East Coast Swing lessons.
Mike and I started the semester with that same packed auditorium, but by the end of the semester it had dwindled down to a core group that would eventually become the ECU Swing Dance Club. It was about this time that I met Dave Fillmore at a local dance, who had a profound influence on my Lindy Hop. Dave spent a few months out of every year living in San Francisco, dancing and taking lessons from Paul Overton and Sharon Ashe (who, ironically, now live in the same town as I do). Dave took me under his wing, taught me some proper technique, turned me on to what the national DJs were playing at the time, and, most importantly, got me traveling to dance. We would ride together to the weekly dances in Raleigh, which had moved to a restaurant/brewery called Greenshields, and I slowly overcame my awe of the dancing there and joined in. We’d commute to the Triangle Swing Dance Society dances at the Durham Armory. In 2003, I attended my first Lindy exchange, DCLX. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2005, I moved from Greenville to the Triangle and I’ve been an active member of the swing dance community here for years and continue to travel to swing dance events all over the United States.
An early photo, with Dave Fillmore at right, from the rained out U.S.S. North Carolina swing dance in Wilmington, circa 2001/2002. Sharpie tattoos courtesy of my neighbors, Cape Fear Tattoo.