Radio 2 At The Proms - The Battle Of The Bands

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20140808

Radios 2 and 3 join forces for a very special late night prom - Clare Teal recalls the golden age of swing with the Battle of the Bands.

The Remo, Minton's Playhouse, Anderson's Annex, the Roseland, the Cotton Club - these were the ballrooms of Harlem, Manhattan in the 1930s. But by far the most glamorous and luxurious was the Savoy Ballroom at 596 Lenox Avenue. Opened in 1926 by a man named Moe Gale who could count Al Capone amongst his friends it occupied the second floor of a block that ran between 140th and 141st streets and featured a large sprung dance floor, marble staircase, carpeted lounges, mirrored walls and cut glass chandeliers. This was quite a step up from the secret, dingy, smoky cellar bars and joints of previous years. For just 30 cents you could dance the night away. It was a regular venue for both black and white Americans - there was no segregation at the Savoy unlike the whites only Cotton Club.

Many of the regular Savoy dancers became celebrities with names like Shorty George, Frankie Musclehead Manning, Leroy Stretch Jones and the man they called the Human Boa Constrictor - Earl Snakehips Tucker. It was here that the Lindy Hop was first seen in around 1927 along with other famous dance steps like the Flying Charleston,the Suzy Q, the Big Apple, the Jive, and the Shim Sham Shimmy. It would take another 15 years, the war and the influx of American G.I's to Europe before these dance steps would be seen on British dance floors.

You can't have dance, of course, without music and the Savoy's resident band leader was Chick Webb whose lead vocalist just happened to be a young girl called Ella Fitzgerald. Another new-fangled addition at the Savoy was a double bandstand - two separate performance spaces so that as one band finished another could commence - so the evening had continuous music - no breaks. The two bandstands became famous for another usage - the Battle of the Bands. The first battles commenced in 1927. Two bands would go into musical combat and the winners would be chosen by the dancers. One of the most famous stand offs took place in 1937 when Benny Goodman challenged Chick Webb to a battle - a contest won by Chick. Later that year Chick was defeated in battle by Duke Ellington and his band - the Duke had been Chick's mentor over the years. But his crown was restored the following year when Count Basie threw down the gauntlet - and yet again Chick Webb and his band were crowned the kings of swing.

In her Late Night Prom, Radio 2's own Clare Teal takes a steps back to the golden age of jazz and swing. With the Royal Albert Hall stage big enough to accommodate two rival bands and a promenade area with space to swing and jive we host our very own Battle of the Bands. The Prom recreates the music of both the Count Basie Band led by James Pearson and the Duke Ellington Band led by Grant Windsor. Historically, this battle between Basie and Ellington never took place apart from on a compilation disc released in the 1960s. Special guest vocalist will be Gregory Porter and the programme includes big band classics like Mood Indigo, the A Train and, of course, Stomping at the Savoy.

Live from the Royal Albert Hall. The concert is broadcast simultaneously on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 3 and will be recorded for future transmission on BBC4.