As a prelude to Frankie Manning's 85th birthday party at Roseland, there was no better way to get into the mood for the celebrations than to spend a Monday night at Wells Restaurant in Harlem. The Savoy is long gone, so for that authentic Lindy Hop experience you must travel uptown to this unique nightspot. Every Monday, the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra assemble in a corner and play the night away, as diners tuck into their plates of fried chicken and waffles.
Although Frankie himself was not going to be there, it was still a stupendous night. I arrived around 8pm, and the restaurant was almost empty; early days for what was to be a late night. I looked at the fascia: 'Harlem's Landmark Jazz Supper Club Wells Famous Restaurant'. Well, they certainly seem to know their reputation. Is this place the best-kept secret in the swing world?
The restaurant itself is sort of u-shaped. Actually an inverted u. Does that make it n-shaped? Anyway, you enter by the bottom left hand tail and prime position is around at the right hand tail, where the orchestra sets up. There is no dance floor, only a well-worn carpet in an interesting blue and yellow colour. Anywhere you can find to dance can be used as a dance floor, although the tables are probably not up to the task. The white walls are adorned with uplighters in an art deco style, lending an atmospheric ambience to the place. At frequent intervals you can see framed posters and photographs of scenes from the days when Swing Was King.
Then there's the menu. Rather helpfully, if you've not been to Wells before, it picks itself. According to Norma Miller, the of the two great things in life are swing and fried chicken. The speciality of the house is actually both of these commodities, and the fried chicken is served with waffles. Good meals are always improved by good company, and it wasn't long before other refugees Waiting For Wednesday began to arrive. The Rhythm Hot Shots, Minnie's Moochers and other dancers and teachers rolled in, and we all pretended to be surprised to see one another at Well's on a Monday night.
"Isn't that Norma?" asked Lennart Westerlund as a diminutive figure passed him by. Sure enough, it was, and she sat at our table and chatted for some time, delighted to see TRHS. Norma's sister Dottie, another original Whitey's Lindy Hopper, was there too, and it wasn't long before Buster Brown turned up, fresh from his performance at the Tap Extravaganza the previous night. By this time, The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra was complete with its 17 or so members, and started playing. Soon afterwards, people were up and dancing. In a space in front of the band that barely looked big enough to accommodate two couples, somehow eight or nine pairs were cutting a rug.
The talk was all about the big night at Roseland. Would Savion Glover show up (he didn't)? Buster Brown said he would be there (must have missed him). I got the chance to chat to Charlie, who told me that he had worked with Frank Manning in the Post Office for 30 years and had no idea about his previous life as a dancer. I wonder how Frankie himself thought he would be spending his 85th birthday, back in the early 80's when his working life there was coming to an end? In a strange way, it was a good night to find out more about Frank Manning through him not being there.
Make no mistake, Monday at Wells is the best Lindy Hop night out in the world. There may be no wooden dance floor and not enough room, but in these days of Daddy-Come-Lately non-swing bands, this is as close as you are going to get to an authentic evening with the real music and real people. If you love swing music and Lindy Hop, make sure that next time you're in the Big Apple not to forgoe Wells. And the chicken's pretty good, too.
© 1999 Andrew Winton
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