Swing is alive

Most people today are aware that there was a swing music and dancing revival during the late 90s, at least to the extent that they remember a GAP commercial with khaki-clad dancers, one or two of the bands that enjoyed brief pop chart success, and maybe a few of the movies that featured music and dancers as well. The scene’s time in the spotlight is gone, but there is a dedicated population of dancers and musicians who remain.

Last weekend was the 10th annual DC Lindy Exchange — in the scene’s parlance, DCLX. A lindy exchange, is traditionally a weekend where the local scene hosts a series of dances and invites folks from outside of the area to come and “exchange” their knowledge and style of dance with the locals, often featuring local bands. DCLX this year featured two bands which are set up so that they have both a big band ensemble and a smaller group, allowing the bands to perform at different style and size venues. The core of both bands are musicians from LA and Seattle, but also included local musicians. And the DCLX organizer’s planned something special. Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five and full Orchestra and Glenn Crytzer’s Syncopaters would share a stage for two nights, with alternating sets, and would participate in a Battle of the Bands of sorts, in which the two bands would trade two songs, transitioning back and forth mid-song.

At most dances, you’re lucky to have a live band. People are generally pretty happy to dance to a DJ, but most will admit that they much prefer a live band, even if their reasoning isn’t much more explanatory than, “It just has a better feel.” And you shouldn’t expect much more than that; most dancers aren’t musicians. There are definitely dancers who really appreciate a quality live performance for the musicality, but I think they are still a small portion of the scene. But, at a dance with a live band, if you’re lucky, the crowd will be feeling the music enough that you’ll get a spontaneous jam circle or two. A few people might hang out near the front of the stage, clapping and cheering the band on. But for the most part, everyone is still just dancing.

So, having two bands on one stage, and having them involved in a bit of a competition, driving themselves to try to outperform each other is a pretty phenomenal event. Friday night, the bands set up their small groups and played one long set each. The crowd at the Glen Echo Bumper Car Pavilion was ridiculous, with a solid group of people cheering each band on during their set while taking a break from dancing. I could see members of each band hanging out in the wings and cheering the other band on as well. The atmosphere was definitely one of the best I’ve experienced since I started dancing.

Little did I know what was waiting for me on Saturday. There was a great jam circle during Jonathan Stout’s second set, which really got the dancers ready for the battle. And as the battle began, a pretty solid crowd was forming at the front of the stage. Not long after the two bands started playing together on Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose I looked at the crowd behind me, I realized that I couldn’t see anyone who was dancing. That. Doesn’t. Happen.

Russ Reinberg, a clarinetist in Stout’s orchestra wrote about the weekend, and it’s hard to trump his words about it:

At that point the music took on an intensity I never have experienced at a dance festival. All the musicians played harder and the vocalists sang better and the dancers began to notice. About fifty had stopped dancing during Jonathan’s second set and crowded up to the stage. As the music swung on, more and more couples stopped dancing and moved toward the bandstand. Soon hundreds, all but a couple of dozen people at the very back of the hall, had stopped dancing and began to cheer for the soloists. That was unprecedented. Today’s Swing dancers go to dance, not listen. Music is merely fuel for their feet.

The music pounded on. Glenn had found a young blond guy from Wisconsin who played tenor and baritone sax. His solos on both instruments knocked me out and, on that final tune, Honeysuckle, he really belted out a winner on tenor. I doubt more than a few people realized it.

But Glenn’s secret weapon was his bass player because he doubled on Sousaphone. So, in the middle of Honeysuckle, Glenn traded his guitar for a banjo and the bass player picked up the Sousaphone. The crowd went nuts. They always are suckers for unusual instruments like tubas, washboards, bones, and spoons; it’s a cheap old trick from Vaudeville dog acts. But then half of Glenn’s band dropped out and the rest slid into a Dixieland chorus: Trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm section. Now that was showmanship!

Jonathan roared back with an unrehearsed sax section riff and the section played it slightly wrong. Somewhere along the line he tossed me a second solo. Then the drummers went head to head and our drummer, Paul Lines, played a final volley that took down the house. Glenn’s band answered with a great riff from Benny Goodman’s Fletcher Henderson arrangement they had practiced that afternoon. Jonathan shot back with a riff from Count Basie’s The King and, at the bridge, I threw in Benny’s short 1938 solo. Both bands together blasted out a final chorus and the place broke out into hysteria.

He goes on to conclude, in words that probably incite a frisson or chills in any swing dancer or musician who is familiar with the history of our musical culture:

My father was at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles that famous night in August 1935 when Benny Goodman made history and launched the Swing era. Our experience in Glen Echo, Maryland came as close to that as is possible today. It was an electrifying night for the musicians and the dancers.

I have played many times on the Johnny Carson Show and several other TV shows. I performed several times at Carnegie Hall. I’ve played jazz festivals. I have worked with genuine jazz stars. My groups usually received standing ovations. But Saturday night in Glen Echo was one of only two occasions where I experienced that surge of electricity you feel when you know your music has impacted an entire venue. It will stand out in my memory as a unique example of the immense power jazz possesses to bring anyone to a level of profound joy.

Jerry Almonte is putting together a longer post where he talks with several people about the battle including Russ and other musicians, and when he gets that up, I’ll definitely update this post with a link to it.

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