Jazz Blooms at NYC’s Easter Parade

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Full disclosure: For the past four years it has been my honor to coordinate inviting a jazz band to play at the Easter Parade and to publicize the time and location of such performance to the NYC lindy hop community. What follows is three parts observations from my years at the parade, two parts grosgrain ribbon, one part shameless plug for this year’s event (it’s gonna be great!), and two dashes of Irving Berlin.

Every spring, I can count on three inevitable occurrences to mark the changing of the seasons:

To those who thought (as I did) that Manhattan’s Easter Parade was a tradition already dead when the nostalgic Judy Garland/Fred Astaire film released in 1948, I offer happy tidings: it is not. The Easter Parade tradition is very much alive. It is still possible to spend your Easter Sunday strolling glamorously on Fifth Avenue, arm in arm with some dapper, morning-suited gent or beautifully-frocked lady. Joyful revelers come out to fête the lighter days and warmer weather in high spirits and even higher fashion. And, of course, all parade passers-by love to stop and watch the dancers swinging happily to jazz music, provided this year by a band led by reed player extraordinaire, Dan Levinson (frequently featured in The Syncopated Times).

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The history of the Easter Parade is not well documented, probably because it seems to have come about informally.

Molly Ryan (photo Aidan Grant)

It originated in the late 19th century, purportedly as churchgoers, dressed in their finest clothes and hats, began parading between the three churches at the top of Fifth Avenue in order to see the elaborate paschal floral arrangements that decorated each altar. These three churches (Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at 55th Street, Saint Thomas Church at 53rd Street, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at 50th Street) still hold Easter services, and presumably still decorate their altars with the usual fancy floral arrangements. But these days they get plenty more competition from the fantastic and fantastical millinery creations (many homemade) that parade enthusiasts show off up and down the avenue. The flowers have migrated onto people’s hats, along with ribbons, bows, ruffles, feathers, birds, eggs, rabbits, and all manner of other expected or unexpected adornments. Some hats rise four or more feet above the wearer’s head. Some have yard-wide brims that ensure the wearer really parts the crowd as she walks. When Irving Berlin wrote of a stylish Easter bonnet, “with all the frills upon it,” in 1933, it’s hard to imagine that he envisioned a three foot tall orange square rig sailboat sitting atop a headband, with the eyes of its wearer veiled in thin black lace.

Most outfits include a hat, per Easter Parade tradition, but the hats are often outshone by the clothes, which range from silly to shocking to elegantly old-world. Collectors of early 20th century vintage (or reproduction) clothing wear the most festive pieces from their beautifully curated wardrobes. Though they may attract gawking stares sporting the selfsame look in their daily lives, this event showcases the charm of their antique formal wear. Vintage dressers are particularly appreciated at this supercentenarian event, and they are usually happy to stop for a photograph with an admiring spectator. Unlike most parades, the Easter Parade has no barriers to keep crowds to the side or clear a route for marchers. The spectators mingle freely with the spectacle, in a great, colorful “milling about.” Traffic is blocked off Fifth Avenue from 49th Street to 57th Street from 10 am until 4 pm. In that time, thousands of New Yorkers and visitors pass through those eight blocks of busy, central-Manhattan streets. Within the 24 hours that follow, photographs and video of the parade participants begin to flood photography websites and New Yorkers’ social media feeds. Is it vanity that makes the well-dressed participants scour the internet for images of themselves? Perhaps just a natural desire to find pictures commemorating a good time or a handmade costume? For the fashionable, the event includes not just preparation and celebration, but the thrill of the internet photo hunt, and the pride of being featured in the rotogravure.

One fashion photographer who will be sorely missed this year is Bill Cunningham, of the New York Times. Cunningham, a New York City celebrity known for biking around town in his trademark blue jacket and photographing street fashion, was a regular at the Easter Parade, and his annual Easter Parade video was always anticipated by those in attendance. Every costumed lad and lady hoped Cunningham might have surreptitiously snapped their photograph and included them in his coverage. Cunningham passed away on June 25, 2016, and in his memory the department store Bergdorf Goodman paid tribute to him, as did New York Fashion Week photographers and even Carnegie Hall. His quiet but cherished presence will be sorely missed this year.

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A swing-dancing, finery-bedecked throng, reveling to Dan Levinson and his band a few Easters ago. (Aidan Grant photo; courtesy Dan Levinson)

Cunningham’s photo essays and videos always included at least one shot of swing dancers in action. Jazz music and swing dance exude joy, so it’s no wonder that people ambling by stop to cluster around the dancers and applaud the band’s every song. Some only stay for a chorus or two, but many settle in to watch a full set or more, or return after they’ve seen their fill of the rest of the route. If you’ve been privileged enough to hear a band of musicians led by Dan Levinson, you know what a treat those in attendance are getting. For the last four years, Levinson has brought a five-piece band (including vocalist Molly Ryan) to play for his Easter parade fans, sometimes before running off to a later gig that same day. The parade itself is very loosely organized. There’s no stage or tent—just a scarcity of street corners, an abundance of enterprising music groups, and a mad scramble to claim the spot that will yield the greatest crowd access and (one hopes) the biggest tips. As busking gigs go, this one is a bit hectic; it unavoidably involves some run-in with the NYPD, who may start out grumpy and determined to enforce public order, but usually warm up to the charm of our cheerful community. And the dancers in attendance are always happy to pass their well-decorated hats to ensure that the musicians receive the appropriate monetary appreciation for sharing their time and talent.

Dan Levinson (photo Aidan Grant)

For NYC jazz and swing devotees, the Easter Parade marks the first public outdoor event of the year. It may be unseasonably chilly, especially in the shade, but the chill offers an incentive to warm up by dancing. Easter marks the end of the cold winter months that kept us cloistered in our clubs and dance studios. It may be cozy in those secret music nooks, but out in the sunny, overflowing streets, we can share our jubilance with the wider world. All in all, the Easter Parade is a glorious way to mark the turn of another year.

If you are free, you are cordially invited to join us. Sunday, April 16, 2017. Parade: 10 am-4pm, Fifth Ave., 49th-57th Streets. Jazz music and swing dancing: 12 pm-3 pm, location TBD. For more information, visit: facebook.com and search “Jazz Blooms at the Easter Parade.” Fancy dress: lots of fun, strongly encouraged, but not required.


Stephanie Robinson lives in New York City, where she is active in the local swing dance community and organizes live music events.

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