It was a dream: my wife and I were in a large old auditorium which, instead of theater seating, had a polished hardwood dance floor. There were a few high tables around the room and we managed to snag one near the bar. Gradually, and then steadily, couples and individuals began to come in wearing vintage clothing, with some in modern dress. Very soon the room was packed with people, most well under age forty. We noted that we were among the oldest people in attendance.
It turned out that this was a dance of some sort, though we didn’t participate. Before the main event, one couple was giving Charleston lessons. The dancers, unfamiliar with the steps, were eager to learn.
Eventually, a young jazz band appeared on the stage. The leader, who cut a dapper Bixian figure with his thin mustache and period suit, doubled on cornet and trombone. There was a reed player, a bass sax man, a drummer, and a banjoist.
The band played hot. It was easily among the best 1920s-style jazz we had ever heard, and the dancers responded enthusiastically. The bandleader sang melodically in a light baritone, his vocals appropriate to the material being played. At times the music was hard to hear over the din of a hall full of people dancing and talking and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
There were some odd moments. At one point a woman came up to us saying that she had never heard a band before—as if music, like pork chops, came pre-packaged from the supermarket. Others raved that they had never heard music like this, but that they loved it and wanted to hear more.
The musicians played for three hours, to universal acclaim. An encore was demanded and given. We spoke to the bandleader, expressing our appreciation for the excellent music he and his group had made. We left the hall, the joy of the great jazz lingering. It was no doubt one of the most delightful dreams I ever had.
Except that it wasn’t a dream. My wife and I were wide awake at The Club Hot-Cha Roaring ’20s Party (hosted by Groove Juice Swing) at the Historic German House in Rochester NY on September 25, 2015. Music was provided by Mike Davis and his Chicago Loopers, with Mike on cornet and trombone, Tom Abbott on reeds, Jay Rattman on bass sax, John Donatowicz on banjo, and Steve Torrico on traps. They were phenomenal. This “dream” really happened.
I am suspicious of anything that gives me hope. So I couldn’t immediately fathom the prospect of the music I love possibly not being doomed. The term for what I experienced in Rochester is “cognitive dissonance.” What I saw was so antithetical to what I’d expected that I had trouble wrapping my mind around it. It was, in fact, incredibly dream-like.
What I’m discovering is that there are many musicians born in the 1980s and 1990s who love this music even more than I do, and who approach it with scholarship on a par with that love. What truly astonishes and encourages me is that there is a brand new audience for 90-year-old jazz who will attend performances of the music as long as they can figure out how to dance to it.
The young performers, listeners, and dancers are not going to regard this music exactly the same way we did. It may be one of their many enthusiasms, and those other influences (strange to us) may inform their interpretation of the material. And they will have their own kind of fun with it—dressing up in vintage suits and flapper finery, reveling in the image as much as the jazz. This is all just as it should be, since it will keep the music alive.
Some of my middle-aged musician friends feel a certain caution at the image-centric nature of this development, since it smells like just another Hipster fad. They’ve devoted decades to learning their instruments and playing their codas off when there were just three drunks sitting at the bar. I tend to share a cynical perspective about such trends as the fetishization of vinyl (and the cheap new portable phonographs guaranteed to ruin your records). But I’m convinced that what we’re seeing now goes beyond dress-up and attitude. There is an innate joyousness to Jazz Age music that will linger in the hearts of those who have dared to listen and dance to it. Having heard this music played well, you can’t un-hear it.
As I see it, the Lindy Hop community appears most likely to rescue this music from the dusty obscurity it seems destined for in our charge. We’re dropping the ball, and I don’t mean in the Times Square sense.
There’s a wonderful party going on—somewhere else. Youth may be wasted on the young, but what we’re wasting is the opportunity to share the best and most joyous thing in our lives. I refuse to believe that my experience in Rochester was a one-off. The young woman who “never heard a band before” heard the most amazing jazz band playing within a 250-mile radius. Who would not want to repeat that experience?
Can’t we make it happen everywhere?