Always a huge highlight on my calendar, Lindy Focus did not disappoint this year. I performed at each main dance with the Jonathan Stout Lindy Focus All-Star Orchestra, but also did two late night dances – one with Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders and another with Gordon Au‘s tribute to the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Dance performances kicked off each late night social dance, with the performers having the option of doing a routine with the live band of the night. I was delighted to be a part of three of these late night performances: first, with the Rhythm Serenaders performing Mildred Bailey’s “Lover Come Back to Me” with Peter Kertz and Elze Visnevskyte dancing; second and third with Au’s Armstrong tribute, performing “Squeeze Me” and “All That Meat and No Potatoes” with co-vocals by Jim Ziegler and a cast of Lindy Focus instructors and performers.
Photograph from Open Durham of the Durham Armory in 1950 – the site of the Bull City Swingout’s Saturday night main dance and many, many swing era performances.
In anticipation of the Bull City Swingout coming up the second weekend in July, 2019, I sought out information about early jazz and swing in Durham, North Carolina – I found that there was no anthology I could direct people to and the information I could find seemed to be incomplete snippets I had discovered over the years across the internet. This blog post is an attempt to compile some of this information, with a focus on jazz dance music, and I hope that I can add to this post as I find new information about Durham’s earlier jazz history and about its later jazz history that may be tied to the jazz age and swing era. Also, here’s a map I’ve compiled with the locations mentioned herein and brief notes on the significance of each pin.
A million thanks to Open Durham for being the consummate historian and source for a lot of this information (either directly or helping to make connections) and many of the Durham photographs. Thanks also to my fellow RDU swing DJs Sarah Ovenall, Ken Hanson, and Kirk Eisenbeis for your assistance and additions to the spreadsheet that launched this post.
I’m also going to give a content warning for racism – while Durham was a vibrant hub for music and dancing during the swing era, racism and segregation were a prevalent part of the lives of locals and touring musicians. During my research into this topic I came across multiple sources that reference and/or illustrate the overt racism that existed in Durham during the jazz age and swing era. Some of this racism is referenced in this post and some of it appears in the linked source material.
Photograph from Open Durham
Because jazz didn’t come to us in a vacuum, I can see evidence that brass band music was present in this tobacco town early on. We can see that the Durham Hosiery Mill (803 Angier Ave.) had a brass band, take note of the instrumentation, and make some assumptions about the music in 1910.
There’s also evidence of dance orchestras in existence and/or playing in Durham during the pre-jazz era. From 1902 to 1932, Durham was home to the Lakewood Amusement Park (2000 Chapel Hill Road), which held many attractions including a dance pavilion. From Open Durham: “Across from the skating rink was the pavilion, another large building, which called the Dance Hall by some. The sides were open, and typically an orchestra or band was playing; orchestras came from all over to perform while the crowds danced the night away. Joe King’s orchestra was a popular act. Other people would sit around on benches and just listen to music.”
Lakewood Amusement Park’s gazebo (left) and dance pavilion (right) – photograph from Open Durham
A studio portrait of Blind Boy Fuller, from Wikipedia
I would be remiss if I did not touch on Piedmont Blues as an essential part of the music and dance history of this area, with the style roughly originating in the 1920’s. Piedmont Blues is usually distinguished from Delta Blues by its ragtime based rhythms. Durham became an important center of blues culture, with the tobacco industry drawing rural Black people to the city with higher wage jobs and with Durham already established as an African-American business and financial center. Durham drew Blind Gary Davis in the mid-1920’s and Blind Boy Fuller in 1929 (two of the most famous Piedmont blues musicians, who incidentally made it onto the state historic plaque here in town), who would play house parties and on Pettigrew Street near the tobacco warehouses, along with Alden “Tarheel Slim” Bunn, Richard and William Trice, Floyd Council and other musicians who would contribute to the development of this art form. By the mid-1930’s the best of these musicians were playing clubs and making records. Durham had a thriving Piedmont Blues scene throughout the 1930’s until it started to see a decline in the 1940’s. Piedmont blues remains a tradition in this area and Durham is host to a blues festival, the Hayti Blues and Roots Celebration (formerly the Bull Durham Blues Festival).
Of course dancing is also part of the Piedmont Blues tradition, with a percussive dance people call flat-footing or buck dancing. The videos I keep coming back to to watch are from 1983, filmed on Algia Mae Hinton‘s porch at her home in Johnston County, which feature Hinton (one of the wonderful bridges to the past who is, unfortunately, no longer with us) dancing, John Dee Holeman (another luminary, who will turn 90 on April 4, 2019) dancing and playing guitar. There are a bunch of these videos on Hinton’s porch in the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube. They are so great, we are lucky to have them as source material.
EARLY JAZZ AND SWING AT DUKE
From 1926 to 1932, George “Jelly” Leftwich was the band director of Duke University, but his most popular ensemble was the jazz orchestra he formed, which I’ve seen referenced as the Duke University Club Orchestra, George Leftwich and his Blue Devils, and the Duke University Blue Devils. At a community performance at Durham High School (now Durham School of the Arts, 400 N. Duke Street), the Duke Chronicle reported that the band played “Who,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Stumbling.”
1926, the year Leftwich started working at Duke as its first director of music, was a notable year, as the student population demanded more dancing and dance music – the student body voted 704 to 6 in favor of on-campus dancing, in an attempt to sway the Methodist-affiliated university’s administration concerning the no dancing on campus policy. Perhaps the timing of this vote and the hiring of Leftwich/formation of the jazz orchestra were intentional, coincidental, or perhaps one bolstered the other. Ultimately, the student body won out and dancing to both recorded and live music became an on-campus activity.
My sources say this photograph of George Leftwich and his Blue Devils was probably taken in the East Duke building – from the Duke University Archives.
On Duke’s campus during the Great Depression, student financial constraints meant that they couldn’t always make it to whatever entertainment was available downtown, so they made their own. A gymnasium built in 1898 (nicknamed “The Ark“) was converted to more multipurpose dancing space by the Social Standards Committee of the Woman’s Student Government, who paid to have the floor refinished, purchased a radio/Victrola, and hosted bands every Saturday night and one Wednesday night per month. In 1931, Duke University constructed the West Campus Union building, which also housed a popular ballroom where bands performed.
While Jelly Leftwich was successful at directing bands for Duke, his success also inspired students to start their own bands, such as the Duke Collegians (founded in 1931), Nick “the Crooning Half-back” Laney and his Blue Devil Orchestra (founded in 1932), Sonny Burke and The Duke Ambassadors (founded in 1934), and other swing bands such as the Swing Kings, Blue Dukes, Blue Imps, Grand Dukes, and the D-Men. Laney’s band went on a summer tour of the northeast in 1932 and while on the road met an up-and-coming saxophone player named Les Brown and convinced him to come to Duke instead of the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1933, Brown took over leadership of the Blue Devils after Laney graduated. Under Brown’s direction (while still a student), the Blue Devils performed regularly on campus and toured throughout the east coast, with their tour in 1936 being particularly successful. They were signed by Decca Records and recorded in the fall of 1936, but disbanded the following year. Brown moved to New York (with some of the Blue Devils coming with him to form the Band of Renown) and the rest is history.
Photograph from the Duke University Archives
A final swing era note that occurred later in Duke’s history, from 1977 until her death in 1981, jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and all around badass Mary Lou Williams was a professor at Duke and led the Duke Jazz Ensemble (this was not Williams’ first experience in Durham, however – we’ll return to this later). In 1983, Duke established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture (404 Chapel Drive) which (among many other things) continues to host jazz performance series Jazz @ The Mary Lou.
SWING ERA – TOURING ACTIVITY
Was “In a Sentimental Mood” composed here? Photograph from Open Durham
Duke Ellington has a history of performing in Durham, with the earliest show I could find on record occurring on July 22, 1934 with his orchestra at Banner Warehouse (216-220 W. Morgan St.), roughly where the YMCA and Mr. Tire are located today. He returned on March 13, 1935, to play a show at the Roycroft Warehouse (401 Rigsbee Ave.) from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. (according to the Norfolk Journal and Guide published on March 9, 1935). As the legend goes, in 1935 Ellington composed “In a Sentimental Mood” at a performance at a party hosted by the NC Mutual Life Insurance Company, composed spontaneously to calm the mood after one of his friends got in a quarrel with two women at the party. The only record I can find of him performing in Durham in 1935 is this March 13, 1935 date, so it may be that this jazz standard was written in a Durham tobacco warehouse. The Durham Armory (212 Foster St.) opened in 1937 and Ellington came back to Durham on September 24, 1938 to perform there. He would return to Durham for later performances, but we are focusing on pre-war and WWII performances for the purposes of this post.
Ad image from the Hi De Ho blog
Cab Calloway was a frequent performer not only in Durham, but in other places in North Carolina during the swing era. Calloway’s autobiography says Irving Mills and a “Mrs. Knowles” put together his first southern tour in 1931. “In Durham, NC, we played in a tobacco warehouse that was as big as Madison Square Garden, and they put a rope down the middle of the warehouse and the whites danced on one side and the Negroes on the other.” Calloway’s biography goes on to mention other Durham performances, including a March 1933 performance that was “stopped by a riot.” On August 6, 1938, he made a stop at the newly opened Durham Armory, with the Carolina Times ad touting the Armory’s air conditioning and noting that admission for “white spectators” was $0.65 (sidebar to explain: dances and venues in Durham were segregated and there were promoters who would set up performances at the Durham Armory where Black attendees would pay for general admission – i.e. for dancing on the ground floor – and whites would pay to sit in the balcony and watch). He returned to Durham on March 25, 1940 for a performance at City Auditorium (now The Carolina Theater – 309 W. Morgan St.) for a performance the Monday after Easter. He also notes in his biography that the band needed a white bus driver to get them hamburgers somewhere between Raleigh and Durham on Easter morning. Calloway’s last swing era performance in Durham (that I can find) appears to have been on October 6, 1945 at the Durham Armory.
On November 26, 1937, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy performed at the Durham Armory (heated), but check out whose loveliness graces the ad, even if she’s not given top billing? As mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams would return to Durham on a more permanent basis in the 1970’s and this ad illustrates that she, even in 1937, was a respected jazz woman and a draw to audiences. Dancing from 9:30 p.m to 1:30 a.m. – basically my perfect evening dance time frame! Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy would return to the Durham Armory on February 26, 1943 and on June 23, 1943 to perform, boths times featuring June Richmond on vocals.
In March of 1938, Lucky Millinder‘s orchestra made an appearance at the Durham Armory – unfortunately, the only report available is through the lens of a white Duke student, The Duke Chronicle’s music columnist Hal Rees: “Did you notice that fine trombone soloist and section of Lucky Millinder’s at the Armory? Far above the average for a Negro band as was the alto sax who gave out quite a few boots on his horn…” (you’ll see earlier in the column where he has received complaints about said column, I’d say deservedly so). Millinder would return at least twice more time to perform at the Durham Armory on December 25, 1942 and on June 14, 1943 (which I’ll come back to below).
A 1939 ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Ken Hanson
On May 9, 1938, the Count Basie Orchestra – “America’s Newest Swing Sensation” – featuring Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing appeared at the Durham Armory, which was their last stop before heading to New York for a week-long residency at the Apollo Theater. Basie would return to the Durham Armory again on April 28, 1939, as shown in the The Carolina Times ad pictured here (thanks to local dancer Ken Hanson for digging through this newspaper source material and adjusting the resolution on these already fuzzy resolution ads). In some cases, we’ve resorted to looking at ads on buildings in photographs, such as this instances on the Open Durham blog – a photo of The Regal Theater taken in 1946 (324-328 E. Pettigrew St.) (though on the Regal Theater’s blog entry, the photo is a date range of late 30’s-early 40’s), we can see posters for Count Basie pasted to the side of this building, which I hope we can presume that Basie was actually performing at this venue – the Open Durham blog notes that Basie was among other luminaries performing at this venue, though it was predominantly a movie theater by the 1930’s.
The Regal Theater at night, 1947 – photograph from Open Durham. The Regal Theater was owned by George and Maude Logan and was part of Hayti, Durham’s African-American community/district.
A 1943 ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Ken Hanson
Incidentally, internet searches for Count Basie and Durham, NC are a bit stymied by Basie sideman, composer, and arranger Eddie Durham, but then I find that Eddie Durham came to play at the Durham Armory on July 1, 1943 with “his All-Star Girls Band” (also known as Eddie Durham’s All-Star Girls Orchestra). Due to the proximity of Camp Butner, established in 1942 as a result of World War II, and promoters such as Lin Holloway and Lathrop Warren Alston (more on him below) advertising to draw Black servicemen to shows in Durham, the service-focused All-Stars were a perfect fit for this time and place. The All-Stars “dedicated at least one night per week on the war effort and their activities included raising war bonds, uplifting morale, and performing at military camps and USO centers.”
Carolina Times ad, courtesy of Ken Hanson
Speaking of all-girl bands of the 1940’s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm graced the Durham Armory stage on June 4, 1943 just a few weeks before the All-Stars came into town – I can’t tell you how excited I am to know this, I only wish I could find more details! Just a few days before the Sweethearts were in town, Valaida Snow and the Sunset Royal Orchestra performed at the Durham Armory on May 28, 1943 – yes, ladies!
Backtracking a bit, on May 15, 1940, Glenn Miller‘s orchestra performed at Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (115 Whitford Dr., built in 1939) and broadcast the performance live as part of the CBS Chesterfield “Moonlight Serenade” program. I can’t imagine Cameron Indoor Stadium being a great acoustic space for a broadcast, but I can imagine that this was selected as the venue (over one of Duke’s ballroom spaces) due to its capacity – an estimated 12,000 people were in attendance. To give you perspective on the attendance, the seating capacity of Cameron today is 9,314, so imagine every seat full and the dance floor (i.e. the basketball court) packed! Of course this may have been an over-estimation, but the point is made. As a souvenir, we have an air check of the band playing St. Louis Blues. However, it was another recording that made me realize that Miller had performed at Duke – as I was going through uptempo tunes for competition music ideas, I came across a live recording of Miller’s orchestra playing Down South Camp Meeting, where the announcer at the beginning mentions Duke University and apologizes for something – I have no idea what the apology is for, but I’m definitely curious as to what happened!
Duke University commencement in Cameron Indoor Stadium, 1940 – perhaps just days/weeks from the Miller concert? Photograph from Open Durham.
On April 4 and 5, 1941, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, featuring Helen Forrest, Cootie Williams, and Charlie Christian, performed at Duke University’s Page Auditorium (402 Chapel Drive), but also appears to have played a dance or two somewhere on campus during this time frame, as well. The ad from The Carolina Times (courtesy of Ken Hanson) only references shows at Page Auditorium, with two matinees at 3:15 p.m. and evening shows at 8:00 p.m., featuring Bob Van Camp on organ (perhaps a Duke University senior at this time?) and “Kajar, Master of Magic” (maybe this guy?). The Page Auditorium shows were sponsored by Quadrangle Pictures, which formed in 1928 to screen motion pictures on Duke’s campus and was celebrating its 13th birthday party with this concert series. However, we also know from The Duke Chronicle that the Pan-Hellenic council was hosting their second dance of the year during this stop in Durham with the Goodman orchestra – if Goodman’s in town, it’s gotta be dance or bust, who wants to sit in an auditorium listening to this toe-tapping music when there are rugs to be cut? There’s also a photo of Goodman at this dance in the university archives (included below), perhaps snapped by a student or amateur photographer, which is clearly a dance (streamers, people standing around in tuxes/formalwear in front, and people facing each other dancing in the background). Perhaps the best thing about this photograph is Benny Goodman’s expression – did the photographer catch him off-guard or is the photographer the recipient of “The Ray,” Goodman’s infamous withering gaze?
CarolinaTimes ad from Ken Hanson
Another aside, my Duke University searches keep getting stymied by Duke Ellington…but I digress, there are worse things… 😉
The Ink Spots were frequent performers at the Durham Armory in the 1940’s – swing dancers today don’t often dance to their music, but they were super stars, with a #1 hit with their recording of “If I Didn’t Care” in 1939, which remains one of the best selling singles of all time (9th, according to Wikipedia at the time of this post). Fresh off their hit single, the Ink Spots first performed at the Durham Armory on March 8, 1940 and returned on June 20, 1941.
On June 14, 1943, the Ink Spots were slated to play a double bill with Lucky Millinder, featuring Sister Rosetta Tharp, at the Durham Armory. All the musicians were staying at the Biltmore Hotel (330-332 E. Pettigrew St., one of the preeminent hotels catering to African-Americans in the southeast during the swing era, so the likely place for traveling big name bands and musicians to stay) and it was here that things started to go horribly wrong for Lucky Millinder before the show even started.
The Carolina Times headlines, courtesy of Kirk Eisenbeis
Ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Kirk Eisenbeis
From The Carolina Times, dated June 19, 1943: “Orchestra Head Gets Cut in Argument Over Room, by Joseph Hopson. In a fracas staged in front of the entrance of the Biltmore Hotel, Lucky Millinder was seriously stabbed in the right hip by a woman companion of one of the Four Inkspots here Monday afternoon. The brawl is said to have arisen by Millinder arguing with the woman over his having rented the best rooms in the hotel for his bandsmen. The woman hailed a passing taxi-cab and went to the uptown section of Durham where she purchased a knife and returned and proceeded to cut Millinder without warning. By-standers finally succeeded in wresting the knife from her hands, but not before she had seriously cut Millinder in the right leg, severing an artery. Millinder was unable to appear with his band in the Durham engagement. The Inkspots left the show crew in Durham after the engagement at the Armory, but appeared with them in Raleigh on the following night. According to bandsmen, Millinder is doing “fair” at present.”
I have so many questions about this incident that will never get answered. We know Millinder made a recovery and remained active in music until the 1950’s, so that’s good, but who is this mysterious companion of the Inkspots? What the heck did Millinder say to her? Were the hotel rooms really worth it or was this about something else? Did Millinder’s band do the show without him? If so, can you imagine the tension on stage? Just…wow.
The last performance for the Ink Spots at the Durham Armory that I can find is February 1, 1947, appearing with Johnny Otis and his Orchestra.
On April 6, 1942, Claude Hopkins and his Orchestra performed on Easter Monday (was this a local tradition? See above, Cab Calloway performed on Easter Monday in 1940) at the Durham Armory, featuring Belle Powell. It looks like the promoter for this concert was the Auspices Junior Auxiliary of Lincoln Hospital, which means this show may have been a fundraiser or benefitted the hospital in some other way. Founded in 1901, Lincoln Hospital was the first hospital in Durham to provide care to African-Americans and a nursing school was established there in 1905. The Junior Auxiliary, at least in 1938, was focused on the children’s ward of the hospital, purchasing equipment and supplies, acting as hostesses at events, and decorating and providing children at the hospital presents at Christmas.
The Carolina Times ad, courtesy of Ken Hanson
Erskine Hawkins, “creator of Tuxedo Junction” / “the 20th Century Gabriel” and his Orchestra performed at the Durham Armory on April 10, 1942, along with Jimmie Mitchell, Avery Parrish, and vocalist Ida James. Note at the top of The Carolina Times ad to the left the “Gale Inc. Presents,” designating that this is a Moe Gale talent booking – this is not the only Moe Gale reference I’ve seen in my research, so it appears there is a direct link between this co-founder of the Savoy Ballroom (and the bands performing there) and the shows and bands being booked at the Durham Armory. Also, note that the time is listed as “7:30 P.M. – until?” I wonder if they also stayed up dancing until 4:00 a.m. like today’s swing dancers…
Hawkins would return to the Durham Armory for another show on April 16, 1943 and made a radio appearance on WDNC prior to the show. WDNC was Durham’s first radio station, going on the air in 1934. At the time of Hawkins’ appearance, he would have only had to go around the corner from the Armory to 138 E. Chapel Hill Street to get to the radio station.
Just a few days later on April 19, 1943, Earl Hines and his Orchestra featuring Billy Eckstine and Sonia Vaughn would appear at the Durham Armory, also with a radio appearance on WDNC prior to the show. There was no Sonia, this was a terrible typo – it was actually Sarah Vaughan, who had been “discovered” in the fall of 1942 at the Apollo Theater’s famous amateur night and had just replaced Earl Hines’ previous female vocalist on April 4, 1943. Vaughan was initially hired as a pianist for the band (though she also sang) so that she could be under the jurisdiction of the musicians union rather than the singers union, so the Armory crowd may have heard Vaughan on piano and vocals. The Carolina Times ad for this performance leads with “Jitterbug Contest!” – this is the only reference to a swing dance contest I’ve come across in these Carolina Times ads and I, of course, would love to know the format, what song was/songs were played for the contest, the tempos, all these things lost to time that I will never glean from these two magic words in a newspaper ad. One thing we do know is that this show would have been awesome and a dance contest with live music by Earl Hines’ Orchestra would have been a dream!
Royal Knights of King David Hall in 1922, from Open Durham
One of the most prolific promoters I’ve seen in these source materials is Lathrop Warren Alston (also seen in sources as Latha, Lath, and Lathe, as well as with the last name Austin, however this is probably a typo since Alston is an old Durham family name). Alston got his start promoting dances in the 1920’s at the Royal Knights of King DavidHall (702-704 Fayetteville St.). It is clear that Alston was great at this work, moving on to larger venues and big name acts, having a hand in some of the tobacco warehouse concerts (given the Royal Knights’ connection to NC Mutual Life Insurance, I’m curious to know if he promoted that famous “In a Sentimental Mood” concert). His success is apparent in the sheer number of concerts where his name is associated, particularly at the Durham Armory, given the limited resources I’ve been able to locate online – he is credited here (and elsewhere) for concerts with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Guy Lombardo, Fats Domino, and Les Brown. Alston went on to become the manager of the Biltmore Hotel (330-332 E. Pettigrew St.), where he continued to feature live music, such as concerts with Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, and the Ink Spots. I see that William A. Marsh, III (who I know as Judge Marsh, former Durham County District Court Judge) is credited as the source material on Alston, so I’ll have to ask him about it at some future Durham Bar function.
The Biltmore Hotel and Regal Theater in 1946, with the Count Basie posters pasted on the wall to the right, photograph from Open Durham.
Photograph from Open Durham
I wasn’t going to go past WWII, but I couldn’t resist posting about Turnage’s BBQ Restaurant (608 Morrene Road), where after WWII you could catch “Jazz at Turnage’s” – trad jazz/Dixieland jam sessions, performances, and dancing, in addition to some classic North Carolina BBQ. The photograph below (the real reason I’m posting about this – dance evidence!) is from 1952, quoting Open Durham: “It was evidently popular with Duke students as well – the picture is from the Duke Chanticleer, captioned “JAM SESSIONS, featuring Dixieland Jazz Combo and some fast jitterbugging, shook the rafters on Saturday afternoons of spring semester.”
Durham jitterbugs in 1951 – photograph from Open Durham
I am certain there is much more information about swing bands, dancing, and related local culture that I have not found in my online searches, but I feel like this is a solid start. Perhaps the most glaring omission are Durham-based hot jazz and swing bands (that perhaps did not reach the level of fame as those touring bands herein) outside of those formed by students at Duke University – if you have any leads or other sources of information, please feel free to leave them in the comments below! I’ll leave you with an ad relevant to my recent musical performance interests (but after the time frame of this post) and some more ads I couldn’t fit into the text of this post (all courtesy of Ken Hanson).
Addendum 5/25/19: You can listen to about 15 minutes of the May 15, 1940 Glenn Miller broadcast from Duke University at the Star Spangled Radio Hour podcast’s 4/14/18 episode, starting around time stamp 1:22:25. Thanks to Ken Hanson for the additional link!
I decided to put together a playlist of all the tunes I sang with the Jonathan Stout Orchestra (aka Jonathan Stout and the Lindy Focus All Star Orchestra) that have been published on the Lindy Focus YouTube channel for my personal reference, then decided it might be good to share it with followers of this website. Here they are, videos available (there were many more performed than recorded, but we are grateful that so many were recorded) from each night of Lindy Focus XIII – I’ve made a YouTube playlist or you can watch them individually below:
COUNT BASIE NIGHT, December 27, 2014 (which was really Billie Holiday night for me, since there were no available old testament Basie female vocal charts):
ARTIE SHAW NIGHT, December 28, 2014 (no videos were filmed of my songs from this night)
DUKE ELLINGTON NIGHT, December 29, 2014
BENNY GOODMAN NIGHT, December 30, 2014
NEW YEAR’S EVE, December 31, 2014 (unofficial known as Kitchen Sink night)
It’s not every day that you get to sing with a big band, much less FIVE NIGHTS of big band music! This year I return to Lindy Focus to lend my vocals to the Jonathan Stout Orchestra, which will be featuring the music of a different bandleader each night of the event – Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and New Year’s Eve will feature all the other great tunes in Jonathan’s big band book. The lineup of musicians has been referred to as a “murderer’s row” of jazz/swing musicians and I’m delighted to be among their ranks – to have the opportunity to work with all of them and perform for so many wonderful dancers is such a joy! I’ll also be lending my DJ skills to the late night Balboa room – see you soon!
Singing with the Jonathan Stout Orchestra at Lindy Focus, New Year’s Eve 2013. Photo courtesy of Mike Thibault.
This past month we’ve had two dances pop up with ensembles that are not regular dance bands – Chapel Hill High School’s and Duke University’s respective jazz ensembles. They had, in my mind, potential to overcome some of the problems some local adult big bands face, like the fact that some of these kids are picking up these instruments every day and playing 5 days a week in an ensemble setting might give them an edge. Also, how would the high school kids stack up against the college kids? I’d heard some good things about the Chapel Hill High School’s jazz program, but then Duke kids are probably some of the most gifted students in the nation.
Might I suggest a version of “Tiger Rag” for next year’s dance? 🙂
The first dance was Chapel Hill High School’s swing dance on March 8, held in the high school gymnasium, but not without substantial pomp and decorations. This year was the 18th anniversary of the annual swing dance, which is a fundraiser for the band boosters that includes the dance and a silent auction of goods and services from local businesses. The gymnasium was packed with teenagers, mostly standing around or solo dancing in groups, but some were actually partner dancing. Parents and adults had a seated area near the stage. A large stage was set up with risers for the band, which was necessary since the band was a giant big band – something like 8 or 9 trumpets, as many trombones, even more saxes, plus students trading off spots in the rhythm section.
That piano intro is like a call to arms, a trigger for a jam circle!
The dance itself was quite a show – the band director kept things moving with announcements, introduction of the numerous (I counted at least 6) guest vocalists, and promotions for the fundraiser and silent auction, leaping into the next musical number as soon as he was finished speaking. The song selection was a mix of classic swinging tunes (Jumpin’ at the Woodside and Leap Frog were highlights), songbirds and crooners on slower dance tunes, some 50’s/60’s Sinatra, a token neo-swing song (vocals performed with gusto, I might add – I had to smile), and a smattering of ballroom fare. Overall, the tempos were up and most of the songs kept us moving. The kids in the crowd cheered for their friends when they were featured and the vibe in the room was extremely positive and supportive. When the band took a break, a student combo played the breaks. The first band break was a little more swinging than the second and that was their only big misstep, having a group play more modern feeling tunes that lacked the drive to be danceable during that second break.
In spite of being outnumbered 50 to 1 by high school students and feeling only slightly awkward being the only dancing adults in the room, our group had a pretty good time. What the high school kids lacked in skill they made up for in enthusiasm and spectacle. I hope more members of the swing dance community decide to come out to this dance next year, both to support these burgeoning jazz and swing musicians and as a great opportunity for outreach to all these high school kids who were dancing and enjoying themselves. If only they knew they could do this every weekend!
The dance floor at Duke Gardens is amazing!
The second dance was at Duke Gardens on March 27 and was a collaboration amongst Duke Gardens, Jazz@ Duke, the Duke Swing Dance Club, and the Duke Jazz Ensemble. Duke Gardens has played host to a number of DJ’d swing dances over the past few years and is arguably one of the swing dance community’s loveliest venues. This dance was not only free to all who attended, but also had an impressive buffet set up on the patio for the dancers to partake. The Duke Swing Dance Club did a great job with promoting the dance and teaching the beginner lesson before the dance. This is the second year the Duke Jazz Ensemble has performed in collaboration with the Duke Swing Dance Club, although the location of the dance was different from last year.
I had high hopes for the Duke Jazz Ensemble for several reasons:
– The students were older, had probably played their instruments longer, and I knew that gaps in the ensemble were often filled by more skilled community players.
– I have on good authority that there are other swing era charts (as opposed to post-WWII arrangements of swing era songs) in Duke’s music library, per a former Duke student who performed in the jazz ensemble.
– In the Facebook event the Jazz@ promoter posted that the band would be performing “swing-style Jazz from periods before, during, and after the 30’s.” I’ve only heard one other Triangle-based big band perform a 1920’s piece, which was the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, a band made up of professional musicians and college professors from around the state. The Facebook event also had 180+ RSVPs, which meant lots of people and potential energy.
So with all of these things in mind I was fairly confident that the Duke Jazz Ensemble would deliver a dance that at least had some variance in song selection, perhaps some lesser known tunes with hot arrangements. Musicianship-wise, they had an edge on the high school students because the students did take solos, but most of the solos were done by the excellent Brian Miller, a local professional, whose solos were definitely a highlight of the dance and who appeared to carry the band at times.
However, the Duke band lacked the presentation, showmanship, and energy that the high school event excelled at executing. The Duke ensemble had no vocalists, though they played many of the same vocal tunes as the high school band, just as instrumental arrangements. The guitar player slouched in his chair and plucked single notes on his hard body guitar, instead of laying down the essential rhythmic chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk of quarter note chords that completes a swing rhythm section. Most of the tempos were around 150 bpm and songs ran well over 5 minutes – in several instances there were 8 minute songs, which can be purgatory for a newer dancer who may only know a few moves. There were a few really slow tunes and some faster tunes, but the band seemed to fall apart toward the end of the faster tunes, which were around 180-190 bpm. Toward the end of the night they played a combo tune while the rest of the big band just sat there – if you have a big band, use it! We can hear small groups any time. There were also no 1920’s tunes, as were promised, and, arguably, no 1930’s tunes – the repertoire was 1940’s-1960’s and the drummer never left the ride cymbal except to play fills.
One of the songs the band performed was an arrangement almost identical to Count Basie’s “April in Paris,” a song that was recorded in 1955 or 1956 and released in 1957 on an album of the same title. This particular recording is quintessentially new-testament Basie and any swing DJ worth his/her salt will know this tune. A local dancer/DJ was dancing in front of the band when they performed this tune and at the end, after they hit the big sustained note as an ensemble, she yelled to the band, “One more once!” No one cracked a smile and they stared blankly at her. She addressed them again, “One more time!” More blank stares, no shout chorus. Brian Miller was the only one within earshot who acknowledged that she was referencing the recording and told her that the band did not have that version of the arrangement. I don’t know if this means that the rest of the band had not checked out the recording of the song they just played or if they were being obtuse, but it did not sit well.
I’m going to declare the Chapel Hill High School Jazz Ensemble the winner of this battle – while the Duke Jazz Ensemble played a post-WWII repertoire with the addition of improvised solos, the Chapel Hill students captured the energy and feel of the swing era and songs of later eras, as well as considering the needs of dancers in terms of song length, rhythm section, and creating a connection to the audience through the bandleader and vocalists.