LAST WEEKEND, APRIL 15-17, 2011, was the tenth anniversary of an annual east coast Swing dance event, the Washington, D.C. Lindy Exchange, or DCLX. I was very fortunate to perform there with Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five and full Orchestra. It was one of the most outstanding experiences of my performing career.
Most Swing dance events are fun but, from a musical standpoint, can be a little disappointing. The tunes we play tend to be very similar melodically, the acoustic environment ranges from horrible to mediocre (the sound guys often make things worse), the musicians’ performances can be inconsistent, and most of the 20 to 30 year old participants would just as soon dance to a metronome. A live band, even a good big band, is more a status symbol for the festival promoters than a critical attraction. After all, the dancers listen mostly to rock, rap, and hip-hop in the car, not vintage jazz. But they always are polite enough to thank us with applause at the end of the night because most are good hearted.
Jonathan rarely calls me to play clarinet with the small group—only when all of his tenor sax players are unavailable. Once before, last March, he included me on a traveling gig. So I was stunned when he asked me to fly to Washington and also, at the end of June, to perform at Lincoln Center in New York City. As it turned out both are big band gigs and, on those, he features me on clarinet.
I almost turned down the DCLX trip. Jonathan forgot to book my flight until two days before the departure date. I asked him whether he really needed me and he said a couple of his usual guys were unable to go so, yes, he needed me. Typically that kind of “admission” is his way of manipulating me into doing what he wants but this time I knew he was being truthful; his arsenal of soloists was pretty thin.
We flew into Baltimore because it’s less expensive than flying to Washington, D.C. and, at 12:30 a.m., we drove an hour to Rockville, Maryland. On the way Jonathan explained we would participate in a so-called battle of the bands. As he described it, the “competition” would be very indirect and the other band was nothing we should worry about; just a group of young upstarts from Seattle who played music from the late 1920s, a passing fad and less than ideal for serious dancers. “No problem”, he said. “We’ll mop the floor with them.”
The two small groups performed Friday night. We went first and played for ninety minutes, then we packed up as Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators held forth. Well, yes, Glenn is younger than 30 and, yes, his group did play some tunes from the late ‘Twenties. But they also played tunes from the ‘Thirties and early ‘Forties. And his musicians were of about the same age as ours. And they were tight and rehearsed and musical and sounded good.
Our trumpet player, Jim Zeigler, drummer, Paul Lines, bass player, Wally Hersom, and I stuck around to listen. We stayed for an hour. And, as Glenn’s musicians had done with us, we poked our heads through the stage curtain and applauded and cheered them on. They deserved it.
The next day it rained so both big bands rehearsed in a large wooden school building in a beautiful wooded neighborhood near Glen Echo, Maryland. Crytzer’s band already was at work in another room when we arrived. They sounded very good and played a wide variety of music.
Both big bands consisted of half local musicians and half regulars. Jonathan spent 45 minutes running down a few of our more critical numbers. The lack of dynamics and sloppy section work in the horn and sax sections left him unfazed; the guys would pull it all together at the performance that evening. As for dynamics, well, Jonathan’s band performs at two levels: Loud and louder. He says that’s what dancers want.
So we went back to the hotel as Glenn’s musicians continued to rehearse in the other room.
An hour later Jonathan and I went out for a quick dinner. He seemed preoccupied; he was thinking about the upcoming performance. I asked how serious he was about competing. He said, “I want blood.”
“Blood is good,” I answered. It was clear Jonathan was dead serious despite his casual approach to preparation. I would try to add excitement to our group.
Both big bands set up on the same stage. The dance began at 9 o’clock and the Syncopators went first and played very well. Then it was Jonathan’s turn and our first set was, well, adequate. We were lucky because the Syncopators’ second set was little more exciting than our first and Jonathan’s choice of material for our second set was much stronger, varied, and melodic. Mercifully the horns and saxes remembered to bring down the volume behind the many clarinet solos. I was able to nail my parts and help get things swinging. The whole band started to cook. Musical excitement is contagious and I was counting on that. I suppose judges might have scored the two groups about even at that point but Jonathan had the momentum.
And then the event spokesman declared the battle was on; Glenn’s band would play a tune, Jonathan’s would answer, then Glenn, then Jonathan, and finally both bands would duke it out on Jumpin’ At The Woodside and Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose.
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.
Who won the battle?
Does it really matter? Music is not a competitive sport.
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.