The Golden Oldies Come Full Swing
THE bride sent me a photo after the wedding. There I was ... in full color ... sitting at the drum set with the once popular silver sparkle finish ... eating a precarious plate of lunch on the slanting snare drum as a table between my knees ... talking with the bride in her gleaming satin as if we were the only two people on earth. I remembered the scene. She had taken refuge in the band's corner for a break from the happy rigors, but still rigors, of the bridal center-of-the-reception role. We were talking about the music, and I was glad to see she was smiling.
Bandleaders, even once-a-month ones like me, live with a certain suspense during the parties, receptions, and other occasions for which they bring together the musicians. The question is whether the band turns out to be what the hosts wanted or expected - or liked even if they didn't expect it. Or was it the wrong time and the wrong place, as the Cole Porter song said in a different connection. The territory is mined with two-edged moments such as the one last summer when the father of another bride gave us an extra 50 bucks saying, ``You guys are much better than I thought.''
When the bride in the photo was still a bride-to-be she introduced me to her fianc'e, and I realized that for them music was serious business. They were among those discerning members of the '80s generation who like to dance to music written before they were born, played in the jazz/swing style that my generation grew up with.
The fianc'e did not read music, but he knew what he wanted. He had written lists of songs and lists of types of dance music with his own system of tempo markings. These were not the conventional metronome markings of so many beats per minute. From listening to records with a watch in hand he had calculated so many measures per minute, or as he noted it. For fox trots ``35 m.p.m. is ideal.'' He wanted us to be sure to play ``In the Mood'' - or maybe it was ``String of Pearls'' - at the tempo used by Benny Goodman, not Glenn Miller, when their big bands were swinging.
I did pull out some of the old records to get a sense of what he meant. When the wedding dancing started, he seemed to be out on the floor the whole time. He soon had his jacket off - it was a warm summer's day - and this, along with his bride's smile, I regarded as a sign that we had made it one more time.
It's amazing how many such couples come along in our area alone. I say this knowing the risk of becoming like the swing fan in the old New Yorker magazine story who kept saying the big bands were coming back. Long after he had parted from the woman he kept saying it to, she would receive clippings sent by him from far places where some big band was actually appearing.
I, too, could send the occasional clipping on the return of ballroom dancing, accompanied by the music of the '30s and '40s. But I don't say rock and pop are being forced off the charts by a renaissance of jazz for dancing. It's a subtler, less conspicuous thing. You know who you are out there.
Readers have been quick to offer documentation when the subject has been touched on in the past. Dave Burns of Washington, D.C., sent a tape of his Hot Mustard Jazz Band improvising on many of the same tunes we play. A reader in the Northwest sent an LP of ``September in the Rain,'' ``Too Marvelous for Words,'' ``Time on My Hands,'' and other vintage tunes by the bigger group in which her husband played - Lausmann's Lousy Loggers Band. The Lousy Loggers may be too modestly named. These lumbermen musicians have obviously done a lot of woodshedding.
Note: You have to stop musicians before they pun again. Call for ``Embraceable You'' in the key of F and, unless you're careful, it becomes ``Ineffable You.''
The final tune on the Loggers' LP is ``I'll See You in My Dreams,'' a classic last-dance number that our band plays when it doesn't play ``Good Night, Sweetheart.'' The other night a dancer wanted to be sure she was actually dancing the last dance to the tune she had so many times danced to 40 years before. Often someone in the crowd will stop by the bandstand and diffidently or delightedly identify a well-worn ``standard'' by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington.... It seems to them somewhere they've heard that song before.
But back to today's generation in the their 20s or 30s who could not have heard this ephemeral, oddly enduring music the first time around. I'm looking at the list on the paper that a young bridegroom sent me a couple of months before his wedding - ``Shoo-Shoo Baby,'' ``Jeepers Creepers,'' ``Basin Street Blues,'' ``Sophisticated Swing'' (a tune I had not played since our high school dance band thought it was really sophisticated in 1942), ``Body and Soul.'' The last title was underlined as the one he and the bride wanted for their bride-and-groom dance.
About two weeks before the wedding, he telephoned. ``We've been thinking about `Body and Soul' for our first dance, and we think it's too slow. Could you play `Cheek to Cheek' instead?''
Could we play ``Cheek to Cheek''!
And could they dance ``Cheek to Cheek''! They swooped across the floor in the style of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers if perhaps with a tad less sheer perfection. They had been taking dancing lessons - like a number of the young couples our band has played for.
Once in a while a couple will ask for a tune from the last decade instead of the last half century, and I'll dash around for the sheet music so we can work it up. Once in a while they will even retain a disc jockey to follow our part of the evening with rock until dawn.
And sometimes, alas, they will return (or not return) our sample tape noting that they really like it but they've decided on another band. In two instances, indeed, they decided not to get married at all. One of these brides remembered us much later when she did get married. So it couldn't have been just our tape.
People not attuned to the jazz beat for dancing sometimes hear the improvising that follows the familiar tune and think that it's only for listening - if that! They really want the unmistakable dance music sound of Lester Lanin or, in his late lamented heyday, Guy Lombardo.
We try to preserve the jazz sound for those who really want that. Into each band's life some waltzes must fall. And, even when these are requested, we try to keep the jazz by giving a little swing feeling to the rhythm. Engraved on my memory is the large man piloting his partner near the bandstand and shouting: ``Hey, don't you know what a waltz is? One-two-three! One-two-three!'' As the drummer in the group I earnestly sought to alter the nuances of the beat in the direction of his choice.
After all, we latter-day keepers of the old flame are not at the party to be jazz genius Miles Davis, challenging people to like us on our own terms or not at all. We're there to spread an embraceable, if not ineffable, art across the generations, from those who knew-it-when to those who rediscover it every year.
There'll always be someone who wants a band like ours to play ``Over the Rainbow'' - far over. But who would have thought a half century ago that there would always be a young Fred and Ginger who want their first wedded dance to be ``Cheek to Cheek''?