In Full Swing

Forget grunge. Today Denverites are dancing to a very different beat.

It goes something like this: The follower places her hands lightly in her partner's palms, like a trick poodle begging for treats. The pair then counts together as they execute the fundamental moves that constitute the East Coast swing--step left, step right, step back.

Once these basics are mastered, the endless embellishments that epitomize swing dancing begin. Of course, one can only learn the dance by actually doing it, and that's exactly what Denver is doing--in droves. A cross-generational audience is flocking in phenomenal numbers to big-band bashes hosted by community centers, lodges and, more recently, night clubs like the blue room nightlounge, the Bluebird Theater and the Mercury Cafe. Multi-piece jazz outfits such as Big Band Swing Inc., Joel Kaye's Neophonic Big Band and Jazz West are finding dance floors at their gigs packed elbow-to-elbow--or foot-to-head in some cases--with a new stripe of fan.

The sudden rise in popularity of a music and style of dancing that originated over sixty years ago may baffle many observers, but not pianist Ron Cope of the Hot Tomatoes Dance Orchestra, perhaps the best and busiest of the area's big bands (see "Hit Pick," page 90). "There's a million reasons why this music has stuck around as long as it has--why it hit the first time around and why it's hit ever since," he says. "But the bottom line is that it's just fun."

The Tomatoes cannot be accused of capitalizing on a trend: They were jazz veterans and musical archivists years before the current mass conversion took place. The group's roots stretch back to the early Eighties, when Cope met a collector at a jazz festival who offered him a list of yellowing scores for dirt cheap. "I bought about a half-dozen of the tunes and got a group of people together to rehearse them and realized these were a bunch of old stocks from the Twenties and Thirties that sounded just great if you could play them.

"Originally, we were playing late Twenties/ early Thirties music--Bix Beiderbecke, a lot of Charleston tunes, Gene Goldkette, Fletcher Henderson," he goes on. "And as we started doing more and more music, we found people really wanted to hear 'In the Mood,' 'String of Pearls,' 'Pennsylvania 6-5000,' 'American Patrol.' I started getting more old charts from the same guy in San Diego, and we started playing all those songs, as we do now. We do an awful lot of our own arrangements or transcriptions of original material, and then we adapt them for the band."

While the chops the Tomatoes bring to the table translate into exhilarating live performances that are worthy of close attention, the majority of attendees at big-band shows are there for a singular purpose: to dance. Many of the younger people at such dates are so passionate about doing so that they often swing-dance to the recorded music piped into the venues between live sets, as if trying to make up for lost time. And in a sense, they are. Senior citizens who glide across the floor during Tomatoes concerts may have done much the same at USO-sponsored get-togethers half a century ago, but to those in their twenties, the ritual is often entirely new. "I'm 41, and I grew up with Lawrence Welk--which was kind of a stigma," Cope explains. "If you said you were a Lawrence Welk fan, you were considered really square. The kids nowadays, they come to this music without any stigmas attached to it whatsoever. They don't sit down and say 'Chick Webb was a great drummer, and he was better than Gene Krupa, and the greatest of them all was Buddy Rich.' And there's no raging controversy between Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw or how commercial Glenn Miller was. There aren't those kind of issues. They just say, 'Oh, this sounds good. This is really cool. This really swings. You can dance to it.'

"Also," Cope offers, "this music is still considered art. Jazz, even though it's fun and is good music, represents an era, from 1930 to 1950, that was one of the most creative eras around. When you look back at what was accomplished in a musical sense, it came and went so fast and affected so many people."

Marilyn Megenity, proprietor of the Mercury Cafe, a venue that has wholeheartedly embraced this revival, speculates on the sudden appeal of swing from a cultural standpoint: "Maybe it's such a rough, tough world--and maybe because they've seen so much violence on television and in the movies--that they want something sweet and romantic for a change. And this music was certainly romanticized after World War II. But for those of us who have not experienced war, I don't know if it was really an innocent time. Perhaps people's experiences in World War II left them feeling that they wanted something sweet in life also."

Since the Mercury Cafe's 1978 inception, its philosophical foundation has been one of artistic inclusion. As a result, the club has hosted everything from chamber music to hardcore--but no longer. After enduring a riot at her establishment spurred by problems at a death-metal show featuring Deicide (covered in Feedback, October 10, 1996), Megenity recently closed her doors to most punk and heavy-metal acts. The decision was a difficult one for her. "I've always felt that original art and music were important--that people expressing themselves and their ideas is important," she says. "I grew up in a time when musical expression was really part of a cultural revolution that I believed at the time was going to make the world better. I think that got co-opted by corporate industry: business for profit. Rebellion by corporate design is what we have today, and it's really not making the world better. It's not thinking and feeling. It's just part of a corporate package kids are buying."

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