Those of us of a certain, shall we say, vintage, have some idea of what Duke Ellington meant when he said in his song, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." But how do you communicate the concept of "swing" to someone who doesn't know anything about swing music?
You have to play it.
That's the aim of Uptown Swing, a new 10-piece big band that will demonstrate the concept of swing and the Swing Era in their first performance Friday night at The Ovation Theatre. Led by trumpeter Steve Eisen, the founder of the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop, the band will perform original arrangements by a number of the Swing Era bands — Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman and more.
"It's very important to us to keep the big band era alive," Eisen said.
The "Swing Era" is generally that period in music between the mid-1930s to mid-40s when jazz came out of the Prohibition Era, and its association with gangsters and illicit behavior, and became America's mainstream popular music. It's really a cross-over of jazz, ragtime and blues and with popular standards, Broadway show tunes and other popular music. Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and many others were borrowing elements of jazz and blues for their hit songs. In turn, jazz musicians began composing in that style or reinterpreting those popular hits to reach a wide audience.
While the band is new, the musicians are not — Eisen has assembled a group of veteran players for the show, including fellow trumpeters Mike Raney and Kris Tiner, trombonist Justin Kirk, sax players Paul Perez, Chuck Deegan and Mark Meyer, and a rhythm section of Doug Davis, Mike Bhone and Pat Frase.
"Most of us grew up listening to this music with our parents," Eisen said.
Eisen said that in addition to the joy of playing the big band repertoire, he and his bandmates hope to get younger generations to enjoy the music.
"Swing just has that toe-tapping way to make people feel good," Eisen said. "I really believe the young people — the teens, the 20-year-olds, the college kids — will just love it."
One of the most important elements of swing music in the '30s and '40s is that people of all ages danced to it. Eisen said while The Ovation Theatre won't accommodate that (the show will be performed in the 99-seat theater), a dance team led by Suze DeArmond will perform swing dances.
And since no Swing Era band is complete without band singers, Ovation's artistic director Hal Friedman and theater regulars Jason McClain and Christina Varner will sing some big band classics.
Eisen hopes this will be the first of many shows, and hopes to find a venue where people can also dance. He said that's as much fun for the band as it is for the dancers.
"For us, an awesome high is when the musicians are charged up by the dancers and the dancers are charged up by the music," Eisen said.