Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing might be the youngest quintessential New York experience. When you're there, it seems timeless‹the sweet air of a summer night, a great live band, and thousands of New Yorkers kicking up their heels on a custom-built outdoor dance floor and on the surrounding Josie Robertson Plaza. In fact, the tradition was launched just 16 summers ago with 20 nights of swing music and dancing; it has rapidly expanded to 27 events (this year, from June 10 to July 16), featuring zydeco, Irish ceili, mambo, merengue, disco, bossa nova, tango, rumba, and numerous flavors of jazz, swing, and blues.
"This is the thing to do in the summer," says Lincoln Center's Wendy Magro, producer of the series. "There's nothing like dancing under the stars."
Midsummer Night Swing has become a destination for New York's most serious dancers, but beginners are welcome too. Each night, two and a half hours of live music and dancing are preceded by a 45-minute dance lesson led by a world-class teacher.
"Some people have danced before," says Pierre Dulaine, who will be instructing the opening-night crowds. "Some have never danced before; they come to hear the music and they want to learn a few steps. Kids can do it, great-grandparents can do it‹anyone can do it."
When Midsummer Night Swing kicks off its new season on June 10, New York-based bandleader George Gee and the George Gee Swing Orchestra will be on the bandstand. Gee and his crew, one of the leading groups on the swing dance scene, are returning for the third time; this year, they will be playing the music of Count Basie and Glenn Miller, marking the centenaries of these two jazz legends.
"The Miller sound," Gee says, "is a 180-degree turnaround from the Basie sound," but both are near to his heart. Gee's father heard the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band during his service in World War II, and Miller's "sweet sophisticated swing" became his son's childhood passion. Gee met Basie in 1979, and the master of "hard, driving, backbeat Kansas City swing" served as a mentor as Gee built his musical career. Today, Gee and his band are one of the few groups that can credibly perform in both styles.
Gee frequently performs in concert, but he and his band find special pleasures‹and challenges‹in playing for dancers. "When you're playing for swing dancing, you want to keep everything in the pocket, with that groove," he says. "You pick someone out there in the crowd and you make believe that you're playing that solo for that one person."
A musical genealogist seeking to trace the cross-pollination of music between Africa, the Caribbean, and North and South America would always find ample material at Midsummer Night Swing. And this year's acts make it clear that the influences run in all directions.
For example, Zairian-born Dominic Kanza and the African Rhythm Machine (June 15) play both Congolese soukous and West Indian rumba. Super Uba and special guest El Bachatin (June 30) play Dominican folkloric music, a style bearing strong traces of soukous. Los Soneros de Oriente (June 11) plays son, rumba, and other traditional Cuban forms; Son Boricua (June 26) plays the classic salsa of the 1960s‹which was descended from son. And Miami's Tiempo Libre (June 29) plays both the son of its native Cuba and the more recently developed timba, an offshoot of salsa.
Los Macondos de Colombia (June 24), plays South American vallenata, a blend of Spanish and African influences. New York's Avantango is one of the leading representatives of the recent tango renaissance, bringing jazz improvisation to the 19th-century Argentinean style (June 19). Grupo Saveiro (July 2) plays Brazil's samba, bossa nova, and pagode.
Two bands recall the Latin jazz of 1950s New York. The two-year-old Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, a resident ensemble of Jazz at Lincoln Center led by pianist Arturo O'Farrill, pays tribute to Tito Puente, Machito, and other legendary figures on June 23; the Harbor Conservatory Latin Big Band plays original mambo and cha-cha arrangements drawn from its 15,000-piece Raices Latin Music Library (June 17).
Other highlights include the return (July 6) of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by music director Wynton Marsalis; visits by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (June 16) and Royal Crown Revue (July 15), two of the stylish "neo-swing" bands that sparked a revival of the music in the 1990s; and two Kid's Days, when young people can learn the basics of swing, tango, and cha-cha (June 26), or Carolina shag (July 10).
Blues and R & B fans will have plenty to choose from, too: the veteran New Englanders Roomful of Blues (July 1), New Orleans singer and guitarist Deacon John (June 18), and the legendary Uptown Horns (July 3), all put in appearances. Country is represented by the rockabilly of Rosie Flores (June 25) and the honky-tonk of Western Caravan with Thirsty Dave Hansen (July 7). And don't miss DJ Bobby Morales's Hustle Party with special guests The Trammps, in a night of disco and funk (July 8).
The fun finally comes to a swinging close on July 16, when Illinois Jacquet makes his 16th consecutive appearance‹the great tenor saxophonist hasn't missed a festival. Jacquet, who burst to stardom in 1942 with his electrifying solo on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home," is one of the few remaining giants of the swing era.
Midsummer Night Swing's rich blend of cultures brings an equally diverse crowd to Lincoln Center. "It's when Lincoln Center feels so alive to me," Magro says. Gee loves to watch the sometimes incongruous encounters on the plaza: "To see the mix of swing dancers and people coming out of the opera, people in tuxedos snapping their fingers and boppin' their heads‹it's surreal and cosmopolitan at the same time."
Ultimately, Midsummer Night Swing simply brings good feeling to summer at Lincoln Center. "People ask me all the time, 'What is swing?'" Gee says. His definition serves nicely as a motto for the whole series: "It's just happy music played by happy people."
Ben Mattison writes frequently about the arts.