Traditionally, Midsummer Night Swing sent folks cavorting across a custom-built dance floor in the center of Fountain Plaza, surrounded by the towering facades of the Metropolitan Opera House and Lincoln Center's other theaters. But this year, like last, because of ongoing construction at the arts complex the dance floor is in Damrosch Park. "There was some concern last year when we moved the dance floor," the producer Bill Bragin says, "but everybody loved it. It's nice having all the trees around, there are more places to sit, and the park itself feels like a destination." They've done some fine-tuning since last year, and the dance floor is now a bit larger with improved people-watching sightlines.
This is Bragin's second year with Lincoln Center, and the seasoned New York City producer (he cut his teeth at Central Park SummerStage and Joe's Pub) has put together a powerful program of live music. It starts on July 7 with Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. Ruffins is a rambunctious trumpeter and singer from New Orleans who gives traditional jazz a big shot of syncopated joy. In his hometown, he can be found every Thursday night at Vaughan's Lounge, a low-slung joint where he not only performs, but also often cooks (his band is named the Barbecue Swingers for a reason).
Midsummer Night Swing is a huge draw for dancers who know their Lindy Hop from their Jitterbug, and the season has a full slate of bands that are sure to please them. But the producer Bragin hasn't forgotten about the people who don't know a thing about leading and following. The second act of the season, Chubby Checker, created rock 'n' roll's original dance, the Twist, which of course doesn't involve holding your partner. Checker, who is appearing July 8 to help Lincoln Center mark its 50th anniversary, popularized a number of zany steps in his time, including the Fly, the Pony, and the Hucklebuck. "Checker's whole career was built on dance crazes," Bragin says. "And he still has a great voice."
Partner dancers will be in paradise the following night as the Woody Herman Orchestra takes the stage. "Of all the big bands that are still working under their classic leader's names," Bragin points out, "this lineage is very direct; the band includes many alumni who worked under Herman."
Samba Mapangala, one of East Africa's silkiest vocalists, brings his exuberant mix of rumba, Soukous, and Kenyan benga to the stage July 10. His band, Virunga, takes its name from the volcanic mountain range between Rwanda the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mapangala's birthplace. During the recent election, Mapangala helped foster the historic eruption of Democratic support with a song and a hit Internet video about the candidate from Illinois, "Obama Ubarikiwem" which is Swahili for "Obama, be blessed." It was recorded in Chicago, and produced by the guitarist Nathaniel Braddock, whose Occidental Brother Dance Band International opens the evening with its take on the smooth African highlife music of the sixties.
The first week of music wraps up with another show in honor of Lincoln Center's 50th Anniversary. The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra takes dancers back to the Eisenhower era, when mambo was all the rage and Machito, Tito Rodriguez, and Tito Puente engaged in heated musical battles for dancers' passions. The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra is led by two sons of these leaders and features many musicians from the original bands.
The vibrant singer Melba Joyce is putting together a stellar co-ed big-band to kick off the second week of music on July 14. She'll have reed player Anat Cohen, pianist Helen Sung, Count Basie band veteran trombonist Benny Powell in the ensemble. The fiery tango revivalists Otros Aires play July 15, leading an electronic traditional milonga in their New York debut.
The Ponderosa Stomp, an exciting New Orleans festival devoted to the overlooked underbelly of American musical history (think worthy but under recognized R&B, soul, rockabilly, and blues artists), rolls into town on July 16 and 17. The first night features the Stax/Volt soul singer William Bell, best known for his 1961 single, "You Don't Miss Your Water"; the R&B and funk vocalist Harvey Scales (who also co-wrote the seventies classic "Disco Lady"); and The Bobbettes (whose 1957 mega-hit "Mr. Lee" was followed by the not-so-tongue-in-cheek "I Shot Mr. Lee"). The following evening is a crash-course in rockabilly, with The Collins Kids, Joe Clay, Carl Mann, and Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics. Ponderosa Stomp returns on July 19 with a tribute to New Orleans composer/arranger Wardell Quezergue in Alice Tully Hall as part of Lincoln Center Festival.
The New Swing Sextet, a boogaloo and salsa band that was big in New York in the sixties and that recently got back together to great acclaim (its latest album, "Back on the Streets," was nominated for a Grammy) plays July 18. Co-led by the vibraphonist George Rodriguez, it delivers a mix of cool jazz and hot beats that's timeless.
Highlights of the third and final week include an appearance (July 21) by the singer Catherine Russell, daughter of the Luis Russell, Louis Armstrong's pianist and longtime musical director, playing with a six-piece band. The following night, the neo-swing heavy-hitters Big Bad Voodoo Daddy pay tribute to Cab Calloway. July 23 the socially conscious salsa dura ensemble La Excelencia will keep hips swaying. On July 24, La Sonora Dinamita, the venerable Columbian powerhouse, plays his explosive cumbia.
The series ends on July 25, with the annual tribute to Illinois Jacquet. Up until his death, in 2004, the great saxophonist played the last night of every Midsummer Night Swing season since its inception (his last public appearance was here, just days before he died). The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, with the help of the soulful saxophonist Houston Person, has the honors.
For full program information and tickets, visit Lincoln Center.