From finding a cab on a rainy day to securing a seat on the rush-hour subway, life in New York City can feel like a non-stop competition. This summer, a friendlier contest kicks off Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing — a battle of the big bands — and everyone is a winner.
The two bands slugging it out on opening night, June 19, are George Gee and his Make Believe Ballroom Orchestra and David Berger and the Sultans of Swing, two of the city's premier swing bands. Their meeting harkens back to the legendary showdowns of the big-band era, when famed ensembles would square off at the Savoy Ballroom, sending Lindy Hoppers into a tizzy.
The actual program for the night is inspired by a 1961 recording by the Count Basie Orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, First Time! The Count Meets the Duke. Very loosely, Gee is taking on the role of Basie, and Berger will be stepping into Ellington's shoes.
With some 30-plus musicians on stage at the same time, it should be a thundering start to a great season of dancing. "We want to start things off with a bang," says Futz, the series' globetrotting artistic director, who goes by just one name. Gee points out, "Whenever you get together so many quality musicians on the same stage, pride always take over and the best music will be created. But these 'battles' are always friendly." Berger, who has been on the scene since the series' inception (he helped get it started back when he was the conductor of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), has his own take on the night: "We're out for blood," he says with a laugh. Then he continues, more seriously, "In music nobody wins and nobody loses, we just go out there to swing the hardest."
Determined musicians and near delirious dancers are a hallmark of Midsummer Night Swing. The action takes place on a custom-built, open-air dance floor in the middle of Josie Robertson Plaza. The backdrop is the New York City skyline and the grand architecture of Lincoln Center. "It's especially fun to be on the Plaza at around 8 p.m.," says Jon Nakagawa, one of the event's producers. "That's when the crowds are going inside to see performances at Avery Fisher Hall, the Met, and the New York State Theater. To see them then and at their intermissions, crowding the balconies to enjoy the swing music and watch the dancers below, it's a lot of fun."
Now in its 19th year, the series is more popular than ever. "It's like a block party every night for five weeks," says producer Nancy Crowder. According to her, the Colombian salsa night last summer packed the plaza with approximately 10,000 eager fans. Midsummer Night Swing draws dancers from every level of experience and talent. Young neophytes are often swept off their feet by older veterans, who know the music from their youth. And each night includes a period of pre-performance dance instruction.
One of the longtime teachers, Pierre Dulaine, (who was portrayed last year by Antonio Banderas in the feature film Take the Lead) says, "My favorite part is getting rid of that worried look on people's faces when they first come in. In just a few minutes, they relax and find out, 'Yes, I can do this.'"
As in years past, the schedule is as diverse as the city itself, with nights of disco, tango, country and western, salsa, and swing, to name just a few. Each week starts with classic swing and ends with Salsa Saturdays. That is, except for the final night, which remains the traditional tribute to legendary saxophonist Illinois Jacquet.
Following the opening-night blast with Berger and Gee, the sound switches to salsa, rumba, and compas with Charanga Soleil. This Brooklyn-based ensemble, which is tied to a local Haitian radio station and is a regular at downtown venues, is making its Midsummer Night Swing debut. Its signature instrument is a 21-string West African kora. Later that first week, on June 21, the Plaza becomes an open-air disco as DJ Brenda Black and DJ Max Rodriguez celebrate Gay Pride. "The night attracts a diverse crowd — gay, straight, transgender, parents with their children," says Nakagawa. The first week wraps up with The Palladium Memories Orchestra, which preserves the classic mid-20th-century Latin sounds of New York City. "These are the guys who used to play with Tito Puente," Futz observes.
The second week gets underway June 26 with the Swingtime Big Band, featuring veterans of the Stardusters, who have played Midsumer Night Swing multiple times. "The dancers love them," says Futz. The next evening brings in the Pride of New York Ceili Band, a local Celtic powerhouse sporting Billy McComiskey on button accordion, Joanie Madden on flute and whistle, Brian Conway on fiddle, and Brendan Dolan on keyboards and flute. For this engagement, they're adding a drummer, Jimmy Kelly, to keep the party going. And don't be put off if step dances seem as foreign as the Gaelic language. Following the dance instruction that night a caller will be onstage to direct the crowd. "It's almost like square dancing," Crowder explains, "You just do what the person onstage is telling you to do."
The series this year includes two extended evenings, in which the bands unplug and play an acoustic third set late into the night. The first one, on June 28, goes to David Ostwald's Gully Low Jazz Band. Led by a tuba player, this group stomps back in time to the days when Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke were in their prime. "Nobody really plays their kind of music," Futz says. "The old-school dancers really love it." The band has experience playing the Plaza without amplification. The first time they appeared here, in 1998, it rained when they took the stage, and the program was officially cancelled. But the musicians were undeterred; they found six chairs and wooed an excited crowd from under the Avery Fischer overhang. The second late-night performance takes place on July 12, with the JC Hopkins Biggish Band.
In addition to the nights of classic swing and smoking salsa, the season includes a little bit of rock and roll. Bill Haley's Original Comets will be "Rocking Around the Clock" on July 11. Haley may be long gone, but his original bass player, Marshall Lytle, is still slapping the strings as if Eisenhower is up for reelection. Another noteworthy night takes place on June 29 when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys stop by for two-stepping and western dancing. The band's longtime lead vocalist, Leon Rausch, is looking forward to the show. "New York always makes us feel right at home and the boys always play so much better when they know they are liked," he says. "It's lots more fun than Texas dance halls because we don't have to work so hard for four or five hours like we do down here," he adds. "We'll be there to give it our best shot!"
The open-air dancing comes to an end on July 21 with a tribute to Illinois Jacquet. Up until his death three years ago, the saxophonist was a fixture of the Midsummer Night Swing season, appearing every year since its inception. In fact, he made his last public appearance here. The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra will do the honors this summer. "The thing we love about playing for Midsummer Night Swing," says the band's director, Ron Allen, "is that the people come to dance. They don't fake it."
John Donohue writes frequently about the arts.