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Riffs, rants, raves, reflections

The Swing Set Needs a Push

October 15, 1998|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"-- Duke Ellington

*

How do you think Duke Ellington would have viewed the way swing music has roared back to popularity?

Would he be astonished--or appalled--that sounds and styles born some 75 years ago, and which reached their popular zenith a half-century ago, would still be drawing in throngs of youths and pervading the nation in TV and radio commercials?

With apologies to the Duke, I'll venture he'd amend his famous lyric to cover what passes for swing among some of its nouveau practitioners: It don't mean a thing if it ain't got real swing.

The troubling part of the swing revival crystallized for me last summer as I watched the Eddie Reed Big Band play at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

The band itself has some stellar local players, but as a unit it rarely threw off a spark, much less caught fire.

Meanwhile, a pair of dancers--a couple I've seen in front of several swing bands this year--were showboating flashy footwork, quick spins and dramatic leaps. Both, natch, were properly outfitted--he in an ultra-cool zoot suit and hat with brim turned up in front a la Gene Kelly, she in a flouncy '40s-vintage dress.

But as they went about their business, business is exactly what it looked like. For all the welcome physical contact in the Lindy Hop and jitterbug, these two barely looked at one another. No connection and, sadder still for all their kinetic energy, no sparkle.

Swing is music that sparkles. Or it should be.

Like the set I caught more recently by the Kid Ramos Band at Hop City Steakhouse in Anaheim. When I found myself following the group's incessantly infectious beat and stratospheric soloing by pounding my fist on the table top hard enough to bounce plates off, it hit me: this is what real swing's about.

It's the difference between Fred Astaire's shoes and Boris Karloff's.

Good swing should bring back the feeling of the playground swing--you pump higher and higher to the point where you feel one short kick away from becoming airborne.

But for every Brian Setzer Orchestra that has the musical chops--and the nerve--to play swing like it's a life-or-death matter, there are five forgettable Royal Crown Revues or Cherry Poppin' Daddies that offer only hipster attitude and mediocre musicianship.

As guitarist Watson, a disciple of West Coast jump blues innovator T-Bone Walker, recently put it in these pages:

"The people in that scene expect you to do [swing] exclusively, and have a real limited vision of what the music is and wear the right uniform," he said. "There are some real good bands out there, but there are some that are a real crock."

His gripe, and mine, are nothing new.

After Ellington's band crossed the Atlantic for the first time in 1933, a Melody Maker writer commented: "Ellington's visit has been of great advantage to us in many ways. ... Until hearing Ellington in the flesh, I never realised how ragged and chancy our bands are."

If only Ellington were still around.

The Don Miller Orchestra has developed a solid following with its Monday night performances at Birraporetti's in Costa Mesa. But during the set I watched recently, the group played virtually all its songs at the same medium-tempo Glenn Miller bounce--ideal for dancers who want to hone steps, but deadly for inciting musical fire.

I spent many nights in the '70s and '80s at Disneyland's Carnation Plaza bandstand watching the best of the best big bands--those of Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Lionel Hampton and others--and as I recall, dancers didn't have any trouble locking into the wide variety of grooves that spilled forth.

The same night the Miller Orchestra was playing, trumpeter Alan Isley was leading his Jazz Lite Octette at Steamers in Fullerton through a wonderfully varied, sometimes ragged set that nonetheless often swung like crazy. But Steamers has no dance floor. Isley said he prefers playing for listeners rather than dancers--and he does both regularly--because "playing for dancers can become mechanical pretty quickly. You can't play anything that's too fast, or too slow."

There are plenty of other bands, from jazz to blues to country, that offer the real thing around O.C. on a regular basis: the Mighty Flyers, the James Harman Band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Junior Watson, the Blasters, the Big Band Staff, James Intveld, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys and Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts.

Swing isn't limited to a certain instrumental lineup, or to one genre. As another musical adage puts it: the only difference between a rut and a groove is whether you're digging it.

Here are a few playing in the days ahead who know a groove from a rut:

The Pete Jolly Trio, Saturday at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. 7:30 p.m. Free. (562) 596-2199.

The Paladins, Saturday at Hop City Steakhouse & Blues, 1939 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim. 9 p.m. Cover. (714) 978-3700.

The Frank Capp Juggernaut Band, Sunday at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. 8 p.m. Minimum. (714) 871-8800.

Swingtown, Wednesdays at Hop City Steakhouse. 8:30 p.m. Cover.

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