Jazz ensemble concert offers evening of history, dancing

“We provide the music, you provide the dancing.” The tagline of this semester’s Jazz Ensemble concert perfectly summed up the performance on November 19 in Upper Tarble. Audience members not only enjoyed the beauty of the jazz music but also enjoyed a night of dancing.

The performance was composed of twenty pieces, with an intermission after the first ten. The pieces ranged from “Blue Serge” written by Mercer Ellington in 1944 to “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Billy Strayhorn in 1940. According to Drew Shanefield, the director of the Jazz Ensemble, these pieces were drawn from the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement in 1920s and 1930s; the Jazz Age during the 1920s when Jazz music and dance emerged; and the Swing Era, a time in the 1930s and 1940s when big band swing music became the most popular musical style in the U.S.

Wanting to produce the concert for about a year, Shanefield hoped that this performance would help the audience better understand the academic connection to jazz music. “It was a grand time in the history of jazz,” Shanefield said. “It was the only time in the music’s history where it was the popular music of the country. It provided a bit of relief from the Great Depression, WWII and tense social times in the country.”

Before the ensemble performed each piece of music, Shanefield spoke briefly about the setting, the composer and the performers. He shared the context of and stories behind the music to help the audience to more easily understand the emotions the ensemble wanted to convey through its performance. He said, “It was my hope to attempt to capture what it may have felt like in the great New York City dance halls of the time, the Savoy and the Roseland.”

Shanefield also wanted to introduce the two different types of bands of that period, the “Hot Bands” and the “Sweet Bands.” “The Hot Bands were African-American bands and the Sweet Bands were white Bands,” he said. Shanefield selected music predominantly of the Hot Bands of the era, because the Hot Bands were what many would consider to be real jazz, though both types made some excellent music. “With this in mind, the course was able to tie in more of the musical, societal and related issues making it worthy of study in an academic setting,” he said.

Besides providing audiences a chance to learn about jazz music, the ensemble also presented a creative way for participants to relax and to have fun by connecting their performance with swing dance. The ensemble chose to perform in Upper Tarble as opposed to a regular concert hall because they wanted to make the show more interactive. “The idea of connecting music and dance is central to [the Music and Dance Department of the College]; faculty are committed to the notion that music and dance do not exist separately,” Shanefield said. Jazz music from 1920s to 1940s is characterized by its close connection to dance.

Ashley Banks ’13, a dancer at the concert and the co-president of Swarthmore Swing Dance Club, expressed her appreciation for this concert and her passions for dancing. “It was amazing,” she said. “A lot of people from the club are really familiar with the music, so I feel like we would be biased against their performance. But we were all really blown away. They were fantastic.” In hopes of telling people how much joy they can have in dancing, she, together with her partners from the club, pulled audience members from their seats to dance with them. “Dancing is a communal experience. It’s not just about your partner. It’s about everybody who is in the room, the musicians, the dancers and the people who are just watching it, everybody feeling the same energy,” Banks said.

Hannah Jones ’12, who was singing and playing saxophone on the concert, is passionate about jazz because “you can dance to it and it makes you just want to move.”

Audiences felt the energy from the performance. Sachie Hayakawa ’13, an audience member, said, “I thought it was really great. I haven’t been to an event like this at Swarthmore before. And it was a lot of fun to see lots of different age levels and members of the community dancing and having a good time.”

Similarly, according to Kara Stoever ’12, the concert really reflects its origins by having dancing for people who are already good at it as well as for who even don’t know much about swing. Nancy Burnham, whose grand-children were performing in the concert, also enjoyed seeing young kids dancing and felt the whole performance very professional.

Performing outside the concert hall was not easy to accomplish. Shanefield mentioned, “There was a very long list of logistics that went along with [performing in Upper Tarble]. The first time we played in Upper Tarble was the night of the concert.” However, it proved to be successful. He said, “I was told the concert drew well over 200 people, students, faculty, administration, alumni, performer’s families and community members. It was a great vibe.”

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