Dances with Dinosaurs

Once more, with feeling.

Once more, with feeling.

I saw recently that my old junior high band director, Gene Stephenson, had come out of retirement and is teaching at Coastal Bend College in his native Beeville.  I credit Mr. Stephenson with essentially handing me my livelihood.  He must be somewhere in his mid-70’s by now.  I’m glad to see he’s still musically active.

Glad but not surprised.  Jazz music is one of those styles where you don’t have to get pushed off the stage once you crest the age of thirty.  I have played many gigs with big bands where I was the youngster in my mid-fifties.  Believe it or not, these are some of my most treasured onstage memories.

Not because they paid well–they rarely did.  But I love the repertoire, all that great stuff in the original arrangements by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington.  I love it when a band’s concept of a ‘contemporary hit’ is to play a cheesy arrangement of “Wichita Lineman”, a Jimmy Webb tune made popular by Glenn Campbell over forty years ago.  I love it when the guitarist is playing a frayed tube amp that he bought for $14 in 1958 that smells of burning dust and mouse droppings whenever it’s plugged in.

And I especially love the audiences.  Usually it’s a Knights of Columbus or Elks Lodge that hosts, and their median age is even older than the band’s.  When you look onto the dance floor and see people dancing with oxygen tanks trailing them–no, I’m not making this up–you can’t help but admire their determination to have a good time, by God.  These people are going to the grave dancing, and your only hope is that it doesn’t happen in front of you while playing “Sing, Sing, Sing”.

Whenever I play one of these gigs, I think to myself how fortunate I am–because this is the tail end, folks.  In ten years, this will be no more.  Oh, there will still be big bands playing classic repertoire, but it won’t have the same resonance–because the people playing the music and the people enjoying the music will not have firsthand awareness of its glory days.  If you were 18 in 1942, you are 87 today.  If you’re still out on the dance floor, I’ll bet you have lots of room.

That’s not to say that young people aren’t catching on–a few of them are.  But they don’t quite get it, do they?  Like the time we were playing a local martini bar and a young lady walked up to the bandstand and asked us to play “that Harry Connick song: It Had To Be You”.

Good Lord, even that story is eighteen years old.  That young lady is now pushing forty and probably sitting at home watching “Dirty Dancing” for the fiftieth time.  Forget I mentioned it.

So I guess I shouldn’t feel bad if my phone doesn’t ring as often these days for ‘society’ gigs.  Still, I have nothing but admiration for the people out there playing them, and I look at them as role models.  Not so much in terms of emulating the style, but just the determination to stay out there in the spotlight for one more chorus of Moonlight Serenade.  Or Dream.  Or Return to Sorrento.  Or even Theme From The Honeymooners.

Who will be listening to these tunes in ten years?  Maybe just you and me, friend.



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