RALEIGH — At least once a week, Laura Windley’s gotta jump and jive, and then she wails away.
She can feel it coming on, the way some people sense a cold or a case of spring fever about to hit. It happens when she’s in the room with a big band – or a smaller band that plays in a big band style – and she hears that swinging beat, ka-CHUNK, ka-CHUNK, ka-CHUNK.
Before she knows it, she’s running for the dance floor. “There’s something about this music that has a really defined pulse,” Windley said. “When you listen to this music, it makes you want to move. You have to bounce.”
Windley, 31, was born a half-century too late to enjoy the height of the big band era, loosely defined as the mid-1920s to the early 1940s. But she has a cropped bob, a smooth singing voice that fronts the Mint Julep Jazz Band, a closetful of vintage dresses and the soul of a swinger.
She may have been born in the wrong time, but she lives in the right place: the Triangle, where the big band sound and the moves that go with it anachronistically thrive.
Windley’s husband, Luke Cobb, a 30-year-old video-game designer, plays trombone for the Mint Juleps, which organized last fall and began playing dances, weddings and other events in February. Even with at least a dozen local bands competing for gigs – the Casablanca Orchestra, the N.C. Jazz Repertory Orchestra, the N.C. Revelers Orchestra, the Moonlighters Orchestra, the Tune Swingers Orchestra, the Continentals Dance Band, the Atomic Rhythm All-Stars and more – the Mint Juleps have been busy, with five dates in four weeks through March and at least one a month already booked through the end of the year.
Some of the bands are true to the original form, with at least 17 musicians, traditionally five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and four rhythm pieces – plus drums, bass, piano and guitar. That’s the way Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden and scores of others did it, making a living traveling the country and playing for crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands.
Not all the local groups play swing music; some play Dixieland jazz or a more sedate style better suited to the ballroom moves of 80- and 90-year-olds who stepped to this music in their youth and relish the chance to hear it again live.
Some current groups, including the Mint Julep Jazz Band, have pared down to a smaller configuration that has the flavor of the big band with a smaller price tag; the Mint Juleps have seven instruments plus Windley, the vocalist and sometime glockenspiel-player. Her husband studied jazz in college and is conversant in the history of the 1940s transition from swing to the more improvisational but less danceable bebop. But Windley came to the music through the dancing, which she knew she had to learn when she saw it in a 1998 TV commercial for the Gap’s khaki pants (www.youtube.com/watch?v=knW1hGwmEXQ).
She was a student then at East Carolina University, where a Methodist campus minister taught swing dance lessons. She took a few. Eventually she and a friend took over the instruction. Much of the music was familiar to her, since her grandfather had played it on records for her when she was growing up. After graduation, she enrolled in law school at UNC, which put her in proximity to the nonprofit Triangle Swing Dance Society’s regular events.
Spreading the word
Sandy Daston, another dancer who volunteers as marketing director for the society, says it has nearly 800 people on its mailing list and sees about 1,000 different people over the course of a year at its twice-a-month dances. The group also helps promote other swing dances it hears about, because bigger attendance helps keep the music and the moves alive.
Daston has an evangelistic zeal for swing dancing, which can be done to other types of music but, according to polls of the society’s membership, is best enjoyed to the big band sound.
“We just want everybody to be out there swing dancing,” Daston said. “I think we’d have world peace if everybody was swing dancing. It generates more endorphins than chocolate. It’s one of those things where, once you start doing it, you think, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t I do this sooner?’ ”
For Daston, who is in her 50s, the sound generates an emotional response, a nostalgia for something she also isn’t old enough to remember first-hand.
“Though I wasn’t around in the height of the big band era, there is something about that music that transports you to a wonderful and different place. It’s almost like you’re re-creating a period of history, and it reaches across generations.
“The more you get into swing dance, the more you’re enchanted with the history of swing, and it started with the big band music, the big night out. It’s an easy thing to fall in love with.”
John Brown became enamored while he was a student at UNC-Greensboro, where he and his bass joined a jazz band after years of playing with orchestras. He continued the love affair after graduation, and now is director of Duke University’s jazz program and leader of several jazz bands that he can configure to suit any request, from a trio to a “little big band” to a 20-piece big band that can fill a large hall with sound.
Brown also does what calls “informances,” taking musicians to play for school children and encouraging them to ask questions. Recently he has collaborated with the N.C. Shakespeare Festival to combine big band and the Bard. And he’s working on a big band Christmas album with Durham jazz singer Nnenna Freelon.
Brown believes that part of the reason big band music survives in the Triangle and, to varying degrees, elsewhere in the state, is that it has a history here. Duke University had student-run big bands beginning in the 1930s, and saxophonist Les Brown led the band from 1933 to 1936, before moving on to start a professional career in New York. Even small communities across the state had their own big bands back in the day, and in addition to Duke, N.C. Central University and UNC have strong jazz studies programs.
Though some bands get help from arts council grants or support from the Jazz Foundation of North Carolina, survival depends largely on the public’s enthusiasm for the music, just as it did when tunes such as “In the Mood” and “A String of Pearls” were playing on the radio or live at the local pavilion.
Will it endure?
The Tune Swingers Orchestra played such standards recently at the Knights of Columbus’ Spring Dance, held at the end of April at St. Luke the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, north of Raleigh near Falls Lake. The event, open to the public, drew about 125 people who, for less than $20 each, could foxtrot, waltz, swing or do Latin steps to the 18 musicians playing under Rollin Glaser’s direction and a twinkling mirror ball. People brought snacks and desserts, and the Knights sold beer and plastic cups of red wine. The musicians wore crisp black and white. Blue spotlights cast a cool glow.
A professional dance instructor gave a free 45-minute lesson before the 8 p.m. performance, sending dancers’ feet spinning across the fellowship hall as portraits of Mother Mary and the baby Jesus looked on. The Knights have held the event for several years as a fundraiser.
John Christofaro didn’t take the lesson. He’s taken them in the past with his wife, Vickie, “but all it did was mess me up,” he said, because after jitterbugging together for 50 years, they know each other’s moves. The couple have time to follow local bands they like and occasionally drive out of town to hear big names such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which has toured since 1956, 12 years after Miller disappeared on a World War II Army Air Force flight. The group played in Asheville several months ago, and the Christofaros were there.
Christofaro, 73, believes the music endures mostly because his generation does. “I’m not sure how much longer it’ll survive,” he said, “once our generation passes away.”
Luke Cobb, the 30-year-old video game designer, disagrees. “It’ll be here as long as we are,” he promised.
“Yeah,” said Laura Windley, his wife. “I don’t want to stop dancing.”