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Denver Jazz Festival has all the right moves

Swinging Jazz at Ellie Caulkins Opera House Studio Loft

While everyone else was at Grandoozy, the coolest cats around spent their weekend dancing the night away at the fifth annual Denver Vintage Jazz Festival and the 14th annual Lindy on the Rocks. The two festivals joined forces this year to bring an epic weekend of jazz and swing dance to Denver. The dance related events were primarily at the Studio Loft above the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

As the sun set, Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five, Hilary Alexander, Hal Smith’s Swing Central, Bobby Floyd Quartet, Chance’s End, Jonathan Doyle Swingtet, Diana Castro and the Big Time Band, and Red Hot Rhythm Rocket transported the listeners back to the 30s and 40s, a time when swing was everything.  The bands harnessed the energy that comes along with swing and turned it into a sound that forced all dancers to hit the floor. The Studio Loft was jiving into the wee hours of the morning, leaving many pairs of feet rather sore.

A number of bands played at denver Vintage Jazz Festival. Photo credit: Taelar Johansen · The Sentry

Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five are known as the premier swing band in the nation and they live up to the title. The 14-piece orchestra had its thumb on the pulse of the swing era. They are the gold standard when it comes to the swing dance world due to Stout’s unique background as a pre-bebop jazz guitarist, a swing drummer, and an award-winning Jitterbug dancer. He has been in almost every aspect of swing dance and fully understands the relationship between the dancers and the music that accompanies them.

While some bands only played at the Studio Loft, a few traveled around the corner to entertain the patrons at Dazzle, Denver’s favorite supper club, serving up classic cocktails that helped keep the Jazz Age alive and well. The limited dance floor inside Dazzle didn’t stop the attendees from leaving their food to cool in order to boogie down to the infectious music. The talent ranged from women who had first learned to dance over 50 years ago to young men who flew in just for the swing contest. No one was off limits to dance with; two men who couldn’t find any other partners took to the floor and danced together. Within Hal Smith’s Swing Central’s 45-minute set, they laid out on display the very reason why jazz is still so important: it connects us all. 

Hal Smith’s Swing Central is a quintet that captures the small band swing music in a way that seems like they stepped out of the 1930s. They were one of the main stars of the weekend. The dance floor of Dazzle was hopping with rhythm as Hal Smith crafted both the popular hits and rarities of years past. It was easy to understand why as soon as one saw the band on stage. Smith kept the beat steady on the drums while Jonathan Doyle chimed in with the clarinet. Across the stage sat Dan Walton at the piano, his fingers moving over the keys just as fast as the dancer’s feet on the floor. The rhythm guitar and bass were manned by Jamey Cumming and Steve Pikal respectively. It was truly an incredible experience to see the dancers improve their moves on a whim along with the music.

Following Hal Smith was Bobby Floyd, one of the world’s best pianists and currently the featured pianist for the Count Basie Orchestra. However, on Saturday afternoon, he took the stage at Dazzle as the Bobby Floyd Quartet for the first time ever and sounded as though the band had been playing together for years. It was a perfect example as to why jazz is still so popular and relevant 60 years after the Jazz Age ended. Provided the song has a decent rhythm, jazz musicians can riff for hours without ever having to utter a word to each other. Improvisation is one of the many things that connects swing dance and jazz. If it’s jiving, then there will be feet on the floor, creating a visual for the audio.

Peppered between the big and small swings bands were the sounds of the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet, a staple to any Lindy Hop festival with their traditional swing sound. Also in attendance was NaturalTango, a touring tango orchestra that echoes the golden age of major orchestras like Juan d’Arienzo and Osvaldo Fresedo. Chance’s End brought a unique take on the role a solo violin can play in different genres of music along with a fusion of jazz and electronica, which is proving to be a popular and pleasing combination of two music genres. 

A local favorite, Diana Castro and the Big Time Band closed out the festival with Red Hot Rhythm Rocket. Over the weekend, Red Hot Rhythm Rocket covered the late nights at the Studio Loft. This band is just one of the groups formed by Joe Smith, who is also the event director of the festivals. He can be seen performing around Denver regularly with Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles, who often play the Lindy Hop theme nights around town.

All the world’s troubles melted away for a few minutes while two people who just met laughed and moved around the floor in sync. Unlike some modern music genres and bands, the culture was one of inclusiveness. One contestant, after asking an elderly woman to dance and being denied, spent the next 20 minutes sitting and speaking with her about his passion for swing dance and why he wanted to keep this style of dance alive. To see a genre of music bring multiple generations of people together gives hope that as different as people might seem, no one is very different in the end.   

The Lindy Hop’s roots date back to the late 1920s in Harlem, a borough of New York. Since its creation, it has stayed associated with jazz almost exclusively. Its popularity wavered in the post-war era but found new life in the late 1990s. The culture today is based around the social, competitive, and performance sides of the dance.   

Community-Minded Dance, also known as CMDance, is the main driving force behind Lindy on the Rocks and the Denver Vintage Jazz Festival. It is a local non-profit organization that helps educate artists through programs and performances along with community events. According to their web site, their mission is to “[aim] to build healthy, thriving communities through world-class arts education programs that bring the global culture of both solo and partnered vernacular dancing to Colorado youth and adults.” Their next dance and jazz -related event is the Rocky Mountain Balboa Blowout, Oct. 19-21, 2018 in Denver.

There are many events around Denver that offer the chance to boogie to the type of jazz played during the Denver Vintage Jazz Festival. Swing Nights host lessons for various experience levels every Thursday and Sunday at the Mercury Cafe in Denver. Swingin’ Denver hosts all-experience-level dance classes at their studio in Denver as well as sponsoring Swingin’ at Stanley, a series that runs over the summer at the Stanley Marketplace.

Where there is dance there is music. If dancing isn’t jiving, then just sit back and listen to the notes being played. Jazz doesn’t need vocals to tell a story. Swing takes those base ideas and adds an electric energy to the air that keeps the mood upbeat and, well, swinging. Listening to vintage music also helps in better understanding how modern themes and genres have formed over the years. The popularity of jazz and swing doesn’t appear to be waning anytime soon with festivals like the Denver Vintage Jazz Festival, the Five Points Jazz Festival, City Park Jazz, the Winter Park Jazz Festival, and the 1940s Ball’s summer and winter events, all of which keep the sound just as fresh and innovative as it was in the 30s and 40s. More permanent places to enjoy live jazz include Dazzle, the Mercury Cafe, and Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox.

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