|Swing Holds Sway|
|Written by Adriana Lee|
With a fedora carelessly cocked on his head and sweat running down his face, Michael Fuchs hoists Ashley Paine in the air. The horn players turn the heat up, telling Fuchs that the end is coming. He senses, without counting, the exact number of beats left to his tune.
Quickly, he spins Paine three times, ignoring the seamed stockings that peek out from under her skirt, and thrusts her backward, ending the song with the punctuation mark of a hoofer: the dip.
The cocktail-swilling, wingtip-wearing crowd of onlookers at the Five Spot roars its approval as Paine's billowing yellow circle skirt finally comes to a halt.
The scene could have come straight out of '40s film.
No square dance of retirement-home tea party, this is the '90s swing culture—and it has taken hold of Philadelphia.
Paine began dancing at the Five Spot a year or so ago, well befow the Cherry Poppin' Daddies made the Y-100 playlist and the Gap turned mainstream America's attention to khakies and swing.
When I first started coming to the Five Spot, I was one of only a few people who dressed up," says Paine, a 25-year-old nursing student. "Now the club is filled with fabulous-looking people who are dressed to the nines."
From it's Tin Pan Alley roots in the '20s and '30s, swing music became America's soundtrack until the post-Depression years. Ushered in by dynamic band leaders such as Ben Pollack and Benny Goodman, big-band music wrapped itself around blaring horns and syncopated jazz rhythms, creating swinging tunes that spawned an energetic, jittering style of partner dancing.
Dancers such as Frankie Manning performed gravity-defying air steps in places such as the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Hollywood began incorporating it into motion pictures such as the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races (1937), legitimizing swing music and the dancing that went with it.
Recent movies such as Swing Kids (1993) and the hit 1996 indie film Swingers introduced swing music to many in the twenty-to-thirty-something generation.
Truth is, they made it look hip.
No—they made it look hep.
"Swingers definitely had an impact on me," says Internet developer Dante Murphy. "It was an introduction to music that's influenced by, or actually is, 50 years old."
But to hep cats and kittens like Murphy, 30, and fiancee/dance partner Donna DeLong, 24, the swing culture is more than just the music. It's about the social context and elegance of the past. "It's about looking sophisticated and going out with friends without having to drink dollar beers or worrying about carrying a friend home," says DeLong.
"I think people were just ready for a change," says bandleader Pete Spina, of the City Rhythm Orchestra, Philadelphia's premier swing outfit. "The music is a big part of it, but it's also everything else that goes with it—the lifestyle, the way you dress, the way you act, the atmosphere of the club."
Modern swing kids started crawling out of the woodwork in places like the Derby in Los Angeles, the Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco, and the Supper Club in New York.
In Philadelphia, we have the Five Spot.
The Old City supper club has managed to make money on the toughest night of the week. As an alternative to the Philadelphia rock, hip-hop and jazz joints, the Five Spot's Sunday nights, with City Rhythm Orchestra and beginner dance lessons, have become a staple in the musical diet of local swingers like Murphy.
Sundays, in addition to the popular Wednesday night performance of Ronnie James and the Jez Hot Swing Club, have made the venue a local favorite.
The Five Spot arrived without much fanfare a year and a half ago. A transplanted Los Angeleno named Jacob Morris approached owner Philip Cohen with the suggestion of offering swing lessons at what was hen a brand-new club.
Morris, 36, a dancer in Swingers, had been hoping to find a local scene that reminded him of home. "When I first came here, I saw an ad for the Five Spot. So I called Philip, and we started talking," Morris recalls. "But the whole idea of teaching was just so I could have someone to dance with."
According to Morris, attendance has gone from two students in February 1997, when the lessons started, to 120 and rising.
While the Five Spot has put the swing culture firmly in the forefront of the area's nightlife scene, other venues are hoping to match its success.
Places like Katmandu and Edge, which usually play rock, hip-hop or house music, swing at least one night a week. NewMarket Cabaret and West Chester's Chicane both have swing nights on Thursdays. Pompano Grille is planning to start regular swing nights next month, and the Eighth Floor will follow suit in September. Even the Philadelphia Museum of Art has hosted swing parties and dance lessons during some of its weekly Wednesday-night events.
As a seasonal offering, WPEN's Dancing Under the Stars at Penn's Landing is another alternative. Every Thursday through Sept. 3, swing fans can enjoy live music from groups such as the Carmen Dee Orchestra, the Jo Midiri Orchestra and the City Rhythm Orchestra in a dance hall without walls. One warning: Dancing on solid concrete in the sun, even when it's setting isn't easy. But die-hard swing dancers can cope with soft-soled shoes and a tube of sun block.
"Our Penn's Landing events are unbelievable," says Charlie Mills, assistant director of programming at WPEN-FM (950). "There's a great cross-section from teens to people in their 70s."
All-ages swing dance parties are also held by the nonprofit, 11-year-old Philadelphia Swing Dance Society twice a month in Germantown and Mount Airy. With no cigarettes or alcohol, the dances allow members to keep their minds clear to focus on the movement. There aren't any zoot-suited hepcats there, but the room is spacious and enthusiasm abounds. Every event begins with free lessons.
The Rat Pack Cocktail Party has forwarded the cause of cocktails and Sinatra for eight years. Held on the first Thursday of every month, the party has drawn fellas and dames from as far away as Reading and New York. Having recently moved the party from Silk City to the 700 Club, DJs Aaron Werner and Kurt Wunder continue the tradition of music from the big-band era to later Rat Pack favorites Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
"The music is timeless," says Wunder, co-owner of the 700 Club. Swingers these days, he continues, are "looking to an era you could understand. There was right and there was wrong, and you knew the difference. Now, you don't know how the good guy is and how the bad guy is."
Wunder also believes that, for some, the popularity of swing is not so much nostalgia as it is a pleasant discovery. "The fact that it's a bygone era really doesn't matter because a lot of people are hearing the music for the first time, and it may as well be new to a lot of them."
"There seems to be one mentality of people that relives the past as it was and another that takes the past and brings it into the '90s," says Ashley Paine. "Guys with tattoos who wear fedoras and suspenders. Girls with various body piercings who wear vintage dresses and platform shoes. I think it's great."
There's no doubt that the CD-buying, Internet-surfing, MTV generation has embraced the music, style and era of their grandparents. But the newest generation of swing kids has also spawned some new possibilities, complete with newer, younger swing bands and a decidedly '90s sensibility.
"My friends and I e-mail each other and visit Web sites to find out who's coming to town and what's new in the scene," says Joe Wood, 33, a computer hardware specialist. He often visits Web sites such as Total Swing, Hep Cat and Pennsylvania6-5000 for the latest swing information.
Philadelphia's burgeoning scene brings in a constant stream of new swing and jump blues talent. Groups such as Indigo Swing, the Blues Jumpers, Nick Palumbo and the Flipped Fedoras, and Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, as well as nationally recognized bands such as the Mighty Blue Kings, Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies.
The Cherry Poppin' Daddies, who recently appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, played both the Theatre of Living Arts and the Electric Factory in the spring. Their hit song "Zoot Suit Riot" is on the play list at Y-100 (WPLY-FM; 100.3).
The Brian Setzer Orchestra played to a packed house at the Trump Marina last year. Setzer, formerly of the Stray Cats, will bring his orchestra back to the Marina July 17 and 18.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has also become a local favorite, playing what the members call high-octane nitro jive. Saxophone man Karl Hunter says that they were very concerned in the beginning "that maybe it isn't exactly the same type of feel that the old music had. We were wondering how it was going to be taken."
The band's appearance in Swingers brought national attention, and the music video of its hit "You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three" premiered on MTV three weeks ago. BBVD sold out two appearances at the Marina's the Shell in March, and will return for sold-out shows tonight and Saturday. The band will play the Trocadero in Chinatown on July 18.
The Trump Marina, seeing the success of such swing concerts, has decided to bring live swing and jump blues music to the casino's The Wave lounge every Sunday night. Launching the Jump, Jive and Swing nights are the Camaros Sunday, followed by the Blues Jumpers on the 19th.
From Benny Goodman to the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and everything in between, the fine art of swinging seems to have come full circle. In the end, it doesn't matter whether you're young or old, a hoofer or just a listener, the art of swing spans generations.
After the hippie era, disco and grunge, the '90s swing thing is like a breath of fresh air.
"People in today's swing scene were just looking for something different," says BBVD sax man Andy Rowey. "The style and romance has been missing."
So put on your swankiest shoes and hat, grab that guy or doll and how 'em you're hep to the jive. Swing's the thing, Daddy-O.