This past week I got to experience my first Lindy Focus, in lovely Asheville, North Carolina, along with 1,000 other lindy hoppers and jazz musicians from around the US. I had almost zero expectations for the event, having only viewed a couple of videos and chatted with some friends about it.
There are a lot of things that make Lindy Focus a special place: the classes taught by world-class dancers, the dances that start in the evening and go straight to the next morning, the festive atmosphere everywhere, the DIY spirit of the event. But what stands out for me is the emphasis on live jazz music.
Lindy Focus brought together an Avengers-level supergroup of musicians for the evening dances. Led by Jonathan Stout on guitar, the lineup included the best swing musicians in the land, including Laura Windley on vocals, Gordon Au and Ben Polcer on trumpet, Aurora Nealand and Paul Consetino on clarinet and sax, Lucian Cobb on trombone, Josh Collazo on drums, Jason Jurzak on bass, and many more incredible jazz artists from all over the States. The level of tightness of this band, having never played together before, was mind-blowing.
Every night I felt like I was going to jazz heaven, with a different featured jazz giant each concert, including Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sydney Bechet, Django Rheinhart and Slim & Slam! (Click the names for the evening’s set list for each artist.)There’s nothing like hearing your favorite swing songs you’ve only heard from old recordings being performed live in front of you by some of the best jazz musicians in the land, alongside 1,000 other swing jazz nerds.
It was so good, many of us diehard lindy hoppers simply could not dance. Instead we stood right in front of the bandstand, cheering every solo and clapping and stomping along with the band. Blow, Aurora, blow!
A highlight for me was Falty and the Defects performing the music of Slim and Slam, one of my favorite jazz musical acts of all time. Consummate jazz clowns, Slim and Slam brought the silliness and fun to all of their songs, from “Groove Juice Special,” to “Laughing in Rhythm,” to “Tutti Frutti.” Mike Faltesek brought that same goofiness to the stage, but also top notch musicianship. Every damn song was awesome.
The Artie Shaw concert was another surprising standout for me. I have never considered myself much of an Artie Shaw fan. But with Jonathan Stout at the helm and a dozen kickass musicians playing both Artie’s hits and more obscure numbers, I was completely enraptured. I had a lot of moments of, “oh he played THAT song?” and “THAT’S Artie Shaw?”
Basie and Ellington of course were really amazing as well. However I’ve heard those jazz giants played before in lots of other venues by many orchestras and smaller combos. Aurora and her band playing Sydney Bechet held a special place in my heart, since I got turned on to Sydney Bechet in college when I was dating a clarinet player. I didn’t really understand his music back then in my pre-lindy days, but it made me feel things.
Most of the main sets of the evening concluded with a fast song that turned into a jam circle in front of the band. It was hard to choose between watching the dancers jam and the musicians play. Scratch that. It was easy to choose: I watched the musicians. Here’s a couple of pics showing what’s happening on the bandstand and on the dance floor at exactly the same time.
Gotta say that Aurora and Paul Consetino’s dual saxes beats out a jam circle for my attention easily.
There’s lots of ways for amateur jazz musicians to get in on the action as well at Lindy Focus. In the past few years, hundreds of lindy hoppers have been taking up learning an instrument, forming amateur bands and jam sessions, including San Francisco’s own Hot Baked Goods band. Lindy Focus has a whole education track devoted to playing jazz, where you can learn from the same musicians you are dancing to in the evenings. There’s also impromptu jams happening in the lobby, the bar, the hallways, and wherever else a couple of musicians can setup their instruments. As the MC at Focus said, you can’t walk down the hallways without tripping over a jazz musician.
Overall, Lindy Focus reminded me what is so special about swing — that intimate and ineffable connection between the musician and the dancer. I love lindy hop. Now more than ever.