Here's something that will blow your mind, kids: Swing music hasn't always been the stuff of nostalgia and hipster revivalists, even though it feels that way now. Bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson played some of the most popular music of their day, filling dance halls and dominating the radio in the 1930s and '40s. Tracks like Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing," Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train" and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" were great examples of a large jazz ensemble playing as one, with choruses of horns blaring out the melodies for throngs of young people who wanted to dance the night away.
It's the spirit of that good-time music that the Charleston Jazz Orchestra is hoping to bring back with When Swing Was King, the kickoff to the CJO's eighth season. The program will feature the 20-piece big-band version of the CJO, playing selections from Goodman, Henderson, Cab Calloway, and more. And as usual it'll be conducted by the orchestra's music director, Charlton Singleton.
"When we were examining different themes for season eight, we had quite a few things on the table," Singleton says. "But the one thing that stood out with this idea was the fact that we've only really touched on a few songs from that era in the past."
Singleton says the plan for the show is to keep the tempos up and the music hot. "It's going to be an exciting show," he says. "These artists who were part of the dance-band movement, they had ballads, but the majority of it was straight-up in your face. Back in the '30s, this music was all over the radio, and people were coming out to dance to it. What people call 'standards' today are the tunes that were on the radio. It was pop music."
Typically, the CJO takes liberties with their arrangements of older material (as in their 2015 show that re-cast Thelonious Monk songs in various styles of Latin jazz), but this time, Singleton is aiming to keep things close to the originals, with a few exceptions. "We'll have stuff like 'Sing, Sing, Sing,' 'Down by the Old Mill Stream,' 'Minnie the Moocher,' 'Opus No. 1,' 'Chattanooga Choo Choo,' and 'Tuxedo Junction.' We definitely want to give the people what they want," Singleton says. "But I also try to throw in some songs that people might not be as familiar with, really good songs that showcase that particular artist or the CJO in some capacity. It's a matter of enlightening our audience as well as entertaining them. I want to try to introduce them to some hidden gems that they might not know."
But there will be another familiar element to the show that might be a surprise: Charleston's own Mayor John Tecklenburg will be sitting in on piano and vocals. "With the CJO, I've always tried to bring it home, so to speak," Singleton says. "I've always tried to incorporate some connection to Charleston with literally every show we've done. And it's no secret that the mayor is a very good piano player, and he has been playing around town as long as I can remember. I've done many shows with him in the past, and it's always a treat when he's onstage."
Interestingly, Tecklenburg's connection to this show isn't just being in charge of the orchestra's home city. "It just so happens that he has a great uncle named Fud Livingston," Singleton says. "And Fud was one of the most sought-after musicians of his era, because of his playing ability, his writing ability, and his arranging ability. He played during the same era we're covering and worked with artists like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Louis Armstrong. He was very much in-demand. And he co-wrote a song called 'I'm Through with Love,' which was a hugely popular song that became a jazz standard. It's been recorded by a who's-who of the jazz world. In fact, the very first show that we did, before we were even the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, Mayor Tecklenburg commissioned a local musician to do an arrangement of the song, so we performed it back then."
Once the CJO decided on this year's season-opening theme, bringing the mayor in seemed like a natural decision. "While we were coming up with the set-list for this performance, thinking about the era and how Fud Livingston was such a part of it, I reached out to John," Singleton says. "I said, 'I know you're busy now, but I've got this show coming up, do you want to come in and talk about Uncle Fud?' And he jumped on it. He said there was never a bad time to talk about his Uncle Fud, and the great contributions that he made to jazz music. So he'll be joining us to play and sing this tune."