New York – King of Swing
According to musical folklore, New York can thank jazz musicians in the 1930s for its nickname “The Big Apple”. Apparently “apples” were the cities where the bands would play on tour and New York, being the largest city you could perform in, consequently picked up the moniker “The Big Apple”.
Whether the story is true or not, the city undoubtedly became the jazz capital of the world.
It may not have been born there but jazz music came to flourish in New York like many other genres have over the years. However, as it became more sophisticated and took a more intellectual turn in the 50s, the roots of the music and those who played it ended up on the periphery. Until now.
“This is America’s greatest cultural heritage. For the first time in ages young kids want to play this old type of jazz again,” says Michael Katsobashvili, founder of the annual New York Hot Jazz Festival and a driving force behind the jazz revival.
Today, like in the early days, this particular branch of jazz is tightly linked to swing dance. New York’s famous Lincoln Center, for example, annually hosts the outdoor event “Midsummer Night Swing,” an all-summer long festival where swing dancers from near and far meet to dance and enjoy big band jazz.
“I have travelled here from Scotland,” says Joyce Monaghen a dance enthusiast we meet on the dance floor. “I’m in New York to dance as much as possible during my stay. It’s definitely here you’ll find the best jazz to dance to.”
The venue here is striking too; Damrosch Park is neatly squeezed in between skyscrapers and the Metropolitan Opera, and as the evening turns to night, the lights in the surrounding windows create a very New York-type backdrop.
“I used to travel around the US to find places to dance. But I don’t need to anymore. The best places are right here,” says Natasha Farrington, another swing enthusiast.
Michael Katsobashvili is a tall, long haired bundle of energy. He speaks in superlatives and it’s easy to see how his engagement in this genre has helped the scene return towards to its former glory.
Everyone we talk to says the same thing about Katsobashvili; He is the unofficial ambassador for traditional jazz. It’s not a bad reputation to have right now.
He says he has been fan of music all his life but it wasn’t until 2013 he actually decided to do something with it.
“It was thanks to Mona’s I fell in love with this,” he says, referring to a dive bar in East Village that hosted notorious Tuesday night jazz sessions.
“I went there and it was like falling down a rabbit hole for me,” he adds laughing.
That same year Katsobashvili hosted the first New York Hot Jazz festival. The same year he met Jennie Wasserman, a New York native with a experience in administration for the likes of Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center and SF Jazz in San Francisco.
The two of them have since formed an alliance to bring back hot jazz – the New Orleans-style – to the establishment.
“Michael introduced me to this scene where, it turned out, a new, hungry group of young artists is playing this type of music. It’s funny, because it hasn’t been recognized for so long, especially not on the establishment side,” Wasserman says.
“The establishment” in this case, means, among others, Jazz at Lincoln Center her former employer and jazz music’s headquarters in New York. In the past it has solely booked artists from the modern scene along with academic artists from the top schools such as Juliard, New School and Berklee. However, artistic director Wynton Marsalis –a New Orleans jazz musician himself – has started to bring back traditional jazz to the spotlight.
One subway ride later and we’ve gone from the beautiful open air space on the Upper West Side to an old, dark, German beer hall called Radegast in Brooklyn. You may not expect this place to be a hotspot for jazz and swing enthusiasts, but it is.
“I like it because of the fun crowd,” says Glenn Crytzer, guitarist and leader of the band this evening. “I also play regularly in a cocktail bar, which is nice too, but this is a louder crowd.”
There is no real dance floor but a group of people have hijacked the space in front of the band to dance. And they swing fiercely.
“This music, vintage jazz, has been growing slowly over the past few years,” Crytzer says, confirming what Michael Katsobashvili and Jennie Wasserman have been saying.
”But in the academic world, this still isn’t really considered serious music. Even though the Lincoln Center has opened up to us,” he adds.
In Crytzer’s opinion traditional jazz lost its grip on the general public in the 50s when bebop took over. He says the musicians of that era wanted to turn the music into a “high art form,” rather than simply entertainment. As jazz became more academic, a new generation grew up in that environment, and hot jazz faded.
“I started playing because I was dancing swing and no one else played the music I wanted to dance to,” Crytzer says of the revival.
The 35-year-old is one of the younger generation who has decided to follow the hot jazz path. (Evan Sherman, the drummer who led the big band at Midsummer Night Swing, is just 23).
“It’s happening all over the city,” Michael Katsobashvili says enthusiastically. “Take Vince Giordano for example. He is an absolute authority in the jazz world – no one plays 1920s jazz like he does. He plays every Sunday at Iguana which is located in the most touristy area in the city, where you wouldn't set foot otherwise. It’s like a Woody Allen film; You walk up to the second floor of this Mexican restaurant and listen the best jazz. It’s amazing”.
The venues might be small and the artists still under the radar of the general public, but musicians and fans agree; New York is once again set to become The Big Apple.
Text: Henrik Ek