How did the Hepcats / KJRO big band swing dance collaborations get started?

From their earliest days as Lindy Hop and Balboa swing dancers in Lexington, Mike and Mary wanted to bring the original, hard swinging big band music of the 1930’s/40’s swing-era to Lexington for dancers and non dancers alike to enjoy.

Mike was aware of the Kentucky Jazz Repertory Orchestra (KJRO) as early as 1999/2000.  KJRO was formed in the late 1990’s by UKmusic professor Miles Osland, Professor of Saxophone and Jazz Studies, and Dick Domek, Professor of Music Theory, primarily as a way to perform the music of and pay tribute to Duke Ellington upon the occasion of the centennial celebration of Ellington’s birthday.  Miles and Dick received a grant to tour Kentucky and perform Ellington’s music.  The band members enjoyed playing the great big band and other music of Ellington so much they decided to continue performing as a group.

KJRO consists of the finest and most talented faculty, alumni, and musicians fromKentuckyarea colleges and universities.  The accolades and professional accomplishments of KJRO members are too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say that many KJRO members are considered at the top of their profession, not only as gifted performers, but also as music educators, arrangers, etc.  The truly original arrangements of the big band swing-era are rarely performed professionally outside of major metropolitan areas.  KJRO plays many songs that are considered swing-era classics, but are not played very often by the average “big band” or “swing band” due to their technical difficulty.

In 1999, KJRO released their first CD “Ellington Celebration”, a retrospective of Ellington’s music from the 1920’s to the 1970’s (1999 was also the centennial year of Ellington’s birth).  With the release of “Ellington Celebration”, KJRO established itself as one of the best jazz repertory orchestras currently performing.  Prior to November 2005, KJRO had performed mainly in concert settings.  But that was about to change.

Saturday, November 19, 2005 was the first Hepcats/UK School of Music big band swing dance collaboration.  How did that all come about?

Mike & Mary have been instrumental in establishing, developing and growing the swing dance scene in Lexington.  As the primary DJ at Hepcats events, Mike played a lot of swing-era big band music, and felt that a dance with live music from the big band genre would be appreciated and supported by theLexington swing dance community.  Mike and Mary toyed with the idea of a Hepcats/KJRO collaboration but really had no idea if the band would be receptive to playing for a swing dance.  In addition, Mike knew that paying the musicians in a first-rate, high quality 17 piece big band for a gig was not an inexpensive proposition.

In 2003, KJRO played a concert at the Univ. of Kentucky (UK) Singletary Center that was dedicated to the music of the great Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra.  The Lunceford Orchestra was considered one of the top big band orchestras in the swing-era (along with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman).  Knowing that KJRO played such great charts as “For Dancers Only”, “Lunceford Special” and “Four or Five Times” convinced Mike and Mary that a swing dance with KJRO providing the music was an absolute must for the Lexington/central Kentucky swing dance community!

In early 2005, Mike had a chance meeting with Dick Domek (then Professor of Music Theory at the UK School of Music) .  When Mike suggested the idea of KJRO playing for a Hepcats swing dance, Dick was all for it.  So we worked out the details for KJRO to play its first Big Band Dance for swing dancers on Saturday, November 19, 2005 at the UK Student Center Grand Ballroom.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Given the artistic success of the initial collaboration, additional events are normally scheduled in the spring and fall of each year.  At these events KJRO plays the original arrangements of the great big bands such as Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw, Harlan Leonard, Glenn Miller and others.  These events are one of the most anticipated dance events of the year for the Lexington/central KY area Lindy Hop and Balboa swing dance community.  These big band swing dances are a great way to get a feel for what it was like to dance in the 1930’s/40’s swing-era!

Attendees, to include dancers and non dancers, come from not only from theLexington area, but from around the region.  The connection, mutual respect and enthusiasm between KJRO band members and the swing dancers and audience is magical.  The band members enjoy playing for an audience that not only appreciates the music but also respects the rich history and culture of the swing-era.

In 2009, partly as a result of their experiences at these collaborations, KJRO released their second CD, “Flying Home”.  The CD contains 24 tracks, many of them favorites for swing dancers at these events.

Some of the great songs that KJRO plays at these collaborations include
(*=on the Ellington Celebration CD; **=on the Flying Home CD):

o **Flying Home, by Lionel Hampton.
o **For Dancers Only, **Lunceford Special, Four or Five Times, My Blue Heaven; Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, by Jimmie Lunceford.
o Rockin’ in Rhythm (*1930 and **1963 versions), **Jive Stomp”, *Stevedore Stomp, Take the A Train, **In a Mellotone, *Ring Dem Bells, *Drop Me Off in Harlem, Cottontail, by Duke Ellington.
o **Back Bay Shuffle, by Artie Shaw.
o **Swingtime in the Rockies (the 1938 Carnegie Hall version, 264 BPM!), **Sing, Sing, Sing, Bugle Call Rag; Christopher Columbus; King Porter Stomp; **Don’t Be That Way, by Benny Goodman.
o **Skee, **Hairy Joe Jump, **Too Much, by Harlan Leonard.
o **Doggin” Around, **Jumpin’ at the Woodside, **It’s Sand, Man, Splanky, by Count Basie.
o **Chatt. Choo Choo, String of Pearls, Little Brown Jug, Penn. 6-5000, by Glen Miller.

It was also determined that the students in the UK Jazz Ensemble (UKJE), directed by Miles Osland, would benefit from playing for swing dances.  UKJE consists of the most talented students in the award winning and nationally recognized UK Jazz Studies program.  So UKJE now sometimes provides the music for these collaborations.  UKJE plays many original swing-era arrangements, but also some different charts, such as charts from the famous Count Basie and Frank Sinatra “Sinatra at the Sands” performance at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.  UKJE also sometimes features vocalists from the nationally ranked UK Voice and Choral Studies program.

There are not many (if any) communities the size of Lexington that have regular swing dances with talented big band orchestra’s providing authentic, swing-era music, played from the original arrangements.

The Hepcats and KJRO really appreciate your support for these collaborations.  Thanks – and see you at the next Big Band Swing Dance!

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