by Britt Aamodt
Special to the Star News
Outside, on the streets of America, former Wall Street bankers warm hands at barrels. They’re the Lost Men, their fortunes lost in what journalists call the Great Depression, the economic roller coaster ride that seems to have only one direction — down, straight down.
Franklin Roosevelt is in the White House. The New Deal is on everyone’s tongue in the form of acronyms: WPA, CCC and FDR. And children walk to school in second-hand clothes and shoes lined with cardboard to cover the holes.
Still, there’s fun to be had in this soul-busting climate of want and deprivation. Just open the door to Club Swing and hand your coat to the gal with a smile that has no memory of hard times. Yeah, this is the place, Club Swing, where the music’s hot, the drinks are cool and the legend lives forever.
Minneapolis-based music group, Five By Design, is bringing “Club Swing” to Elk River’s Zabee Theater Friday, Feb. 11. “Club Swing” is part theater and part musical performance, tied together by a swinging soundtrack from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s and a man called Joe.
Joe is the mythical narrator of the tale. He’s actually Alton Accola, one of the founding members of Five By Design, but for the purposes of the show, he’s the guy who bumps into a dilapidated Club Swing and finds himself turning back the clock. He remembers the club in its heyday, and the music performed there.
Swing music is the star of “Club Swing,” says Terrence Niska, the group’s bass singer.
“The music progresses chronologically,” he says. “One of the opening songs is ‘Begin the Beguine,’ a huge hit for Artie Shaw. We also sing ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing,’ basically the theme of the Big Band era.”
The era of Big Band and swing music went hand-in-hand with nightclub society. Swing music had its official start in August 1935, when Benny Goodman appeared in Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom. The music didn’t just materialize overnight. But Goodman’s performance crystallized the leaner ensemble style of jazz music that featured soloists, improvisation and a strong rhythm section.
Swing was the dominant form of American popular music from the mid-’30s through the mid-’40s. It introduced a high note to the crushing weight of the Depression. Clubs provided the night-time venue for people looking to sail away on a menu of hits performed by the greats of their day — Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Lunceford and, later, a young Frank Sinatra.
Swing didn’t end with the Depression, neither did nightclubs; but they evolved. Five By Design reflects the changing times in their musical numbers, which follow Joe through the war years and ’50s optimism.
They run through Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa,” Spike Jones’ “Cocktails for Two” and another half-dozen chestnuts that lead some audience members down memory lane, says Niska.
“One of the best parts of my job is talking with audience members,” he says. “A woman lost her husband in World War II. She told us she felt younger and younger with each passing song. Or we hear, ‘I recently lost my wife and this was her song.’”
Five By Design began in the early 1980s, but they hit their stride a few years later with “Radio Days,” a musical homage to radio’s golden era. The group has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a career highlight for Niska, and with symphony orchestras around the country.
Whether recollecting radio days or swing-time gems, Five By Design uses a set list of yesteryear hits to “take people someplace else, to simpler times, when people knew their neighbors,” says Niska. “The songs that stand the test of time go beyond lyrics and orchestration. They create something magical that touches people even generations afterward.”
If you go:
Five By Design perform “Club Swing,” a musical journey through the hits of the Swing Era.
When: Friday, Feb. 11, 2011, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Zabee Theater in Elk River
Part of the Elk River Area Arts Alliance’s Performance Series