By Ami Stix
Lexington High School’s annual Swing Night – an evening of fun with part of the proceeds going to the pura vida project, a student-run, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and young families throughout Central America.
Swing Night 2016 celebrated, once again, the classic American sounds of big band and swing with three hours of live music and dancing. More than 100 guests of all ages took to the dance floor in the Fiske gymnasium as the LHS Big Band, Jazz Ensemble and special guest, The Beantown Swing Orchestra took to the stage.
The evening was a delightful experience for those who could remember this uplifting music from their youth and for those that were new to the Big Band genre. The Boston Lindy Bomb Squad kicked off the evening with a lesson, teaching the basics to those born long after the boom in Big Band had ended.
Originally conceived as an event to raise money for various causes, Swing Night has become a staple of LHS Commencement week festivities as well as an opportunity to support a worthy cause. The first was in 2007 and called Dancing for Darfur. It featured Jazz Combo, Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Big Band. In this case, the Pura Vida Project of Lexington was the beneficiary. Families attend to support their musicians, graduates return to see friends and, increasingly, members of the community and local swing enthusiasts attend to hear some of the best live jazz west of Boston.
LHS Alum, Frank Hsieh’89 has been instrumental in propelling the popularity of Swing Night with his tremendous 18-piece orchestra as well as spreading his passion for the elegance and vitality of this jazz form. Hsieh took jazz improvisation classes at LHS and played in various combos and ensembles. He continued playing during his time at Cornell, forming his own band as an undergraduate. An avid swing enthusiast and dancer, he decided to start a large swing orchestra upon moving back to Boston. He credits Jeff Leonard as the most influential person in helping him to reach a high level of artistry and focus as jazz musician and for inspiring him to pass on those lessons to younger musicians with his orchestra.
Now in its 10th year, the Beantown Swing Orchestra is considered to represent the future of Big Band. Hseih (pronounced Shay) founded the ensemble with a mission to promote classic big band swing music and its history to younger generations and keep this music alive for future generations to enjoy. His band, whose members range in age from their teens to their early thirties, is a continuation of the tradition of the danceable swing style of bandleaders such as Benny Goodman and Count Basie.
The LHS Experience
Justin Aramati, director of the LHS Big Band considers swing music and swing dancing critical parts of the histories of Jazz and America. A term of praise for playing with a strong, rhythmic groove or drive, swing was the dominant form of American popular music from 1935 to 1945. It was the music of orchestras, led by masters like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, that first crossed societal barriers in appealing to young men and women of all races. “Swing Night is an opportunity for our students to experience that history in a direct and meaningful way. Getting to be a dance band for a night is fun! It’s also a way for us to connect with our community. It’s great to see so many people come out to dance,” says Aramati with a shy smile.
It is impressive to see these young musicians bring so much passion to classics that were popular with their grandparents. Music ranged from the elegant arrangements of Ellington and Carter to the playful rhythms of “Don’t Get Sassy” and “Count Bubba.” Featured student vocalist, Katharine Courtemanche was fresh and polished as she made Count Basie’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” her own.
In the tradition of supporting worthy causes, student involvement also extends to Swing Night’s charitable partners. For the last few years, a portion of the proceeds have benefited the Pura Vida Project, a student-run, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and young families throughout Central America. The PVP is comprised of approximately forty students from Lexington High School and beyond who share a passion for Latin American culture and for meaningful philanthropy. This year’s contribution will benefit the Latin American Children’s Fund.
Student organizers, Allie Antonevich’17 and Catherine Fiore’17–with a small army of PVP volunteers–managed the logistics of the evening: staffing the event and making sure that band directors and their musicians could focus on the evening’s performance.
Both young women found the project incredibly gratifying for a variety of reasons and expressed great satisfaction in being part of an effort that brought the community together for a common purpose. “I like that we are working for a cause outside of LHS. It’s something that is bigger than all of us,” Ms. Fiore pointed out. Swing Night represents Lexington at its best: its students, its music program and the ever-present desire to give back to the community. The evening has become a multi-generational celebration of culture, music and the sheer joy of dance. If you missed it this year, make sure your dancing shoes are shined for next June.