It’s a remarkable testament to staying power that tunes first topping the music charts in the 1930s and 40s remain popular today. Indeed, the work of big band leaders like Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers continues to find life and a broad range of fans from all age groups via modern swing orchestras such as Standing Room Only, the 16-member big band that will be performing at the annual Classic Theatre Festival fundraiser Swing into Spring event at the Perth Civitan Saturday, May 3 at 7 pm.
Now marking its 11th anniversary, Standing Room Only started in 2003 when trombonist and Almonte resident Catherine Illingworth brought some musical friends together under the direction of a former Glebe Collegiate Institute music teacher, Stan Clark. Among the original band members was Elizabeth Sampson, who will be playing alto saxophone and clarinet on May 3.
Sampson represents that growing corps of musicians worldwide who remain entranced with big band and swing music, defying the popular wisdom that anything older than yesterday’s twitter feed could possibly interest anyone. In fact, as Sampson and Standing Room Only members point out, the interest is shared by everyone from octogenarians to pre-teens, all of whom show up at their popular monthly tea dances at the Almonte Town Hall. (Sampson’s 12-year-old son also plays clarinet and enjoys selling tickets at the tea dances).
A member of her high school band, Sampson recalls playing marches and Beatles tunes, but never anything from the golden age of swing. Following a 20-year hiatus from music, during which she studied architecture at Carleton and went on to work both for the federal government and in private practice, Sampson answered the call from Illingworth and got back into the cycle of weekly band rehearsals, often in her basement, and a growing list of concert and dance commitments.
While Standing Room Only’s authenticity is often based on finding the original arrangements for classics from In the Mood and One O’Clock Jump to Mack the Knife and the Pink Panther, the band is open to new arrangements from the like of Michael Buble’s band.
Sampson particularly enjoys the way in which the instruments in the band complement each other, building in melody while allowing for improvisation. Asked whether her architectural background influences her approach to music, Sampson agrees with the analogy, noting “there is a structure to the music, with 12 or 16 bar phrases. We have lots of engineers and computer people in the band.”
While Sampson must pay attention to the music and her band director during performances, she cannot help but notice the infectious enthusiasm on the dance floor as couples and individuals foxtrot, waltz, and tango to the band’s tunes. “This music is a lot of fun to dance to,” she says, “and it’s very democratic. Everyone dances with everyone else.”
Sampson says that for the film, the band spent an evening at the Sala San Marco on Preston Street in Ottawa, with the inside done up like the fabled Cotton Club. They were provided white dinner jackets and went through the motions of playing music while dancers took their lead from a piece playing over the radio. “But everyone was very stiff because we were pretending to play this music that was coming out of a radio and everyone was getting frustrated,” she recalls. “So we collectively decided that we would strike out and play ‘In the Mood’, and the dancers started dancing like they hadn’t been dancing all night. The director came up and exclaimed, ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for from you!’ So they ended up having us perform a live piece which was a lot of fun for us.”
On May 3, free dance lessons will be provided from 7-8 pm. The show, a benefit for the Classic Theatre Festival, will also feature a silent auction with items ranging from tickets to the Stratford and Shaw Festivals to other surprise goodies.
Tickets to Swing into Spring are on sale for $25 at Tickets Please (39 Foster Street in Perth) or by calling (613) 485-6434.