The Band Played On

Vocalist Graci Ragsdale came to the music somewhat late in life. As a child of the '50s, she wasn't around for big band's golden age, but she understands the music's hold on a generation.

"It brings back such wonderful memories to the people of that era," Ragsdale said. "Part of it is the nostalgia, the romance of the whole thing. They're transported to the best moments of their lives. They remember the jitterbug, waltzes, the two-step. There's a lot of interest in this music down here in Florida because of the older population. The music's influence lives on. I'm sure the people involved with the music at that time had no idea the impact the music would have in the future."

The impact, at the moment, is something of a trend. The movie Swingers, the "cocktail" scenes in some of the country's major cities, and the success of horn outfits like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Cherry Poppin' Daddies have spurred a nouveau-swing revolution. Frank Sinatra's death only intensified the trend, sending a handful of his decades-old recordings into the Top 40.

Miller noted the importance of having the older generation help to maintain the swing tradition. "These guys are getting older. Once they pass on, who's going to keep this music alive? They're living links to the past," he said.

Miller is a substitute teacher in Broward County and gives bass lessons at Sam Ash music store in Margate. While he's noticed the growing interest in big-band music among high-school students, he pointed out that technical ability only goes so far.

"Every high school has its own jazz band in the style of the big bands these days," he said. "I've invited students to experience the way these guys play, and some have come out. But very few students can really play it right. It's very artificial. Maybe by listening to these experienced guys they can learn how to play it from the heart."

Then, referring to his fellow band members, he added: "Though sometimes they can act like students, too."

The older musicians can't help but carry on -- that's what rehearsals are for. While working through "Miami Beach Rumba," for example, the mischievous Christianson wandered off the stage and shook his head in dismay. He traced a square in midair with his fingers and sat down at the side of the stage, refusing to play until the shaky brass section tightened up.

During these Saturday rehearsals, mistakes are greeted mostly with hoots and howls, reflections of the youthful enthusiasm that keeps these folks coming back week after week. They joke with each other, but they are serious about the music.

"In this music the interplay of each section with the others is very important. It's very exciting to listen to because it really shows off the expertise of the musicians," Miller said.

That experience is evident as vocalist Lolli navigates the tricky twists and turns of "Stardust," his expression dreamy. Lolli continues: "The melody haunts my memory/And I am once again with you/When our love was true and each kiss an inspiration/But that was long ago/Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song...."

For a moment everyone in the room forgets the bright sunlight flooding in through the door. To them it's midnight, there's a dance floor full of couples, and the only thing that matters is the melody that floats like bubbles through the air.

The Township Big Band rehearses in the community clubhouse every Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to noon. Listeners and dancers are welcome. The Township is located at Copans and Lyons roads, Coconut Creek. For more information contact Arnie Miller at 954-917-9061.

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