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At the Hyatt, A New Generation Is Tripping The Light Fantastic Alongside Their Grandparents

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  John Sutherland's eyes go all far-away when he gazes across the brick-tiled lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel to the bandstand at its far end. There's plenty to see—the couples twirling, some more gracefully than others, on the makeshift dancefloor; the rows of gray-haired spectators watching intently from seats at the side; the 18-piece orchestra in snappy tuxedos swinging their way through another classic song chart—but it's the sounds that captivate the wiry, grizzled audio technician.

"I can't get enough of this music," he says, perched on the edge of the Hyatt's shallow circular fountain. "It's sort of like turning the clock back. I really do feel like I've had years taken off every time I come in here."

Sutherland grew up with big band music. He loves its warm rhythms, its brassy melodies, its complex syncopation. But for years, he had resigned himself to its eventual extinction; he was sure the sound would die out with the men and women who first fell in love with it (and to it) in the 1930s and '40s. A radio enthusiast, he scoured the nation's airwaves for big-city stations that still remembered names like Dorsey, Goodman, and Miller.

"Back in the '60s, I thought rock 'n' roll had totally wiped out this kind of music," he says, his voice quavering. "When I found out there were bands performing this music live in Knoxville, I cried, I was so happy."

In fact, the sound of swing and the classy, classic dances that accompany it are jumping—here and across the nation—with more verve than they have in years. On dancefloors everywhere, young men in goatees and their hemp-jewelry-bedecked dates are stepping out to music their grandparents sent to the top of the charts. And in Knoxville, there's no night with more sizzle and sway than the Hyatt's monthly dances.

Play It Again, Al

BA-BA-DA-BOP-BOP-BA-DA-DA...The opening notes ring through the lobby like a sassy mating call, and the couples clustered in fours and eights around the periphery of the dancefloor respond. Within 30 seconds, the large rectangle of carpet between the fountain and the bandstand is a tangle of male and female, young and old, bright dresses, shiny shoes, and pastel sportcoats.

The song is "In the Mood," and so Al Curtis is. As he directs the orchestra that bears his name, the white-haired band leader shows no sign that 51 years as a musician—and who knows how many renditions of the ubiquitous Glenn Miller standard—have in any way dulled his enthusiasm. With a wide smile and a small, stout build, he presides over the 18-piece ensemble like a friendly monarch, a natty King Cole in an old-fashioned tux. For the mostly retired Curtis, who for years balanced a music career with one in public television, the dances are a way to keep his hometown swinging.

"It's very reminiscent of the days when I was a youth," he says, when big hotels across the nation were the stop-off points for a steady stream of now-legendary band leaders: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Louis Armstrong.

Curtis started playing trombone as a kid and was still in high school when he began to get paying gigs with the Coy Tucker Band in 1946. After he graduated, he played with several regional touring ensembles, led by people like Sammy Graham and Dick Jones. He eventually signed on with a series of circus troupes, culminating in a stint with the Ringling Brothers band.

Returning to Knoxville, he put together his own group in the early '60s, which over time grew into the Al Curtis Orchestra. Along the way, he had plenty of chances to trade shop talk with the era's biggest names.

"Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and Sammy Kaye were a little bit aloof," he recalls. "People like Guy Lombardo, Jimmy Dorsey—the opposite person of Tommy—were really down-to-earth. Louis Armstrong was really down-to-earth...Most of those guys accepted you as a musician, and it was just a camaraderie."

He adds with a chuckle, "Guy Lombardo told me one time the best way to keep your band together is to never let your band have a drink before the midnight break. Because then you've [only] got an hour left to play, so they can't get drunk."

About 20 years ago, Curtis was thinking about retiring his horn and his band (then a nine-piece combo known as a "sweet band"). But he was approached by Paul Sherbakoff, an old friend who had recently become general manager of the Hyatt. Some other Hyatt hotels around the country had begun hosting regular "tea dances" with some success, and Sherbakoff wondered if the same thing could work in Knoxville.

"There appeared to be a resurgence of people who liked big band music," says Sherbakoff, who recently retired as executive director of the city's Civic Coliseum/Auditorium complex. He wanted to tap into that interest—mostly among people who were then middle-aged—to boost the relatively new hotel's profile. The response outstripped all his expectations—"We had large crowds from the start, a lot of folks."

The free dances quickly became monthly events (usually held on the third or fourth Friday). Over the years, Curtis honed his music to suit the tastes of the crowd. As requests for more swing, more big band, more four-beat dance tunes increased, so did the size of his orchestra, until it reached its current line-up: piano, bass, drums, guitar, five saxes and clarinet, three trumpets, and three trombones (not counting Curtis, who says he'd rather direct than play these days).

Mixed Company

As the crowds have grown—two months ago, Curtis says there were about 800 people, one of the largest turnouts ever—they've also grown more diverse. It's something Frank and Vivian Kirk have noted with pleasure.

"We've noticed in recent years there is a trend for a lot more young people coming here," says Frank, resting between dances on a couch in the Hyatt lobby. The US Navy veteran learned to dance 50 years ago when he married Vivian (she learned from a young man who worked at her parents' small-town cafe). Ardent Glenn Miller fans, the West Knoxville couple figure they've been coming to the Hyatt dances almost as long as they've been held. For them, there's no mystery in the younger generation's newfound zeal.

"It's the kind of music you can only dance to with partners," adds Frank, a retired engineering consultant who puts out a regular public works newsletter. "All of the other contemporary music over the years, the partners are independent of one another."

"It's more fun to have a partner," agrees Susan Hilderbrand, a tall University of Tennessee graduate student walking off the dance floor with companion Raj Kumar. This is her first Hyatt dance; she came at the urging of Kumar, who belongs to a dance club at Tennessee Technical University in Cookeville. "The kind of thing you do at [Old City dance club] the Underground was good for a while," she says, "but this gives you more options. It's more of a community thing."

Both say they enjoy sharing the dancefloor with couples two or three times their age.

"I've been here previous times," Kumar says, "and there was a guy in his 60s and there was a group of high school and university students, and he was teaching them steps. They were really getting into it."

Kind of like the trio of high-school kids sitting at one of the tables, watching with raised eyebrows and open mouths as Brenda Williams and Cliff Butcher spiral and slink across the floor a few feet away. At the end of the song—the "St. Louis Blues"—the kids clap, more for the dancers than the band.

The senior couple has been dancing together for about two-and-a-half years. Williams took lessons at a dance studio just five years ago; Butcher's been cutting rugs since he graduated from high school in 1941. ("World War II taught me if you can dance, you can have a ball," he says. "If you can't dance, you're a wallflower.")

Regulars at the Hyatt—although they wish it had a real wooden dancefloor—Williams and Butcher are fans of elegant ballroom dancing and "low-down blues."

"There's a romance to it, a way of expressing your personality and feelings," Williams says.

Of the new crop of young dancers, Butcher says, "They're finally learning you can dance close to someone."

"I think they probably always wanted to, but it wasn't cool," Williams adds.

Trendy Again

It's definitely cool now. Observers of the scene note a host of recent phenomena that have pushed big band music and swing dancing into the spotlight: movies like the cult hit Swingers, revivalist bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the rediscovery of other trappings of upscale life like martinis and cigars.

And there's another factor as well: The generation raised on rock and rap and aimless nightclub herky-jerk dance steps has, well, grown up.

"I think people are just getting tired of that," says Tony DeDominick, who has taught dance classes locally for 20 years and is handing out his cards at the Hyatt dance. "Women don't have any desire to get into the mosh pit, and as you get older, you want to do something more sophisticated and stylish."

Many of the younger people on hand tonight are UT students enrolled in Dr. Gene McCutchen's ballroom dance class. McCutchen requires students to attend at least one Hyatt dance each semester, and she says most of them return for more. For the veteran dancer and teacher—she's been at UT since 1970—the swing trend has meant balanced classes for the first time in ages.

"Over the years, I've always been able to get women," McCutchen says. "The women always want in the classes. But for years and years, it was like pulling teeth to get the same number of men as women."

Usually, she allows 40 to 50 students in each class; last spring, she had 68 students, half of them men.

DeDominick doesn't expect the current surge—which started in bigger cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—to last forever. He compares it to the disco era, when an audience weary of hard rock adopted a music that allowed them to dress up and dance close.

"It's a cycle," he says. "If John Travolta made a movie about it, maybe that would help."

Back at the fountain, Sutherland shows no signs of moving from his roost, even when the tempo picks up. As much as he enjoys watching the dancers, he confesses he's never been much of a light-stepper.

"I never really learned to dance, but I just groove to the music," he says. His face reddening a bit, he grins and adds, "Once in a great while, if someone comes up and asks me to dance and she's good-looking and doesn't mind that I can't dance, I will anyway."

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