By Don Heckman
Every Tuesday morning, at an hour in which jazz is rarely heard, a remarkable event takes place in Northridge, in the upper reaches of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. At Las Hadas Mexican Restaurant and Cantina, the Johnny Vana Big Band Alumni play a program of hard-swinging, big band classics for an audience of listeners and dancers. That’s right, dancers. Because Hadas’ large dance floor, surrounded by tables and booths, is filled with lively Lindy Hoppers and joyous jitterbuggers, grooving to every number in the Vana Band’s set.
That alone would make the programs fairly unique, at a time when dancing and jazz are not words one often sees in the same sentence — or in the same room. But they’re finding common cause at Las Hada’s every Tuesday at the odd time of 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. And yesterday’s celebratory Christmas program, filled with buoyantly swinging holiday classics, offered a prime remembrance of the deep connections that have in fact always existed between jazz and dancing.
The Big Band Alumni group is aptly named. Virtually every member of the seventeen piece ensemble has credits reaching from Jimmy Dorsey and Glen Miller to Stan Kenton, Count Basie and beyond. Despite their silver hair, however, they played such jazz staples as “One O’Clock Jump” and “String of Pearls” with an irrepressible blend of easygoing familiarity and high spirited youthfulness.
The soloists, especially tenor saxophonist Dave Pell – a bandleader in his own right – delivered with similar effectiveness. Like many of the Alumni’s arrangements, their phrasing and rhythmic accents traced to Swing era roots that had grown to maturity in the rich blossoms of bebop. At their best, the Alumni were offering music that offered far more than nostalgic re-creations of the past.
Singers Bonnie Bowden and Bill A. Jones provided the perfect vocal balance for the driving instrumentals. Bowden’s airy timbre, soaring range and convincing versatility were at their best in everything from a gently swinging rendering of Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You” to a rollicking take on Fats Waller’s “This Joint Is Jumpin’.” And on Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings,” she virtually became a member of the band, applying her focused soprano to the high note, lead trumpet line.
Jones’s warm baritone, brisk rhythmic flow and easygoing phrasing brought life and substance to everything he sang. In his version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” sung to Nelson Riddle’s memorable arrangement, he found the Sinatra magic and applied it in his own unique fashion.
The floor, meanwhile, was filled with dancers of every imaginable age and shape. Many were as silver haired as the Big Band Alumni, but both the skill and the intensity level of their dancing seemed to have a lot more to do with sheer enthusiasm than it did with longevity. More to the point, there was a feeling of togetherness in the room, a feeling of sharing the life and the spirit of the music, that was everywhere present, among dancers and non-dancers, young and old.
And that, as much as anything, is what made this seemingly unlikely, brunch-time performance by Vana’s Big Band Alumni into such an enjoyable experience. No wonder so many in the crowd were repeat visitors. If the word gets out, one day a week may not be enough to accommodate all the lovers of dance and jazz out there.