The August edition of the 10th annual Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island in New York harbor was particularly festive, sporting a nod to Gatsby and Gilded Age devil-may-care sensibility.
Michael Arenella, the leader of his Dreamland Orchestra, whose luscious renditions of 1920s swing-style jazz provide the energetic rhythm to the day, toasted 10 years of creating this event from scratch, from basically a gathering of 40 friends to a thousand, dressed to the nines, over four days of summer, and turning the Jazz Age Lawn Party into one of the city’s top, must-be-at events.
“Why keep alive the music of a bygone era?” he asks as he toasts the crowd. Well, besides the fact that the music is just spectacular, for Arenella, it isn’t “old” at all, but captures “the- energy and spirit of 1920s rebellion, free thinking, cutting restraints of the past, though the ‘past’ was the era of the future, of joy.”
There is certainly joy. Everyone is smiling broadly, from the moment they get on the Governors Island ferry from the tip of Manhattan and leave all cares behind, emerging into a long-ago era where you get to leave your cares behind. The setting is perfect – the historic structures on Governors Island date back to the War of 1812, the fort used during the Civil War and World War II.
Arenella preserves this illusion of having been transported in time exquisitely, affecting the style and phrasing of a 1920s bandleader when he introduces the music. “The next tune has a bit of the dark side, a bit of the voodoo – craze coming over the youth in the dance halls,” he says. “It’s called The Blues -a dangerous phenomenon. Listen at your peril” and then offers a stunning rendition of “The Vo-Do-Do-De-O Blues ” by Ambrose Orchestra, London, 1926).
“Blues makes you lose all conception of time,” he jokes when an orchestra member plays an extra beat.
Really, he is also giving us a world-class seminar in music of the age – without any one realizing it.
Indeed, Arenella has searched the music archives and personally transcribed “by hand their entire repertoire from period recordings. Their delivery, as well as their instruments, attire, and equipment — are faithfully accurate. Arenella’s strong yet vulnerable baritone lacks pretense or sarcasm. He treasures each lyric, and has faith in the songs he sings. Even the most optimistic Tin Pan Alley tune has a disarming quality in his hands.”
He gives wonderful anecdotes about the music, such as how the ukelele has become such a popular instrument. He introduces a selection saying, “This is when the dance floor turns into floating carpet of pleasure,” and another, called “Crazy Quilts,” by saying “Jump upon the Crazy Quilt and let fly”.
It’s an around the world tour, too. “Crazy Quilt,” he notes, was introduced by a British dance band, and he gives a “tip of the hat to Spain with a song called ‘Spanish Shawl.’ Make sure you listen for the finger castanets.”
There is a constant stream of entertainment throughout the afternoon.
Gorgeously choreographed and costumed dance performances by Roddy Caravella’s Canarsie Wobblers and the Dreamland Follies with Gregory Moore (doing a wonderful evocation of the Ziegfeld Follies); The Minsky Sisters, a 1920s-inspired sisters tap act in the tradition of classic vaudevillian family acts; Peter Mintun, a leading interpreter of early 20th century popular music who regals on the piano, Jesse Gelber Band, and Queen Esther, an award-winning vocalist with a four-octave range who is also a songwriter, actor, and recording artist performing regularly in NYC with her jazz quintet The Hot Five (she also can be heard at Gin Fizz Harlem (ginfizzharlem.com), an elegant Harlem speakwasy of the20s, and Minton’s Harlem (www.mintonsharlem.com).
Musical interludes on vintage 78 records (shellac) from the 1920s are played on a 1905 antique Phonograph by DJ MAC, who delights in the scratchy, high-pitched “low fidelity” quality.
But the unquestioned star of the day long festival is Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra, one of the world’s great Jazz Age dance bands, specializing in the Hot-Jazz of the 1920s. Arenella is a conductor, composer, musician (during the day he plays trumpet and trombone) and singer, using a vintage megaphone at times. (Michael Arenalla also can be heard Wednesday nights, 8:30-11:30 at the Clover Club, see www.dreamlandorchestra.com).
The music permeates your being. It is pure joy.
People come off the ferries from Manhattan and Brooklyn by the droves, carrying their picnic paraphernalia – some with elaborate candelabra, china, crystal and linen.
More and more people are regulars, coming year and year, like Heidi Rosenau and Joe McGlynn of Manhattan, who always dazzle on the dance floor with their swing dance steps (she took third place in the Charleston contest).
The romantic spell that is cast is addictive. In June, Arenella announced that a couple in the Bathing Beauties and Beaus Promenade had met at an earlier Jazz Age Lawn Party and would soon be married; in August, after Arenella’s heart-felt 10th anniversary toast, Sherridon Poyer took to the middle of the dance floor on one knee to propose to Cara Gaudy of New York City (she accepted and they danced).
It is marvelous to see families with young children – some mere babes in arms, and some who grab their own partners to dance with.
It isn’t hard to believe you have returned to the Jazz Age because of the authenticity and attention to detail.
In addition to sensational entertainment – the music, the choreographed dance routines, the spectacular costumes (by Gretchen, we are told), dance lessons (Roddy Caravella and his wife led an enthusiastic crowd in Charleston lessons on Saturday and Peabody on Sunday), and even a second stage of jazz groups (and a magician), there are many other marvelous activities: you can imbibe vintage-inspired cocktails, join in the Charleston contest (Eden Atencio, a jewelry designer with Tiffany and Jazz Age Lawn Party regular, was the winner), pie contest (in June, categories included “Mom’s Best” “Best Savory” “Most Original” and “Hobo’s Choice” which is defined as a pie so good a hobo can’t resist stealing from the window sill; for entry email: firstname.lastname@example.org), and finally, enjoy a Bathing Beauties and Beaus Promenade (curated by Voon Chew).
VIPs (who pay a premium for tickets), in the finest tradition of Gatsby-excess, are treated to reserved tables, an exquisite catered lunch (oysters, salmon among the fare), and a bar featuring period-appropriate cocktails), with an atmosphere to transport you back to the Gilded Age.
And if you find yourself without a 1920s outfit, there are vintage clothiers (like The Original Prohibition Clothing Company) from which you can buy or rent, sensational hat designs from Dora Marra and Lisa Shaub, parasols, suspenders, and such.
Arenella gazes out over the sea of “Ladies and Gents” and says, “This is the best looking crowd anywhere,” and is genuinely appreciative that so many have given themselves totally to the Jazz Age spell.
If the pattern is repeated, look for the next Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island in June and August, likely to be sell-outs as this year (best to purchase tickets in advance at www.jazzagelawnparty.com.
Michael Arenella and Dreamland Orchestra brings Jazz Age to Governors Island and slideshow