Dancing to Big Band Memories

for my father

by Amy Martin (c)


I watched as he faded into the mist of memories the music had evoked.

“This was before your time, of course,” my father said. A sly smile crossed his face as he leaned back into his easy chair and stretched his feet upon the ottoman. Though his vision was failing and his health frail, he could still hear as well as he ever could, and though it was more than 40 years ago when he was a young man in his twenties, this was something he could never forget.

“It’s the most beautiful song ever written,” he said, as the strains of “Stardust” filled the living room.

“Ah yes, Willie Nelson,” I said. He shook his head ruefully at my youth.

“Those lyrics are nonsense. This is a horn song.” The clear, sweet sound of Artie Shaw swept us away on an nostalgic arc of memories, from when my father’s life was simpler, before the war and before the family, a country boy with a college degree ready to take on the world. Listening to “My Blue Heaven,” we soared through the stress, isolation and tedium of years of Pacific duty in World War II, imagining Shaw was with his big Navy band broadcasting over Armed Forces radio.

Many a woman, my mother included, was romanced to the Big Band sound back then, an era when generational taboos made emotions difficult for men to verbalize. But the horns, the horns said it all better than my father or any man ever could. In the jaunty, swinging “American Patrol,” the vamping background horn lines and swaggering trumpet solo captured the bravado of war time, yet unmistakable is the tinge of melancholy, of loneliness and fears and questions in the night so far way from home.

Just play some Glenn Miller and almost everyone one in their sixties and seventies will smile through misty eyes. He was the lost prince of swing who could capture the energy and optimism of the ‘40s with his sassy jazz arrangements of “In the Mood” or “Tuxedo Junction.” And he defined the gentler emotions as well. In the just two and a half minutes it takes to play “Moonlight Serenade,” Miller’s entwining melodies crystallize perfectly the grace and beauty of couples falling in love.

Sitting there next to my father, I felt a tap on my shoulder. My husband lured me across the living room. Cheek to cheek, awkward and stepping on each other’s feet, for a moment it didn’t matter that it was a linoleum floor and a sixty-watt bulb, and for a moment it wasn’t me and my husband. In my father’s eyes, it was the twinkling soft lights and polished wood boards of a Texas ballroom long ago, and it was he and my mother in better days, slow dancing to the big band sound.


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