The 18-piece Beantown Swing Orchestra blew into town Sunday to lay down some merry riffs at Concord’s Annual Tree Lighting celebration. The joint was jumping as revelers bounced in the street to the big band’s jolly, mad beats.
Some local cats were in the mix: CCHS Senior ace Sophie Richardson on trombone and Junior Ben Lyczkowski with the balloon lungs on trumpet. The two Patriots have been playing with Beantown way back since middle school days.
CCHS freshman crazy-skills trumpeter and Select Chorus belter Anthony Babu was also with the crew in his first year debut. The CCHS Select Choir took the stage to croon some tunes a capella. A handful stayed on to each take a verse in Beantown’s originally-arranged Twelve Days of Christmas.
Lexington native Frank Hseih founded the band 17 years ago and roughly estimates around 500 youth have worked with the band over the years. Hseih got hooked on swing, one of the most popular and culturally unique art forms to come out of America, during the genre’s 1990’s revival in New York and Boston and other cities around the country. The Cornell engineering alum was cutting up the rug six nights a week at swing performances and didn’t want the fun to end. Starting the band was his side-gig solution to carrying on the legacies of the Big Band greats.
“Frank is crazy at logistics.” noted saxophonist Ethan Weisman in the warming tent pre-show where band members mulled about greeting each other excitedly, frisking their whiskers and tuning up. “Frank does everything. He’s everywhere just running around taking care of it all.”
Arriving on the heels of the Great Depression, Swing’s upbeat rhythms brought escape to a weary country. The new music evolved out of New Orleans’ blues, ragtime and jazz traditions. Brilliant and inventive instrumentalists lay down an energetic 4-beat “walking bass” rhythm, added a triplet hi-hat cymbal, layered in piano or guitar licks, then brought the heat – call from woodwinds, response from brass. With instrument battles and joyful lyrics on top, the genius artists cracked a giddy sound that drove teenagers and adults — black and white and all shades between — to the dance floor.
“You have that steady pulse which is pretty much the essence of Swing, generating that dance beat.” says Hsieh. “They’re short songs and — BOOM — it’s in your face, intense music.”
Artists of color Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Jimmie Lunceford pioneered the art form. “King of Swing” white musician Benny Goodman slingshot the genre onto air waves when he performed at the Palomar Ballroom in L.A. in 1935.
Count Basie out of Kansas City, Louis Armstrong out of Chicago, songstresses Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and countless other artists were already accomplished musicians by the time they were in their teens and would go on to become global sensations still worshiped today.
Hsieh, ever on the lookout for standout talent, recruits at CMS, CCHS and other Boston-area middle and high schools. In true big band spirit, older members with gig experience and honed skills mentor younger newcomers. Beantown alumni include an American Idol finalist and chart-topping band members like base-player Bridget Kearney and lead singer Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive.
“No one teaches swing the proper way anymore,” said Hsieh. “You have to really listen to it and then play it together.” Beantown instruction drives home key elements like energy, confidence and showmanship, hallmarks of swing.
Beantown players are often star classical players in their school or state orchestras and exhibit exceptional technical skills.
“Swing is more like classical than jazz, because it’s sectional playing,” notes Hsieh. “It’s playing with a group. You need to know how to play together. It’s like teamwork.”
Not only do these Beantown gators have crazy chops, they’re also playing on vintage (pre-WWII) restored instruments in order to pull authentic Swing Era tones.
“The craftsmanship was so much better,” says Hsei. “The saxophones had a fuller sound, better for blending into a section. And the trumpets’ and trombones’ sound was the opposite. They were brighter and sharper to cut through the big rhythm section.”
Historically, female musicians, despite being some of the most accomplished and technically-skilled players on the Big Band scene, were fewer in number and faced relentless discrimination from media and record labels. Beantown proudly honors the historic female artists like “Queen of the Trumpet” Valaida Snow, all around music savant Lil Harding Armstrong and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
“It’s great to pay tribute to how it was,” noted Beantown lead alto and clarinetist high school senior Emma Lacy from Foxborough, “but then we get to bring in more diversity to the music now. The band is just so friendly and supportive and fun.”
On Sunday night, with the newly-lit Concord holiday tree sparkling sky high, the Beantown Swing’s rhythm section was in the pocket for three wild sets. Brass and wind sections pumped the crowd’s heart as they played Swing renditions of Christmas classics and some favorites like Chattanooga Choo Choo and In the Mood. Lyczkowski jumped in on voice, raising a jubilant hometown ruckus.
“It is just happy, fun music and I think that’s what people need, especially coming out of the pandemic,” remarks Hsieh.
Ethan Weisman rounded out the third set with a couple of rockin’ crowd-pleaser holiday favorites. And throughout the entire, blazing gig, singing canaries Rhiannon Hurst and Carolina Pérez wailed their smooth, gorgeous notes home. It was a memorable barn-burner 2022 holiday performance.
The Beantown Swing orchestra plays for hire at events all across New England as well as high school programs and assemblies. Catch them every August at Crane’s Estate for their annual blow-out outdoor concert/dance party. @beantownswing and www.beantownswing.com for more info.