Swingin' Caesarea

The jazz festival, which is exclusively based on swing, is back by popular demand.

saxophone 88 (photo credit: )
saxophone 88
(photo credit: )
When Duke Ellington composed "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" in 1932, he couldn't have known that some 70 years later this jazz style would resonate through the magnificent ruins of Caesarea. In a way, that says it all. The universally appealing swing style that emerged with the jazz exodus from Chicago to New York is, for the second year, about to get Israelis bopping and grooving against what must surely be one of the most impressive backdrops on the global jazz festival circuit. Last year's inaugural Caesarea Jazz Festival, which is exclusively based on swing, was a highly polished affair, and the atmosphere was charged with a merry, devil-may-care ambiance rarely found in this part of the world. The debut success prompted the festival organizers to extend the initial two-dayer into a three-day event this year (June 8-10). "It is definitely [back] by popular demand," says festival producer Menahem Dothan. "So far, almost everyone who bought tickets last year has come back, and there will be plenty more. I'm sure of that." With such a magnificent setting, it's small wonder that swing artists are happy to make the trek to the historic site. "I wanted to play in Caesarea last year," says Washington DC-born saxophonist Harry Allen, "but the dates were changed and it didn't work out. I'm really happy to be finally making it." Allen and his quintet are the opening act on June 8 and will no doubt get the festival rolling in style. I caught up with Allen by telephone at his hotel in Odessa, Texas, where he was performing at the West Texas Jazz Party festival. Considering he just turned 40, Allen appears to be living and working in something of a time warp. Swing-style jazz started out in the late 1920s, peaking in the Thirties and early Forties as big bands led by the likes of Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong had audiences all over America and Europe jumping and jiving with abandon. Swing eventually gave way to the more cerebral (and less danceable) rhythms of modern jazz - primarily bebop - although singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald kept pumping out insouciant swing beats like there was no tomorrow, and making a decent living in the process. What, then, turned Allen on to an art form that began almost 40 years before he was born and passed its heyday two decades before he was even a twinkle in his parents' eye? He readily admits to growing up in something of a musical cocoon. "My dad used to be a jazz drummer, so I heard a lot of jazz around the house when I was a kid," he recalls. "When I finally started listening to the radio and heard the commercial stuff of the day, I just thought it all sounded so simple and uninteresting." "I've always loved the sound of the tenor [saxophone] players of the Forties and Fifties," he explains. "I really love the sound of guys like [legendary saxophonists] Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. They had a very full sound." Allen has a succinct response to any suggestion that he makes his living playing music that belongs to a different era. "I think you could say that about jazz musicians today," he says. "There aren't a whole lot of guys out there now playing stuff that is way, way out. A lot of saxophone players [were inspired by free jazz legend] John Coltrane, and that was a long time ago, too. So we're all doing that. Swing is only 20 years older than the more modern jazz." At the end of the day, Allen says that what he does is about the feelings it creates, not musical trends or history. "I like to bring out good emotions rather than angst," he says. "There is a joy to swing that I think appeals to everyone." If the mood of last year's Caesarea Jazz Festival is any indication of what we can expect this year, Allen has hit the nail on the head. Besides the Harry Allen Quintet, festival-goers of this year's Caesarea swing event will be able to revel in the joyous rhythms and textures of the Dutch Swing College Band, an eight-piece ensemble which, aided by natural turnover, has been glorifying the sounds of Dixieland and other New Orleans-bred genres for over 60 years. The last night of the festival features a quintet led by celebrated vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, who is considered one of the leading purveyors of swing in the world today. And, just so the foreign guests don't have it all their way, the musical proceedings will start out each evening at 7:30 with a show by Israel's own homegrown swing specialists. Dothan says he and the festival production team are pulling out all the stops to guarantee that a good time is had by all this year. "I think it's going to be an even greater success this year. I just want everyone to have fun," he says. For more information about the Caesarea Jazz Festival, visit www.caesarea.org.il/jazz.