OGDEN — If the 1930s and ‘40s had their own greatest hits album, this would be it.
On Tuesday, the WSU Jazz Ensemble will present its fall concert, “Swing Spectacular,” at the Browning Center at Weber State University. The program will feature many of the most-beloved songs from the Big Band era.
“In the Mood.” “Moonlight Serenade.” “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” “Take the A Train.” “Begin the Beguine.” “Woodchopper’s Ball.” And that’s only a small selection of the tunes made popular by bands led by the likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Woody Herman.
“It’s definitely a lot of the greatest hits,” concedes Dan Jonas, director of the jazz ensemble.
Jonas, who is in his fourth year of teaching at Weber State, says his choice of tunes for this year’s program stemmed from the realization that his students hadn’t had much exposure to these songs.
“In conversation with students, many had not played these in performance, and I thought that was a travesty,” Jonas said. “Furthermore, any students who aspire to a career in jazz will have to be able to play these songs at some point.”
Jonas says a few of the songs on Tuesday’s program might be a bit more obscure — Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India,” for example. Although it was certainly a hit for Dorsey back in the day, it isn’t as well known these days as a “Moonlight Serenade” or “Begin the Beguine.”
Still, Jonas says he wanted to get “Song of India” on the program.
“That’s got such a great trombone solo — and I have a great lead trombonist, so I wanted to feature him,” he explained.
One of the most difficult tasks in putting together this swing program was finding the original music, according to Jonas. There are plenty of arrangements of these old big-band standards out there, but he wanted students to play — and audiences to hear — the original versions.
“The one piece if I could go back and had time to find, I wish we could do the theme song for the Benny Goodman Orchestra, a song called ‘Let’s Dance.’ It’s a great tune, a dance tune. That was his theme in the 1930s, but I just couldn’t find an original arrangement.”
And speaking of dancing, Jonas says in his “heart of hearts” he wanted to make Tuesday’s event a big-band dance, but there were just too many logistical problems to overcome with the venue.
“I really wish we could have made it a dance concert,” he said. “But this event — to make sure everybody stays safe — we’ll keep it largely as a listening concert.”
However, Jonas is quick to add that he can’t control what folks do out in the audience.
“I will freely encourage everybody to dance in the aisles as much as they can, or move around in their seats,” he said.
Along with the instrumental pieces, the WSU Vocal Jazz group, directed by Jennifer Erickson, will join the jazz ensemble to perform a couple of Andrews Sisters tunes — “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.”
“People think of this as strictly instrumental music, but there were many vocal songs back during the day,” Jonas said.
Another song Jonas says may be a bit more obscure for audiences on Tuesday night is “Woodchopper’s Ball.” However, he wanted to include it on the program to give his music students an opportunity to explore the improvisational aspects of jazz.
“For example, on ‘In the Mood” that solo is famous, and they’re required to play the original off the recording, just as it was scripted,” he said. “But some of these other songs, like ‘Woodchopper’s Ball,’ students will be given a chance to do some jazz improvisation of their own.”
Jonas thinks there are two reasons that big-band swing music has remained so popular over the decades. First, it’s just great music for moving one’s feet.
“Any time anybody can dance to music, they’ll enjoy it more,” he said. “Moreover, the dancing you tend to do to swing is energetic and fun. That part really communicates to people.”
Jonas also says there’s a lot of nostalgia that goes along with the big-band era. And he doesn’t think that modern audiences realize just how exciting the full sound of a big-band orchestra was to people in the 1930s and ‘40s.
“In our modern society today, we’re accustomed to the world being a loud place — I can hear jets roaring overhead right now,” Jonas said. “But it wasn’t that way back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Life was quieter. And this music, played by a full orchestra, was loud and invigorating.”
Jonas invites all to Tuesday’s concert, stressing that it’s getting harder and harder these days to hear swing music played live.
“Basically, it’ll be like a big party,” he said. “This is a unique opportunity — especially here in ogden — to hear this kind of music.”