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Archive for the ‘dancing’ Category

High school prom season’s pretty well over, at least where I live. It looks like the local newspapers have squeezed out their very last prom photo galleries.

(I used to work for a chain of weekly papers in Massachusetts that considered local proms to be a big annual rite of passage and a must-cover. I escaped having to cover my town’s prom by the simple method of getting married and going on my honeymoon at the right time. Worked like a charm. I could only play that card once, of course … but by the following May, I’d gotten another job. That worked too.)

I don’t mind writing about proms, if I don’t actually have to go stand around and ask teenagers mushmouthed questions.

So this week, I’ll finally write about a prom … but from a different angle than I would have taken as a journalist.

This week, the story’s not about the kids. It’s about the grown-ups who pick up a couple bucks making their big night special.

June 2, 1962. Appropriately, this photo is No. 622 in its batch.

June 2, 1962. Yanks cruise to a win; Mets stumble to two losses.

Just a year removed from high school himself, my dad got hired to play the Darien High School prom, Darien being the town just to the east of Stamford.

The concept of live musicians at a high school prom seems alien to me. In my youth, the soundtrack to prom was provided by a DJ spinning the hits of the fortnight, just as they were heard on the radio.

(The local morning-radio jock who spun at Penfield High’s proms a quarter-century ago is apparently still on Top 40 radio in Rochester. Wonder how many proms he’s been to.)

My dad says the musical menu at Darien High was a mix of swing tunes (i.e., “Satin Doll”), standard ballads and waltzes (think “Blue Moon” or “I’m In The Mood For Love”); a few of what he calls “ethnic” Italian and Polish tunes (I’m guessing the Tarantella, but I might be wrong); and a couple of rock n’ roll instrumentals.

Now, the members of the Darien High Class of ’62 probably didn’t spend a lot of time listening to “I’m In The Mood For Love” of their own accord.

But swing and standards were seen as posh, and well-suited to a big occasion. In my dad’s words:

It doesn’t surprise me that the Darien prom committee chose standard swing and old dance music for their prom.  That was normal; although we listened to rock ’n roll 24/7 and loved it, many high school proms featured big bands covering the swing music of the 30’s – somehow that was “special.”  It does surprise me that Darien, being a good bit tonier than Stamford/Hope Street, would hire the Joe Denicola Quintet for their prom.

So who was the Joe Denicola Quintet, you might be asking?

Apparently they worked regularly around the Stamford area back in the early ’60s. The band was usually a quartet, but sometimes hired my dad when they needed a sax player.

My dad playing saxophone on TV, early 1961.

My dad playing saxophone on TV, early 1961.

Their roster, as my dad recalls it:

– Joe on bass. Joe was 2 years ahead of me at Stamford High, and we played in the jazz band together one year.  And because of my natural ear I could fit in with his band pretty readily, there being no music, ever!
        – “Shaves” on drums (perhaps he was a barber?  Dunno).  He was a very good, tasty, natural drummer who swung and kept great time.
        – A solid trombonist whose name escapes me.  He was a cobbler (shoemaker and fixer) by trade, who played basic stuff and played it well.  Iron trombone chops; great tone and endurance!
        – Rudy on amplified accordion (!!!).  Rudy was a little headstrong but did what he did well.  And sometimes played too loud.  But then again, “audible” is too loud for an accordion!

None of these guys ever went to college.  But they had played together for quite a while and did what they did well.  None of them sang; they may have hired a vocalist for a bigger gig.

I can just about see these guys in my mind — Shaves the Drummer, in particular. What a great nickname. That guy deserves a larger chapter in the history of American music than has thus far been granted him.

Also, I wonder whether any American accordionist of the past 25 years has gigged on prom night. Now that’s an anachronism, even more so than the idea of swing music and standards on prom night. It would take a prom committee with cojones of iron to hire an accordionist in the Age of Auto-Tune.

Anyway, my dad’s memory suggests that the Joe Denicola Quintet might only have been an intermission band. He thinks Darien High hired a singer and full orchestra to provide the bulk of the music, and hired these local guys just to fill in the breaks. (In his words: Smart money would say that the Joe Denicola Quintet was NOT the headliner at the prom.)

That seems to me like quite a length to go to. But Darien was (and is) a pretty well-heeled place, and if they wanted two bands at prom, they could probably have afforded it.

(I also find it droll to think my dad entertained those hardcore few who refused to stop dancing just because the orchestra wanted a break. “Not done shaking ass, kids? Here comes the Joe Denicola Quintet. No parking on the dancefloor!”)

My dad doesn’t seem to remember anything unusual, regrettable or embarrassing about the gig.

So I’m guessing the Darien High ’62 prom went as intended; the kids got all the music they could hold; and Shaves the Drummer picked up a little extra beer money.

As it should be.

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A little thematic music.

Awwwwwwright!

This is the 167th post I’ve written for this blog. And after two-plus years of writing about grandchildren, cookies and retirement, I finally get to write about some debauchery.

Well, some very well-mannered and proper debauchery. But debauchery nonetheless, by Hope Street’s buttoned-down standards.

So slip your flask in your side pocket, travel back to the end of the Summer of Love, and get ready to kick out the jams …

# # # # #

The story starts with my dad’s lifelong best friend, Louie Chiappetta.

(Faithful readers will remember Louie playing with my dad’s college band, Oedipus and the Mothers, in this earlier post, and — appropriately enough — drinking beer in this one. He’s known my dad since junior high and is still putting up with him today.)

Less than two months after my parents got married, Louie and his bride, Kathy, also tied the knot in Stamford.

Louie was such a close friend of the Blumenau family that my grandparents and great-grandma got invited to the wedding, along with my mom and dad.

And there was no question that everyone would attend. It was on the calendar, after all:

September 16, 1967.

September 16, 1967. The Yankees are three-hit by Sudden Sam McDowell.

Everything went fine until the wedding party and guests arrived at the San Souci for the reception. There, they were greeted with one of those pieces of mood-harshing news that isn’t supposed to happen on a wedding day: The reception hall chosen by the newlyweds had been double-booked and was still in use by another couple.

The managers of the San Souci, no doubt sweating furiously under their business suits, made the Chiappettas an offer they couldn’t refuse:

If the stranded wedding party and guests would be willing to wait in another, smaller room for a while, they could have all the free booze and hors d’oeuvres they could hold down. The Chiappettas and guests could move into the main room as soon as it was empty and clean.

(“As I recall this was at least an hour and a half, maybe pushing two hours,” my dad recalls.)

By my dad’s telling, the parents of the groom were understandably displeased by this snafu on their son’s special day. They quietly urged the guests to load up at the San Souci’s expense.

Many of them — including my grandpa — gladly complied.

And at the peak of the celebration, with a strolling Italian wedding band with clarinet and accordion working the room, my dad saw something he had never seen and would not see again:

My grandfather, feeling no pain, twirl-dancing with one arm around my grandma and the other around a support post in the middle of the room.

“This was the only time I ever saw your grandfather even remotely under the influence, and he was a very happy and sociable drunk,” my dad says.

It was, according to my dad, completely in keeping with the event. Nobody got pushy or obnoxious or loud on the San Souci’s booze; everyone was loose and friendly and having a good time in their own way.

By the time the formal dinner rolled around, my grandpa had sobered up, and probably felt no ill effects the next morning.

“All things considered, it was quite a successful wedding …” (my dad again) “… everyone was quite happy, there were no problems, and the establishment provided a reasonable solution to an untenable situation (double-booking weddings).”

Louie and Kathy’s wedding day worked out fine in the long run. The guests had a good time; the San Souci paid for its mistake; and the newlyweds are still married all these years later.

I wish I could have been there. It sounds like a swingin’ time.

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For all the girls who ever dreamed of dancing … which is most of the girls, really.

May 16, 1965.

I’m not that familiar with Peter Bogdanovich’s classic film “The Last Picture Show” or the novel on which it was based. But the title has all kinds of evocative resonance — the end of innocence, the end of creativity, the end of escape from the real world.

“The Last Dancing Class” — or even just “Last Dancing Class,” my grandpa’s phrase — carries some of the same feeling.

Dancing is a pretty decent metaphor for the way we try to navigate through daily life with some modicum of grace and poise. The “last dancing class,” then, represents the last lessons of grown-up life we learn before we strike out on our own and try to manage for ourselves in this crazy, complicated world.

(Or, if you accept Mick Jagger’s oft-quoted assertion that “all dancing is a replacement for sex,” the last dancing class metaphorically becomes a preparation for an entirely different rite of passage.)

Dancing classes have a certain historical resonance in the Blumenau family. My grandfather, the guy who kept the calendars, met my grandma at a dancing class in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the mid-1930s.

For them, the “last dancing class” might have been the time when they swapped phone numbers or agreed to keep seeing each other — setting into motion any number of things, including this blog.

No matter what the phrase “last dancing class” evokes for you, there is always a certain bittersweet power in those times when the people who teach you have nothing left to pass along.

You’ve been through the lessons and learned the rules, the skills, the steps and the transitions. It’s up to you to make something of your own out of them — something more than the people who taught you accomplished with the same raw materials.

But you’ve only got so much time to do so before the years catch up with you. Soon enough, you’re the one sitting in the chair, passing the steps on to another generation, secretly hoping they don’t leave you in the dust with the brilliance and imagination you struggled to find for yourself.

The dance goes on, but one by one, we step out of it. And we learn that the last dancing class meant more all along to the teacher than it did to the students.

******

In real life this week’s calendar entry means nothing so dramatic.

My aunt studied dancing for many years growing up. May 16, 1965, must have been the last of a series — perhaps the last lesson with a particular teacher, or the last of a particular style of classes. I do not imagine it was the last dance class she ever took, anywhere.

And anyway, in dancing and in life, it is not always what we learn from formal lessons that sustains and improves us. There are lessons about grace and rhythm and poise to be learned everywhere we go.

Shall we dance, then?

******

Circa 1958.

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