This was the scene two-thirds of the way through one of the most unusual sets of the Norwich Jazz Party – a costume-free, eight-man recreation of Swingin’ the Dream, an ill-fated, 1939, Broadway show that had a cast of over 150 as well as three bands. Not to mention Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan in starring roles.
Like Ken Peplowski, who had organised this celebration of Swingin’ the Dream, I’ve long been fascinated by this little-documented show which may have been short on success but was loaded with talent. A musical re-imagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in 19th century New Orleans, it was, said Peplowski, partly a disaster because of its bloated budget. “It ran for 13 performances – and we’re going to show you why,” said Peplowski, by way of self-deprecating introduction.
With only 30 minutes to evoke the presumed spirit of the show, Peplowski’s septet served up a delightful mix of numbers, kicking off with numbers which Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman might well have performed. Moonglow was a particular highlight, thanks to the combination of Paolo Alderighi’s lovely piano solo, Enrico Tomasso’s laidback trumpet and Peplowski’s hot and sweet clarinet.
For the show’s enduring hit, Darn That Dream (one of the songs contributed, at the last minute, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie de Lange), Peplowski switched to tenor sax. Hearing the verse – played by just Peplowski and Alderighi – was a rare treat, and the rest of the number was equally beautifully executed; the musicians gently passing the melody amongst themselves.
Another song written for the show and still surviving is Love’s a Riddle, penned by Alec Wilder who was the musical’s original composer. A quirky, peppy number, it reminded me of the much more successful swinging Shakespeare project – Sullivan, Shakespeare, Hyman – the classic album of jazz settings of Shakespeare songs which Dick Hyman recorded with Swingin’ the Dream’s Maxine Sullivan in the 1970s.
The set culminated in two more songs written for the show by Van Heusen and de Lange – and for these, Peplowski brought on his secret weapon: Marty Grosz. On Peace, Brother – introduced as ” a message/gospelly number of the era”, Grosz threw himself into the part, waving his arms in the air as he recited the lyrics in a spoken style that was more Rex Ingram than Rex Harrison.
Grosz was back on vocals duty for the catchy title number which provided the all-singing, all-dancing (by Marty and Ken anyway) finale to the set. Featuring terrific solos by Peplowski (on clarinet) and guitarist Howard Alden, it was one of the standouts of a hugely enjoyable session which Peplowski will no doubt have regarded as a trial run for the full Swingin’ the Dream concert which he’s staging at the Oregon Festival of American Music in July.
* Watch out for more photos of Brother Marty feeling the spirit coming soon..