It’s said that city officials are expecting somewhere in the neighborhood of 150,000 men, women and children to pack River Street, Bay Street and the surrounding side-streets this upcoming July 4 for the city’s annual Independence Day fireworks display. Sure, there’s nothing remotely like craning your neck skyward to bask in the glow — and cacophonous reports — of hundreds of colorful, synchronized projectiles (not to mention the sublime, subconscious surge of patriotism that arguably courses through the veins of even the most diehard anti-establishment types at such fetes), but between the dogs, babies, stogies and general mayhem, it’s not unheard of to ask oneself why you even bothered. At times like those, I have sometimes found myself glancing at the rows of people lining the open windows of Bay Street’s hotels, or leaning out of the balconies of factor’s Walk’s posh condos, inns and retail establishments, chardonnay in hand, far from the madding crowd. Those folks are enjoying the show in a much more leisurely and comfortable manner than the majority of us punters — many of whom arrived with our broods several hours beforehand, just to nab a decent “seat” or spot to stand in. Which brings me to this question: What if you didn’t have to fight anyone for a splendid view of the fireworks? Not the sort of air-conditioned splendor afforded by an invite to some exclusive, chi-chi perch, but merely a great, unobstructed vantage point. One that was reserved ahead of time, and required little to no effort to navigate to. How much would that be worth? While you’re ruminating on that, let me go ahead and say, “But wait! There’s more!” What if that same reserved seat was merely the icing on the cake? What if the same ticket price that gets you into the VIP seating area also afforded you a couple of hours of relaxation in a beautifully restored historic theatre only a block away from the River? And what if some of the area’s finest jazz musicians entertained you while you waited by playing timeless big band music? No, how much would you pay? How about $25? Oh, wait. There’s one other thing I forgot to mention. Proceeds from your ticket price go to fund a scholastic award that’s given out to two deserving local high school seniors each year who wish to study music at a higher level. Pretty snazzy, huh? Well, that’s exactly the notion behind the first-ever Savannah Swings! Concert at the Lucas Theatre for The Arts. A partnership between the Lucas and the established Non-Profit Organization The Friends of Johnny Mercer, this major concert seeks to provide a unique experience for folks of all ages, all in support of a worthy cause. That group, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of —and perpetuating the lyrics, music and life of— Savannah’s native son John Herndon Mercer, recently selected Jeremy Davis as their President, and this event is one of his first attempts to help grow the organization’s public profile (and its coffers). With the help of the Lucas, the show, which finds Davis’ Equinox Jazz Orchestra —a 20-piece group featuring many of the region’s top musicians, as well as a few longtime sidemen from his tenure in the Louisiana area— backing notable Savannah vocalists Kim Polote and Trae Gurley, has blossomed into a novel attempt to introduce Johnny Mercer’s music to all manner of folks, both native Savannahians and tourists alike. For one low price, ticket holders will attend the show, which features the music of Johnny Mercer, Frank Sinatra and other big-band icons, as well as patriotic numbers like “America The Beautiful.” Upon the conclusion of the show, the band will leave the stage, walk out the doors of the theatre, and (in true Big Easy fashion) continue to play as they march —crowd in tow— all the way to River Street, where they’ll continue with a 45-minute set of uptempo, party-oriented brass band tunes. Best of all, they’ll lead the ticket holders straight through the sea of humanity to a special VIP seating section that’s being held just for them. This should afford all the participants a great view of the subsequent fireworks. Davis says he’s been dreaming of a show of this type since he first relocated to Savannah last year. However, he claims the final format of the concert is much cooler than what he had initially envisioned. I guess the stars just lined up in the right way,” he says with a laugh. According to Davis, a veteran of the touring circuit, who before coming to our area regularly played as many as 250 dates a year in venues ranging from small bars to large theatres, the Lucas is a gem of a room. “When I first came to town, I walked in there one day and thought it was one of the most beautiful theatres of its kind on the entire East Coast. I approached Ken (Carter, Jr., Executive Director of the Lucas Theatre), and told him basically what I wanted to do. It turned out they had this date open and were up for throwing a big shindig.” Meaghan Walsh, the Lucas’ Managing Director picks up the story: “It was a great marriage of separate smaller ideas floating around. Ken, Jeremy, Kenny Hill (of the Savannah Waterfront Association) and I were sitting in the room batting ideas around. Jeremy and I are both involved with the Friends of Johnny Mercer. Ken and I are both at the Lucas. We have similar sensibilities in terms of trying to create blockbusters, unique events for Savannah. We realized this concert would be problematic if people felt they would miss the fireworks completely, or wind up with bad seats. So we combined both events into one.” Both Davis and Walsh say that the Waterfront Association was eager to find another way to enhance the public’s enjoyment of their annual fireworks show. “They were very easy to work with,” explains Davis. “They were excited because we helping to bring a specific type of excitement to the fireworks that hadn’t been there before. It’s a perfect fit, and they were happy to oblige us.” “The band will play right up until the start of the fireworks, and plenty of people on River Street will be able to see and hear the group.” He says that while most of the people who want to attend the concert will likely want to watch the fireworks as well, he hopes the inverse will be true, too. “It’s a no-brainer. People are elbow to elbow staking out their spots early. We’re doing a patriotic show one block away. People can come down, stroll on the river, have lunch, then escape the heat for a couple of hours and support a good cause at the same time. Then at the end, there’s a special chair waiting for you by the river.” “I feel if people just know about what a great value this is, the theatre will be packed,” says Davis. Still, as has been noted in this publication before, offering a worthwhile show in this town does not always translate into stellar advance ticket sales. “You know how Savannah is,” Davis muses. “People just don’t buy in advance like they should.” Walsh concurs. “I think $25 is a steal for everything you get. Besides, it’s a benefit,” she says. “The band gets nothing. The Lucas gets nothing. It all goes to The Friends of Johnny Mercer’s Scholarship Award fund.” Davis says that those who do attend the show will get to see something more than just a conglomerate of local talent. “We’ll do some of the normal stuff that my 20-piece orchestra usually performs, such as the Sinatra material and the Mercer, but we’ll also do five or six numbers geared toward paying tribute to veterans on July 4th. I’m bringing in a couple of vocalists from out of state that I’ve worked with in the past, in addition to Kim and Trae. Clay Johnson and Adam Jones are both excellent singers, and I’m sure people will get a big thrill out of what they do.” However, Davis has no shortage of praise for Gurley and Polote. “Those are two of Savannah’s best,” he exclaims. “Kim and I hit it off immediately. Everybody loves her and is in awe of her talent. Trae and I are like a marriage made in heaven. He sings Sinatra on a weekly basis to pre-recorded tracks, but when we work together he gets a chance to do it with a full, real band behind him, just like Frank. I was just fired up to find a local guy who’s capable of such things.
Savannah Swings! Tuesday at 6 pm at the Lucas Theatre. For tickets, call 525-5050 or go to the SCAD Box Office at 216 E. Broughton Street.