FROM THE HISTORIC ROUNDHOUSE'S BLUES & BBQ FEST to the Coastal Jazz Association's Christmas Day Concert and Jam Session, our town has it's fair share of annual traditions that center around live music.
Now, at barely three years old, it’s increasingly looking as though we can add the Lucas Theatre’s “Savannah Swings” event to that list of time-honored celebrations of the universal language.
Organized by the Friends of Johnny Mercer, a locally-based non-profit promoting the accomplishments of Savannah’s legendary songwriter, this July 4th showcase has quickly become one of the most eagerly anticipated musical undertakings in recent memory.
The event, which combines an uplifting, indoor set of classic big band and jazz standards, (plus showtunes and jump blues), a festive, New Orleans-style Second Line March and reserved, front-row seating for River St.’s massive nighttime fireworks display, is undeniably one of the best examples of synergistic marketing and cooperative promotion around.
“People are making more of a whole night out of it this year,” says the Lucas’ Managing Director Meaghan Walsh. “They’re getting hotel rooms and staying downtown as opposed to just heading home afterwards.”
“The first year we didn’t think to suggest that, but a lot of folks mentioned that by the time the fireworks are over, it’s about 10 pm. Maybe they want to stroll around and have a glass of wine or take in some nightlife before driving home. If they live on Tybee or at The Landings or in Richmond Hill, they could just get a hotel room, not worry about the drive and make a more special evening of it.”
Walsh says the nearby Planters Inn mentioned the event on its website, and reports ten rooms have already been reserved specifically for that reason.
“It’s becoming something of a special getaway,” she enthuses.
That’s music to Jeremy Davis’ ears.
As both the leader of the Equinox Jazz Orchestra —the large group that routinely serves as stellar support for each year’s handful of guest vocalists—and the current president of the Friends of Johnny Mercer, Davis says that he’s thrilled and honored that both natives and tourists alike have taken so quickly to this unique event.
“It sums up just what I hoped Savannah would be when I moved here three years ago from Louisiana. It’s also exactly what I hoped Savannah would see from me.”
For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of the concert, Walsh describes it thusly: “The show starts at 6 pm (there will be an intermission) and the final song will be “When The Saints Go Marching In”. At that point, the band will leave the stage while still playing and march right out the front door. We’ll have wristbands for everyone in the crowd, which get them into the special seating area on the river.”
That “special seating area” is one of the most ingenious and intriguing aspects of the event. Starting in mid-afternoon each Independence Day, tens of thousands of spectators crowd most every nook and cranny of River and Bay Sts. in hopes of securing a decent view of the aforementioned fireworks. Most wind up with trees or buildings at least partially obstructing that view, and stand for hours on end, or haul in folding chairs. That can be a real hardship for some — especially young children and the elderly.
Think of those wristbands as something of a Golden Ticket. They afford access to arguably the best seats in “the house”.
“These are riverside seats,” says Walsh. “They’re actually on the sidewalk by the water, so they’re as nice as it gets.”
As someone who attended the inaugural edition of this musical happening, I for one can personally attest that my River St. fireworks experience in 2006 was easily the best in all my 22 years in this town. The ability to saunter down to the River, past throngs of people —some who’d been camped out for hours— a few minutes before the first rocket lit the evening sky was a rare treat. And, while some may decry such a practice in the most dreaded term imaginable in today’s political climate: elitism, I was surrounded by young and old alike from all walks of life.
Plus, as Walsh points out, all proceeds from this concert and VIP fireworks seating package go to a worthy cause.
“We’re donating the building,” she explains. “The Lucas doesn’t keep any of the money. It all goes to the Friends of Johnny Mercer.”
And what will they do with it?
According to Davis, some will go towards the organization’s scholarship fund, which presents two deserving high school graduates a year with financial help to continue their formal musical education. The rest will help with mounting their upcoming fall Johnny Mercer Tribute Show in the Civic Center theater which bears his name.
A popular annual event in its own right, it’s an all-star salute to Mercer’s life and accomplishments. Best of all, it’s completely free and open to the public.
“The City’s Department of Cultural Affairs funds that, and we raise money to cover the rest of the costs,” offers Davis — adding that all of this is helping to gear up for 2009, a very special time for Mercer enthusiasts.
“That’s the Centennial year for Johnny Mercer, and it’s insane how hard we’re working to make the most of that. If Johnny was still around, he’d be 100 years old, and as you know, he wrote a huge portion of the Great American Songbook. We expect international attention more than ever for his achievements, and especially in Savannah. We’ll be having all sorts of special events all year long.”
Davis says he’s particularly excited about this year’s installment of “Savannah Swings” as it falls on a Friday, which everyone involved seems to think will result in the largest turnout they’ve had to date. Plus, the show itself will be more musically adventurous than in the past two years.
“Baton Rouge’s Clay Johnson will be on this bill as a special guest vocalist,” says Davis. “He’s sung with me at many of my out of town shows for years. Many locals will be familiar with the talents of singer Huxsie Scott, and she’ll be there as well. We love having her perform. She’s awesome. The biggest difference though, is the addition of Bobby Lee Rodgers.”
Rodgers, a rising star on the jam-band and organic jazz fusion circuit, lives in Savannah and is best-known as a guitar and vocal foil for the legendary Southern improv-rock guru Col. Bruce Hampton, but Davis points out there’s much more to Rodgers’ talent.
“Bobby Lee taught jazz guitar at Berklee for about five years. Along with Herbie Hancock, he was one of the youngest teachers they’ve ever had. I met him while on the road years ago, and somehow we both wound up living here! He’s gonna play the whole night with us, but we’ll feature him on new versions of three songs now associated with Brian Setzer. We’ll be doing “Route 66”, an old Bobby Darin tune called “As Long As I’m Singing”, and another one called “This Cat’s on a Hot Tin Roof”.
Says Walsh, “We’ve seen grandparents introducing their grandchildren to the kind of music they grew up on. Now with Bobby Lee Rodgers adding a little rock and blues into the big band stuff, it’ll be even more accessible.”
Davis says the show may feel as new to the musicians as it will to the crowd.
“We’re doing almost ninety percent all-new arrangements just for this show — some even I’m not familiar with! I’m trying to push all the guys a little bit. We’ll do some Tony Bennett songs and stuff from the Great American Songbook. The only things that will be the same as in previous years will be July 4th, the Lucas and great seats for the fireworks.”
He adds that this show is designed specifically to be entertaining for an amazingly wide range of audience members.
“Sometimes people think of big band or jazz as being ‘old’ or too heavy for them — but not the way we play it! Whether you’re nine or 99, it’s as fresh as Michael Buble and as timeless as Sinatra.”
He also notes another key reason all parties involved are working so hard to make this event one that will hopefully be around for a long time to come.
“Some locals avoid big events on the river like the plague because of the mayhem associated with things like St. Patrick’s Day. But, the way we set this up, it’s a perfect, stress-free way for folks to reconnect with the beauty of downtown.”
Walsh encourages attendees to dress in red, white and blue and to feel free to bring flags, brightly colored parasols or handkerchiefs to wave on the short, five-block musical march to the river.
“That’s the way it’s done in New Orleans,” she says. “We’ll have people in Uncle Sam hats and beaded necklaces. It’s like a big, funky street party.”
“Just one thing,” she adds. “Part of this is on cobblestone, so wear comfortable shoes! (laughs)”