Jazz at Lincoln Center's Late Night Dance Sessions Keep Swing Timeless

Dancers (sans zoot suits) get the hang of late night swing
Dancers (sans zoot suits) get the hang of late night swing
Photo by Lawrence Sumulong for Jazz at Lincoln Center

The goals of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) can be reduced to one brassy mission: Appreciate, educate and inspire new audiences with programming that celebrates jazz's beautiful, rhythmic and century-plus legacy. More recently, JALC has honed in on a more specific objective: Make people dance.

Enter its Late Night Dance Session, a monthly event in which a big band featuring saxophones, trombones, trumpets and rhythm, along with a lively MC in vocalist and JALC Curator and Programming Associate Michael Mwenso, plays upbeat jazz hits to a roomful of people, both young and old, swinging from dusk 'til dawn. The event takes place at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, JALC's swanky restaurant/club, where the tables and chairs get pushed to the side and the dance party rages to the backdrop of New York's sprawling, romantic skyline. Geared toward younger audiences in the city as a way to bring them back to the music, tickets are cheaper ($20 for the general public and $10 for students) and instead of a full menu, drinks and small appetizers are served (Dizzy's serves New Orleans-style fare).

JALC didn't always know dance was what people were craving, jazz had for so long made for a sit-down-and-listen type of music. As part of its regular event series, the venue features a bi-weekly showcase called Late Night Sessions, curated by MC Mwenso, in which he brings to the stage some of the most talented, up-and-coming musicians in jazz to play for a night. One Late Night Session in 2012, Juilliard drama students Julia Warren and Jimmie "J.J." Jeter came to let go of stress from the week (they'd done so many times before) and soak up some music. Though they were sitting like everyone else, they found themselves wanting to move.

"Man, this music really makes me want to dance," said Warren to Jeter. "Do you want to dance with me?" And Jeter's response was apparently, "Sure!" (It's unclear who initiated the dancing; both had been thinking exactly the same thing.) So the two got up to dance in the front of the room and around tables "with ease and freedom," Warren recalls. Every Late Night session after that, people started joining in. Mwenso and Dizzy's Club managers saw what was happening, and started to ask how they could make dance be the focus of some evenings so that it wouldn't necessarily be just about the music, and the first Late Night Dance Session took place in September of 2013.

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"Jazz has always had an element of dance," says Mwenso. "The reason that changed is the musicians wanted a level of respect for it... They wanted their music to be seen in the concert halls." And for years it has been and was. But, Mwenso explains, there's a movement now to free up jazz and bring it back to the people. Late Night Dance Session is part of that movement.

On the next page: "It brings together a culture of people who, outside of Dizzy's, would probably never laugh, talk, drink or even dance together"  

Michael Mwenso in his element
Michael Mwenso in his element
Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Center

"Jazz has the most human, danceable elements to it," he says. "It's really one of the only few [types of music] that deals with all the three elements of the human [experience]: Mind, body and soul. It can make you think, it can touch your soul and it also can move you physically."

Two big bands alternate playing at Late Night Dance Session, each led by a different young (both are still in their early twenties) drummer who knows how to get people breaking it down. They are Sammy Miller (his band Sammy Miller and the Congregation) and Evan Sherman (the Evan Sherman Entourage). Expect to hear covers of greats like Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, along with general New Orleans-style jazz.

And while Mwenso and JALC's secret goal of spreading jazz to the hearts and minds of attendees at Late Night Dance Session is prevalent, ultimately, what those who are there are feeling most is a sense of community. They are truly convening to celebrate this sound.

"It brings together a culture of people who, outside of Dizzy's, would probably never laugh, talk, drink or even dance together," says Jeter. "Tell me where [else] you can mamba with a gorgeous warrior of a woman in a wheelchair, meet her mother and sing 'You Are My Sunshine' with your waiter?"

"The reason people run from this city is because they feel like they have no community," says Warren. "That there isn't any love amongst your common man. Well, I saw it. I saw it in the faces of two hundred-plus strangers in a foreign city and I've never felt so at home.

"Get yourself there," she says. "Start living."

Late Night Dance Session takes place monthly, with the next installment taking place June 6. JALC will also be hosting a fundraiser called "swing! A Summer Cocktail Party" with Sammy Miller and the Congregation, honoring three rising stars of the jazz world. For ticket info and the Late Night Dance Session schedule, click here.

See Also: 'Jazz & Colors' Paints Vibrant Strokes With the Music of Coltrane, Davis, and More at the Met Fifteen Songs That Celebrate Brooklyn Terry Waldo Brings Triumphant Ragtime to Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola


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