For two weekends every summer, the boarding line for the Governors Island Ferry is New York’s best fashion show. Seersucker, lace, linen, and loafers outnumber jean shorts and flip-flops 30-to-1. This very particular sartorial set is headed to the island, and back in time, for the Jazz Age Lawn Party.
Michael Arenella, the founder of the event, welcomes them all — natty or not. Ten years ago he invited 50 friends to Governors Island for a picnic celebrating Jazz Age music, a gathering of aficionados that has since swelled to almost 20,000 guests over four days. “I love it when people come to the Lawn Party and aren’t properly dressed,” he says with a smile. “They take it in and the next time, they’ll come back dressed. That’s how it grows — organically.”
While the fashions are most immediately noticeable, music anchors the Lawn Party. Arenella created the initial picnic as a venue to play authentic hot jazz and original blues, something crowded, expensive Manhattan clubs rarely host. He is equal parts fan, player, and preservationist, a blend that’s apparent as he shares the history of the music he loves.
“In the 1920s and ’30s, bands didn’t travel across the country,” he explains. “They each had a circuit. There were a lot of bands, because dancing was part of everyday life.” Each of these eleven-piece “territory bands” laid claim to a handful of major cities, earning bookings based on their proprietary arrangements of standard dance songs; because having these unique arrangements kept the bands employed, they were never published as sheet music.
Arenella is changing that. His Dreamland Orchestra, the main musical attraction of the Lawn Party, plays territory compositions he’s painstakingly transcribed from surviving 78s. He does this often-grueling work — which he himself describes as “crazy” — because the arrangements “are odd and peculiar and faulted,” he says. “Jazz wasn’t codified yet and had kinks to be worked out. It’s an embryonic version that I find to be very fascinating.”
With his scholar-like devotion to period accuracy, he’s very careful about whom he asks to share the Lawn Party stage. He has reason for skepticism: As interest in the Jazz Age has exploded, so have acts trading in novelty and kitsch. Immersed nearly full-time in the Jazz Age, Arenella knows a fellow devotee when he hears one: “I select people who are dedicated to the music, not a shtick.”
Harlem-based vocalist Queen Esther is one of five musical acts to pass Arenella’s stringent muster. Fluent in styles from turn-of-the-century to present-day, she relishes the Lawn Party as a unique opportunity to play the early blues underpinning every other genre she performs. “[It’s] the DNA of everything we call American music,” she says of 1920s and ’30s female vocalists like Bessie and Mamie Smith. “To have the opportunity to sing that live — it’s humbling, it’s stultifying, it’s like jumping off a cliff every time.” She considers herself a storyteller more than anything, and these songs a purer expression of story than later developments. “[I’m] able to live through the moments that song’s giving [me],” she says, “inhabiting the songs to tell a story.”
It’s this devotion to inhabiting the song that attracted Arenella to her style: Where other female vocalists embellish in an attempt to modernize, “she sings the melody beautifully,” he says. “And you can’t do better than the melody. She represents the songs in a pure, egoless way.” Like the territory bands Arenella revives, Queen Esther brings audiences closer to experiencing firsthand what they’re used to hearing on CD rips of warped, scratchy records.
Scratchy as they are, though, these recordings have connoisseurs too, and Michael Cumella and Mike Haar are two such fans. The duo hosts the Ragged Antique Phonograph Program every Tuesday night on WFMU, spinning 78s on lovingly restored period machines. Each has a record collection of hundreds and an encyclopedic knowledge of Jazz Age music to match. One Michael needs only to hold up a disc and mention its artist for the other to rattle off details about its recording date, lyrical content, and musical significance.
That expertise makes them the only DJs fit to play the Lawn Party. Every year they schlep two phonographs to Governors Island, along with around 35 of their choicest platters, to play during interludes. Patrons find their presence enchanting and often mystifying. “To hear this music on the machines they were intended to be played on is incredible,” says Haar. “You hear things you’ve never heard before.”
It’s the musical authenticity that takes the Lawn Party from dress-up picnic to full-blown time capsule. Arenella concedes that his event has become best known for its sartorial side but maintains that the live music is its key component. As both he and Queen Esther point out, bands were everywhere in the Jazz Age: bars, clubs, hotel lobbies, and sidewalks, from breakfast to closing time, Fifth Avenue to skid row. They pine for a time when melodies followed you down the sidewalk; the Lawn Party, if only briefly, fully evokes that golden age.
All four preservationists are glad to see lasting interest in the period to which they’ve dedicated so much of themselves. Cumella, who has collected antique 78s for over twenty years, appreciates that the general public “finally understands what the Jazz Age is. People know what a Gatsby party is now. That means it’s never going away.”
Queen Esther and Arenella both credit the popularity to a desire for personal connection in a time of internet-fueled disconnect. Queen Esther points out that American culture no longer values partner dancing; we lack the permission to be appropriately intimate with strangers, and reviving 1920s customs allows us that intimacy. Arenella speaks of the vivacious, electric social upheaval of the period, which brought people of all walks of life closer to each other and new ideas. Coming out of the Great Recession and inhabiting an increasingly dark world, we thirst for the meaningful experiences only offline, in-person experiences can provide.
“We want something tangible again,” Arenella posits. “We’re coming back into ourselves.”
The Jazz Age Lawn Party runs June 13–14 and August 15–16. For ticket information, go to jazzagelawnparty.com.
More photos are on the next page.
Here’s our 2014 profile of the Minsky Sisters, Jazz Age Lawn Party performers: