Big Band music under the stars at the Gallivan Center
By Rebecca Howard
Special to The TribuneFirst published Jun 15 2013 01:01AM
So you think you can dance?
Maybe you do — and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t matter on Tuesday nights in downtown Salt Lake City.
Older couples, young families, ballroom-dance novices and college-age swing dancers have all been spotted cutting a rug at this year’s newest summer dance party.
The Wasatch Jazz Project, a 19-piece big band, has partnered with Excellence in the Community concerts and the Gallivan Center to play Big Band dance music. And it comes with free dance instruction.
The evenings begin with a half-hour of instruction by Ballroom Utah, said Talitha Day, director of the Gallivan Center. Then the band plays an hourlong set. During a break, the dance instructors come back for an additional 15 minutes. The evening finishes with more music and dancing under an open sky.
"We bought a dance floor that is 20 by 60 feet," said Day, "and it’s on a concrete slab in front of the stage and then there’s grass behind. It’s beautiful." She added that some people bring picnics and blankets, as well.
The whole event is a natural fit for the Wasatch Jazz Project. The band’s founder and director, Carol Steffens, has done a lot of work to preserve the legacy of Big Band music, said Jeff Whiteley, founder and director of Excellence in the Community.
"As there are generational and cultural shifts in America, I think she wants to make sure this music is being heard," Whiteley said. "She’s really done a lot of work in making sure the band has the best arrangements."
Steffens said the band does play popular standards from the ’40s — which is what most people think of with Big Band music — but it also plays music from every decade.
"We really feel it’s a responsibility to be a vehicle for modern composers to have their music played," she said. "So we play all genres. We play some Latin and some funk and some classic rock. I just bought a piece — ‘Star Wars,’ arranged by Chris Walden, a Grammy Award-nominated writer and composer."
The band also has a vocalist, Katrina Cannon, who sings on many of the charts. The rest of the members range in age from their 20s to their 70s — most have unrelated day jobs, but some are professional musicians.
For Whiteley and his colleagues, it has been a dream come true. These dances beautifully underline the mission of Excellence in the Community: providing regular performance opportunities for local musicians in a professional venue downtown. He says its a boon for musicians and the community while adding vibrancy to downtown Salt Lake.
"When we first started out, we dreamed about Big Band dances regularly downtown, in a cool venue," he said.
"It’s really amazing to watch this unfold because there’s just this quiet vibe of people having fun. The band has these beautiful harmonies, there’s a beautiful dance floor, it’s outdoors, downtown Salt Lake City is nice at night, the Gallivan center is a fantastic venue— the bases are covered," he said. "It sounds really great, it feels really great, and it’s fun to watch."