After the February 18 Mansfield Symphony Orchestra Pops Concert
Carl Topilow, in red coat with red clarinet, leads the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra with his knees and shoulders, bobbing on the podium to the music as he plays along. The conductor leans with a sidelong glance to the drummer and, as one, the group moves toward the end of the piece, finishing on one blue note of a dime. Tonight, at the MSO’s “When Swing Was King” pops concert, Topilow is not Topilow. He’s Benny Goodman, he’s Artie Shaw. He and his bright red clarinet lead a big band and it’s 1944 and the audience is young again.
At the introduction to each song the crowd murmurs appreciatively. Next to me my grandmother hums along. Everyone of a certain age has a memory that corresponds with each song. A piece of their youth, of the early years with their spouse, of their time serving their country.
The songs Topilow picks range from Gershwin excerpts to Glen Miller to an entire patriotic piece fitted around a bugle solo. Before I had thought of swing as swing, but now I begin to think of the complete range of sweet to sultry to stars and stripes.
The sweet songs inspire my grandmother to turn to me and tell me memories of her courtship with my grandfather. She uses the word courtship, and it occurs to me that I’ve only ever heard this word from someone of her generation, and also that I’ve never been courted. Stardust, Moonlight Serenade, Night & Day — a sweetness and innocence that I cannot fathom, but desperately want to know.
But for all the sugar, there are swing songs that are made of sex and are why my grandmother’s parents hated her music. Songs that push dancers tight together; songs that spin dancers around wildly, yet totally in sync with their partner’s body. Topilow saves it for the end in Sing, Sing, Sing. The constant rumble of toms from the drum kit and the drummer’s extended solo that hits you just below your stomach. This is, after all, the generation that danced the jitterbug, which required feats of strength, agility, and trust, feats that feel antiquated and unthinkable now.
The patriotic songs bring to me a strange mix of knee-jerk cynicism and eye-rolls plus nostalgia for a time where people actually had faith in their country, a confidence I’ll probably never know. It makes me wonder what it was like to be a country “at war” in a way that you are reminded of every day. And again, there are the songs that are undeniably dark. As an artist, I can only imagine that the cultural undercurrents of fear and anxiety would have to break through to your music. There was, in fact, a lot of sex, a lot of drugs, and a lot of death every day, no matter how sweetly you played — perhaps this era is not as different from ours as I feel it is.
At one point, Topilow sighs and smiles, saying, “They don’t make songs like this any more, do they?” The crowd chuckles appreciatively: sure don’t, Carl! He is right. There are a handful of us in the audience whose generation is not producing music like this, and who will not be escorted by our grandchildren into the theatre 60 years from now to hear music of our youth.
When the concert is over my grandmother and I wait out front for the car to pull up for us. I want to ask her more about rations during the war, what albums she owned, which was her favorite bandleader, about her courtship with my grandfather, and about whether she was afraid — but it’s late and she looks pretty worn out.
My grandmother still drives, is on Facebook, and emails me regularly. She has lived through half a dozen wars, modernism, post-modernism, the Atkins diet, the invention of terrorism, disco. How must it feel to hear the music that was yours before you were you? The music that made you you — sweet, sultry, stars and stripes? I love watching my grandmother transported back to her youth. Part of me wants to be sent back there, too: to spin, jump, and fly to glittering horns and pounding drums, to find safety in the arms of my dance partner.