Take Five: Remembering the music, romance

Valentine's Day is coming in a few days, and I'm cruising the stores in La Cañada, looking for appropriate cards for my valentine.

While I thumb through the selection of large, heart-shaped cards, I think about the girls in my youth I considered to be my valentine. Many were dance partners, because taking a date dancing was very romantic.

But my biggest love affair was for the dance music. For me, that meant big bands and jazz.

You never forget the music of your youth. It was the end of World War II and I was 16 years old, working after school on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Rainbow Rendezvous Dance Pavilion in Salt Lake City.

I was a gofer. The musicians sent me out to fetch them just about anything they wanted during their rehearsals. I could not bring back cigarettes, liquor or women. I did get hamburgers, coffee and gum. They got the former items themselves.

I did see the seamy sides of the band members, up close and personal. Overall, they looked old and tired. Not only were their clothes frayed at the edges, the band members looked frayed themselves. As a kid, I wondered what kind of lives they led. But in retrospect, although they seemed to suffer through practices, they absolutely glowed during performances and we all realized that nothing mattered but the music.

Another one of my tasks was spreading floor wax on every surface of the rich, inlaid parquet floor that later in the evening would give the dancers that smooth glide.

The wax compound had minute crystals that crunched as the dancing duos scraped and skimmed on the floor. It had the same pop as walking on frozen snow crystals in the cold Utah winters.

Here's just a short list of some of the luminaries that took over the stage — raise your hand if you have heard the music of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Les Brown, Russ Morgan, Harry James, Jan Garber (the Idol of the Airways), June Christy, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine and Ella, who needs no last name. Oops, just about forgot the fighting Dorsey brothers.

My favorite was Stan Kenton, lightly touching the piano keys with his long fingers and leading his band at the same time in a sweeping, rhythmic big band sound.

Ella Fitzgerald and June Christy swept me up into their nuanced and dreamy voices; and although their styles were markedly different, my heart ached just the same.

When I was older, I brought my dates to my magnificent arena. As I held my dance partner close to me, each of us touching as we swirled around on the top of the crunchy surface, I floated on the many aromas in the air, their floral perfume and my waxy floor.

Sometimes my girl and I would stand mesmerized in front of the bandstand listening to the glorious sounds coming from men whose red cheeks billowed out with the exertion of bringing forth the best music they could make.

Many times the girls, fully taken away in hypnotic-like trances, would take tiny dance steps, alone, in front of the orchestra, swaying with the music.

Maybe your dance floor was the Palladium, or the Avalon Ballroom, or perhaps the New York Hotel on 34th Street across from the old Penn Station in Manhattan. Now these legendary dance halls are silent, but romance is still there.

The music helps us remember long ago Valentine days and nights.

Get in touch

GENE PEPPER is a published author and writer. Contact him by email at gpep@aol.com or phone (818) 790-1990.

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