The last Sunday of every month, Apolo 2 is the place to be in Barcelona. Hundreds of couples of all ages congregate to dance to swing music played live and with an unending supply of joyful energy by the 16-piece Barcelona Jazz Orchestra (BJO).
Swing is a genre that evolved out of jazz in the Twenties and Thirties, and peaked in popularity in the late Thirties and early Forties as the first famous bandleaders, such as Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers, made names for themselves in the realm of popular culture. Lindy Hop is an animated dance style that itself evolved out of swing in the black neighbourhoods of New York City around the same time, and soon spread to white communities in various parts of the US.
Lindy Hop and swing both lost momentum around the Second World War, when various factors—including drafting and wartime economic difficulties—made it nearly impossible to keep a large, professional musical ensemble together. The music experienced a revival in the Eighties and Nineties, and Lindy Hop clubs and dance schools can now be found in many countries in North and South America, Europe and Asia.
The BJO was started over 15 years ago as an amateur big band composed of local music students. Dani Alonso, trumpet player and jazz aficionado, was one of the original young musicians who participated in the ensemble. Its large format is typical of a big band, with around 16 musicians taking part.
Alonso eventually worked his way up to be director of the band in 2004, which is around the same time that they slowly began replacing the student performers with professional players—most from Barcelona or some other part of Spain, but a few from further afield such as Paris or even Los Angeles. As the band’s reputation started to spread, Alonso contacted Apolo—which had already been offering Lindy Hop dance lessons since 1998—and proposed the idea of a monthly swing/big band/Lindy Hop night. “They loved it, we started practically right away,” he says. Their audience started small, with only four or five couples showing up to dance at the first concert. Since then, the events have grown to an average of 400 people, “and one night we had 900,” he comments proudly.
Alonso says he doesn’t know exactly what makes what started as a very American style of music so desirable in Barcelona and in other parts of the world, that it’s growing more and more popular every year. “I’ve always loved playing this style of music, but I think the appeal for spectators is the relaxed atmosphere. People know that when they come it’s a warm, open environment. And the dance itself is lively and fun. But even people who don’t dance can come to watch the dancers, and enjoy the music… which very often is half-improvised! Every show is different from the last.”
The BJO have various soloists who regularly perform with them at Apolo—such as dynamic jazz singer Susana Sheiman—and often invite guest vocalists onstage as well, which have included Ann Hampton Calloway, Dee Daniels and Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet. The Orchestra also collaborates with various other musical ensembles. This summer they have rehearsed a repertoire of gospel standards with a chorus of American singers who hail from Kentucky (The American Spirituals Ensemble), and every summer they collaborate with various musicians at the prestigious Marciac Festival in southern France, where they have a standing invite to perform every year.
The Barcelona Jazz Orchestra Swing Nights at the Apolo occur the last Sunday of every month, in Apolo 2 (Nou de la Rambla 113) at 8.30pm. Entry costs €12. You can also catch Dani Alonso and some of his BJO cohorts in other formats around town—he plays in a quartet (“we don’t really have a name,” he laughs) and a sextet, which perform in smaller venues such as the Marula Café (Escudellers 49).