What to expect at Songs from the Golden Age of Swing

Published: 26 Jan 2024

Down for the Count’s conductor Mike Paul-Smith talks us through what audiences can expect to hear at the upcoming Songs from the Golden Age of Swing tour, featuring our 30-piece Orchestra. 

You can check the tour schedule and buy tickets here.

 

What’s your new show “Songs from the Golden Age of Swing” all about?

In Songs from the Golden Age of Swing, we’re trying to transport audiences to the LA of the 1950s and 60s. 

It was an incredibly exciting time, as singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were really hitting their prime, putting out some of their best recordings (accompanied, of course, by studio orchestras arranged by people such as Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins and Billy May). 

But more than that, it was also exciting because in LA at this time the Hollywood musical was really in its prime. Many of the best songwriters and composers of the day, who provided the material for Sinatra et al to record, also worked extensively in the film studios - where magnificent studio orchestras, the rival of any full-time professional orchestra, were really in their swing. 

Our show aims to capture that magic - of a time when the songs were fresh, the orchestrations jumped off the page and into the listener’s ear, and the music was full of energy and joy.

 

Songs from the Golden Age of Swing tour poster

 

Why did you choose the name “golden age”?

To me, the 1950s and 60s were a time that swing music really matured. I contrast it to the heyday of the Swing Era in the 1930s and early 1940s, when the music was young and fresh - and I think it’s probably fair to say that the music was probably more about dancing to, whereas after the second world war it became more about listening to. 

One thing that really changed at the end of the war was the focus on vocalists. At the height of the swing era, the vocalist would only be included on a few songs in each show - and would usually have to wait for the band to play through the tune once, before coming to the front of the bandstand after a minute or two for their turn. People like Sinatra and Fitzgerald - who of course both learned their trade in the big bands of the late 30s/early 40s - really changed that by making the show, and the music, about them.

The 50s and 60s were also, of course, the time that “the album” as a concept was born - allowing singers and artists to release a long-playing record that allowed the listener to sit and enjoy several songs back-to-back. 

So for me, the 50s and 60s was a time that swing music really reached it’s peak. I take nothing away from the frenetic energy of the big band era - I love playing and listening to all that music too - but it’s that maturity of swing music in the 1950s we hope comes across in our concert. 

 

Would you say that swing music stopped evolving and changing at that time then?

No, not at all - I think that swing music is always evolving and changing, and there are always new things to explore. We try and make sure that lots of our own ideas come across in our concerts as well, and each show features a few original arrangements of standards - some written by me, some by our associate conductor Simon Joyner.


Vocalists Callum Gillies, Marvin Muoneké, Ineza and Lydia Bell performing with The Down for the Count Orchestra at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

 

How do you choose the songs for a show like this?

With great difficulty! I always have an idea about the shape of the show - we’ve done this enough times now that we know what sort of songs to put at the beginning and end of each set. When I write the set list, I try and put myself in the auditorium and imagine the musical journey that an audience member might want to be taken on. There is so much nuance and variety in swing music - which may not be immediately obvious - and we want to make sure that every song delivers something fresh and different. Whilst I would love to play a whole concert recreating the Songs for Swingin’ Lovers album (and perhaps I will one day!) we want to take people on a real musical journey. 

 

Tell us about the musicians in the orchestra?

I’m so lucky that I have such an amazing team of musicians, all of whom are basically specialists in this era of music. Whilst an audience member or listener may focus mostly on the vocalist, I’m firmly of the opinion that every single musician on the stage is as important as any other, and I’m sure our amazing singers will agree!

There’s a real mix of players - from people who host the jazz jam sessions at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, to people who sit at the front of some of the best-known orchestras in the country (such as the BBC orchestras and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). Everyone brings their own individual skills and experience to the table, and the more we play together the more cohesive the sound and the more we understand this music. It’s not easy to do - for one thing, we’re often trying to achieve with 30 musicians what originally was done with 50 or more - but everyone seems to relish that challenge and they give so much of themselves to each show.


Katt Newlon, Lucy Andrews and Maddie Cutter (cellos) performing with the Down for the Count Orchestra at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Tell us more about the venues on this tour?

This is a tour of 6 concert halls in England - it includes some of our very favourite venues to perform at. We wanted to bring our “non-Christmas” show to as many venues as possible, but we don’t quite have enough time in 2024 to do a 20+ date non Christmas tour, like we did in 2023, because of other things we have in the diary.

We’re sad to be missing out some venues - our Scotland venues, plus Birmingham and Nottingham, are obvious examples - but we’ll be returning to them for Swing Into Christmas 2024… and you never know, we might find time to squeeze in a show or two at those places in the autumn as well. 

 

How does it feel conducting a show like this? Would you rather be playing an instrument?

Honestly, it’s such a joy conducting this music with these musicians. I really feel it’s some of the best music ever written and to bring it to life is just a joy. 

As for the show, by the time the curtain comes up (metaphorically speaking, in most cases!) the hard work is done for me. Once the show is in full flow, I think I probably have the easiest job of anyone on stage, and a conductor like myself really only makes a few percentage points difference in the overall quality of the show - it’s really down to the instrumentalists and vocalists. 

Sometimes I miss playing piano on these shows, but our pianist Alex Howgego puts me to shame anyway, and it’s a joy listening to him - he never, ever plays the same thing twice, so he keeps me on my toes and gives me lots of ideas for gigs where I’m back behind the ivories.


Marvin Muoneké (vocals) and Ed Parr (trombone) performing with the Down for the Count Orchestra at The Albert Hall, Nottingham

 

How do you surivive doing six shows on back-to-back days?

Honestly… I wish I knew. I think you just take a deep breath at the beginning, accept the fact that it’s going to be exhausting, and go for it. You can feel tired at 7.29pm but the moment you walk out on stage, you feel the energy of the audience, and the moment that first note appears out of nowhere, you forget about the lack of sleep and just get lost in the wonderful music. Ultimately, you’re on a stage with your best friends, performing some of the best music ever written, and it’s just the best feeling in the world.


Watch out for our next article, where Mike will talk more about some of the songs which will feature on this tour. 

In the meantime you can book your tickets for the tour here!


About the author

Ruby Willis

Ruby is Down for the Count's marketing and communications assistant. When she is not writing Facebook posts and making Instagram reels, she is often performing in short films or physical theatre shows.

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