The Jazz Age Lawn party said farewell to its 13th season on Governor’s Island last Sunday with gorgeous weather to aid in the transport of their attendees back in time. Party founder Michael Arenella joined his Dreamland Orchestra alongside fellow classic jazz bands Queen Ester and her Hot Five, Gelber and Manning Band and Drew Nugent and the Midnight Society. Dancers from resident Dreamland Follies and Roddy Caravella’s Canarsie Warblers warmed up a crowd that filled the classic parquet floor when they weren’t picnicking, enjoying throwback cocktails or even taking in a magic show from The Great Dubini.
Just as we saw last year, Arenella concluded both his weekends by marching his orchestra towards the setting sun at the end of the island’s historic Parade Ground. In June, his fans flocked as Arenella serenaded them with Hammerstein and Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” from the musical Show Boat. As he and his horn led his audience towards the grass, attendees sitting on their blankets rose and joined them. Reaching a clearing with the sun at a near-solstice height, he turned his crowd into a choir that sang along, myself included as I’d learned the words when I covered the song’s performance on a pipe organ last year at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater ahead of its renovation.
Following that performance I asked Arenella when he started doing his sunset finale. “The first time I marched was last year because of how hard the 2016 parties had been on me,” he answered. “The heat wave for our second weekend almost killed the event for good and I wanted to salvage its spirit and give thanks. Being from the South, I know the New Orleans tradition of funereal marching bands and how they are more about the resurrection than death.” Arenella turned serious then, and showed a different side than what I was used to from his stage presence. “The event costs $125,000 for the permit to be here plus costs with the FDNY, Department of Health and the New York State Liquor Authority. At the end of the day I go into personal debt every time because of how expensive this is to produce. Nobody wants this event to leave Governor’s Island and I’m doing everything I can to be keep it here.”
Lightening the mood for Sunday’s finale, the Dreamland Orchestra led their crowd towards the ferries with the African-American spiritual “Down By The Riverside.” Fans followed the band with whimsy and the slightly overcast sky literally opened up as Arenella gathered everyone for a classic group photo. Walking back to the stage I noticed that it was smaller this time and there were no VIP tents surrounding the dance floor as in previous years, allowing anyone to sit alongside it. When I mentioned this to Arenella as he broke down his instruments, he told to me that he’d wanted “to return the the party to its origins. In past years we’ve catered to a luxury market but recently we wanted to scale back to bring everyone closer to the music and the dance floor. It feels good, it saves money, and its intimacy all points back to where began 13 years ago.”
Earlier in the show Arenella charmingly quipped to his audience that “when I started this event I had black hair. It’s going grey now but I’m glad I still have it.” The Jazz Age Lawn Party will be back next summer as it tries to sustainably reach towards the 21st century version of the 20th century’s most unsustainable of decades.