Big Bands and Dancing on Tables
by Gili Malinsky
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s modest stage sits quiet this Thursday evening, as patrons, mostly seniors, shuffle into the auditorium. They’re here to celebrate legendary jazz producer George Avakian, who, at 96, worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Just after 6 p.m., drummer Sammy Miller, tall, sweet and dapper, walks in followed by his bandmates (equally dapper in blazers and fedoras). Together they make up Sammy Miller and The Congregation, a big band of young men dedicated to bringing old jazz to the people.They stand behind or hold their instruments - drums, piano, upright bass, trumpet and saxophones - and launch into Lil Hardin Armstrong’s (Armstrong’s first wife) “Struttin With Some Barbecue”.
Some minutes in a woman in the audience says, “Wonderful!” And it is. It’s beautifully delivered. It’s fun and loud and happy. The band accomplishes exactly what it’s always setting out to do. As Avakian himself puts it later in the show, paraphrasing Louis Armstrong,
“There’s nothing else that matters except communicating joy and happiness. That’s what the music is all about.”
Sammy Miller and The Congregation formed, officially, in January of 2015, he himself the driving force, having collected musicians he’d played with throughout his upbringing in L.A. and later at college and in grad school in New York. He’d always had an affinity for early jazz (late 19th and early 20th century), believing so many of its elements - not just its hearty, human sound but its presentation, too - are relatable and relevant today.
“Everything that’s most wild in popular culture today,” he says before the show, “if you watch a 1930’s Jimmie Lunceford video, things haven’t gotten more wild… There’s, like, a fire pit. And the drummer’s shooting sticks in the air.” On stage, The Congregation dances with their instruments. They yell. They take their show around the venue. All this while playing Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake and Irving Berlin perfectly.
The Congregation are Alphonso Horne on trumpet, Ben Flocks on the tenor sax, Patrick Sargent on soprano sax, John Snow on the bass, David Linard on piano, Sam Crittenden on the trombone, Miller on the drums and his sister, Molly Miller, on guitar whenever she’s in town. In their first year together they played over 250 gigs, with residencies both at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s swanky Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (at a show called Late Night Dance Session, taking place this Saturday, where the tables get pushed aside and the room becomes a dance floor), and a weekly Sunday residency at Williamsburg bar The Woods, where they’ll be celebrating a year’s worth of performances this coming Sunday.
It seems people have connected. They’ve been invited to do weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, an event for Chelsea Clinton. Miller tells the story of a man who emailed once.
“It said, ‘I go and see you every Sunday. You don’t know who I am. I sit in the back. When your girlfriend’s broken up with you, your dog’s died - it doesn’t matter - you guys make me feel like there’s a little bit of light on earth’…”