WHEN OFFICIALS began drawing up a list of entertainers for this weekend's National World War II Reunion on the Mall, the focus naturally turned to the brassy big bands that continue to define the sound of the 1940s. To this day, it's hard to find a period movie or documentary that doesn't make use of swinging hits like Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" or Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Curator Nancy Groce led a nationwide search for performers, picking the brains of musicologists, veterans groups and other experts for suggestions. And in the end, she found what she was looking for in the Smithsonian Institution's back yard: The music schedule reads like a copy of "Who's Who on the Washington Swing Scene."
The Tom Cunningham Orchestra has performing the toe-tapping hits of Duke Ellington and Count Basie since the 1970s, and is a huge favorite with area swing dancers. Brooks Tegler's Army Air Force Band takes its name from Glen Miller's wartime ensemble, wears period uniforms and specializes in the tunes of Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. The Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra starred in a PBS television special called "The Big Band Sound of World War II," playing both uptempo and sentimental favorites.
Although based in Washington, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra has a international reputation, tackling themed concerts dedicated to the likes of Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Miles Davis and Mary Lou Williams. Doc Scantlin's Imperial Palms Orchestra is simply the finest show band in Washington, with costumed dancers, chorus girls and a repertoire that stretches from the Jazz Age through the swing era.
Daryl Davis's ensemble plays boogie-woogie and jump blues -- the bouncy roots of rock 'n' roll.
"I've been having a great time doing research [at swing events]," Groce says with a laugh. "Really, you could go to any solid band and ask them to learn songs from the '40s, but there are [local] bands like Brooks Tegler's who have championed the sound."
That said, the out-of-town guests are no slouches: The legendary Artie Shaw Orchestra, which produced swing-era hits like "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust" (although the reclusive clarinetist stayed home in Southern California), doo-wop vocal quartet the Ink Spots, western swing group Hot Club of Cowtown and several military bands.
Filling two large tents on the Mall should be a snap: All concerts are free and no tickets are required.
Groce says the goal was to create an atmosphere that "resonates" with the World War II veterans and their families, and swing dancing goes hand-in-hand with big-band jazz. Local Lindy Hop instructors Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg will teach free dance lessons through Sunday afternoon, and the duo's dance team, the Eight Week Wonders, performs throughout the weekend.
Washington's known around the country for having a strong dance scene, and with the plethora of music talent performing for free, many younger jitterbugs are expected to show up. Koerner says he told organizers to " 'put down the biggest [dance] floor you can humanly put down,' but my experience tells me it won't be enough."
Groce takes a different tack, saying that while there will be wooden dance floors at both stages, "This is not a dance festival or a Folklife Festival. This is a commemoration of a generation that gave a lot of themselves. . . . We're going to prioritize" by giving more space to the veterans who want to enjoy the music.
Many of the activities planned on the Mall focus on the home front during the war effort. For a historical perspective, Koerner has arranged an appearance by Jean Veloz, Irene Thomas and Charles Saggau, three dancers who Lindy-Hopped their way through films of the 1940s, including a 1944 MGM short called "Groovie Movie."
During the swing revival of the 1990s, dancers chased down archival footage of the original Lindy Hoppers in a quest for authenticity and new moves. They searched eBay, libraries and used video stores for obscure films, such as "Ghost Catchers," "The Horn Blows at Midnight" and "Radio City Revels" that employed young dancers as color. Directed by Pete Smith, "Groovie Movie" is one of the most storied clips of all.
After beginning with a jitterbug parody of an Arthur Murray-style dance lesson, "Groovie Movie" features couples flipping, pulling faces and goofing their way through Jimmy Dorsey's high-octane version of "One O'Clock Jump." It's hilarious and still watchable.
Koerner has brought the trio to Washington for reunions before, but this time is different: On Saturday afternoon, "Groovie Movie" will be shown at the National Museum of American History, and the three stars will talk about their experiences on and off the dance floor. "In my mind, and I'm sure in their minds, it's a crowning achievement," Koerner says. "They still think it's a miracle that anyone cares."
Of course, swing isn't only being celebrated on the Mall. Koerner and Sternberg have planned evening dances on Friday, Sunday and Monday for veterans and local dancers, with a USO fundraiser at Glen Echo Park's historic Spanish Ballroom (7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo; 301-492-6229) as the centerpiece on Sunday.
When Koerner saw the final schedule of the weekend's "official" events, he says he "couldn't believe there was nothing at Glen Echo. Here's a national park that has a ballroom that was used by servicemen during World War II." So he organized a dance featuring the Artie Shaw Orchestra (who Koerner says performed at Glen Echo in the '40s), and a portion of each $15 ticket will be donated to the USO -- a popular beneficiary during World War II. Because no advance tickets are available (per National Park Service rules), long lines and a full house are expected. Arrive early; doors open at 7:30, and Koerner and Sternberg teach a beginner swing lesson at 8. Vintage attire is encouraged.
Friday and Monday's dances take place at the Chevy Chase Ballroom (5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-363-8344), and feature appearances by the "Groovie Movie" stars, viewings of old dance clips and live music. Friday, local combo Blue Sky 5 celebrates the release of its first album, "Tin Goose Jump," with a dance from 9 to midnight. The Tom Cunningham Orchestra takes the stage on Monday from 9 to 11.
Also of note: Peaches O'Dell and Her He-Man Orchestra host the annual "Tropical Delight Dance Night" at Glen Echo on Saturday, a zany evening of Hawaiian shirts, leis and big-band swing and novelty tunes. (Peaches is famous for leading a conga line that snakes through the ballroom.) It's not a World War II event per se, but it always has a fun "South Pacific" feel.
Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg list the weekend's swing dance events on www.gottaswing.com.
For more on the Mall events, see the Weekend cover story on Page 30.
There are three cicada-related cocktails listed on a chalkboard behind the bar at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe (1517 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-387-3825), but the buzz is about one: the Cicada Cocktail. A number of Washington area watering holes are cashing in on the return of Brood X by mixing up special green drinks, but this one is different: It's actually served with a (supposedly) edible cicada.
"I went to survival school when I was [working in intelligence] in the Air Force, so I've eaten about everything -- night crawlers, boas, a couple of birds. Bugs were the easy part," laughs chef Pete Barich, the man responsible for putting cicadas on both the dinner and drink menus.
At first, Afterwords had problems rounding up enough of the beady-eyed bugs, but Barich whipped up the first batches of chocolate-covered cicadas last weekend. In the interest of research, I came in Saturday night to sample one.
When the bartender brings over a glass filled with a muddy-looking liquid, I'm really only interested in the garnish: Two little brown lumps skewered on toothpicks. Cleaned and candied, these cicadas look more like chocolate-covered peanuts than, um, 17-year-old bugs. No wings, no big red eyes, no twitching legs. That lessens the fear factor considerably. I ask my friend if she'd like one. No dice. I point out they resemble candy more than bugs. She replies, "Chocolate-covered almonds aren't attached to sticks. That looks like a cocoon."
You can't really tell, but it's not a whole cicada; Barich explained earlier that "You have to take off the wings and legs because they stick in your throat."
Now I'm at a loss, and trepidation is getting the better of me. I'm stalling. I ask the bartender, "Do you eat [a cicada] first and then drink, or do you eat them when you're done?" He shrugs.
"Eat them first, so you have something to wash them down with," my friend suggests.
So here's the information you've been waiting for: In Barich's hands, cicadas have a vaguely nutty taste, reminiscent of M&Ms, although the inner texture -- chewy, kind of sticky -- feels more like coconut on my tongue. Thankfully, the drink is strong, a creamy, pungent mix of Jack Daniel's, amaretto and cream. Barich explains that the classic Grasshopper cocktail is green, like its namesake, "so we made the cicada drink brown." You might want to dip your cicada in the liquid -- it hydrates the innards, which can be a bit dry. By the way, Barich tells me that the kitchen has also been turning out Cicada Scampi. You're on your own with that one.
For more cicada drink specials, visit www.washingtonpost.com/nightlife.