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Thursday, December 17, 2009 - 12:32pm

Jekyll Island Big Band Turns 30

Updated: 4 years ago.
The Jekyll Island Big Band is pictured in this photo from 1980. The photo has been cropped to fit this website. (photo Jekyll Island Big Band)

The Jekyll Island convention center is slated for demolition next year. The 48 year old beachfront facility has hosted millions of visitors, including those who came to the island for reunions, work-related conferences and weddings. Well, among those marking its passing will be a big band that has performed there for 30 years

Their sound is Glenn Miller. Their sound is Duke Ellington. But if you had to pick one-sound that defines the Jekyll Island Big Band, it would have to be the sound of foot steps in the dance hall where they've played for 30 years at the Jekyll Island convention center.

Today, it's called Atlantic Hall, but locals still call it by its original name, the Aquarama. Until the 1980's, it housed the island's public swimming pool. Hal Crowe is the band's leader.

"It's a big, circular room, right on the beach, beautiful view off into the ocean, the terrazo floor," Crowe says. "It's renowed as being one of the best dance halls in the South because it's a terrazo floor."

And if you have to ask what's so special about a terrazo floor, you've never fox-trotted, jitter-bugged, waltzed or salsa-danced on one. Mickey Wendel has played trumpet in the band since it started.

"We've been to smaller places where they've put a little wood floor up and people bump into each other or go off the floor dancing on the carpet," Wendel says. "And they just like that floor because it's easy to move around on and to do their slides and some people twirl all around and stuff. They can do that on that floor real well."

The Jekyll Island Authority will tear down the aging convention center -- and its huge terrazzo floor -- as part of an island-wide renovation. Band members say, the old floor is filled with memories of first dates, family vacations and a lot more.

"We've have two or three proposals on the dance floor," Crowe says. "We've have them get down on one knee and pull out that ring and do the proposal right there."

The Jekyll Island Big Band itself has a collective memory. It started with some jam sessions, a newspaper ad and about 25-people in its founders' living room in 1979.

That founder, Jody Smith, died a few years ago. But those who played with the joking Ole Miss alumnus remember him as a kind of family member with wit and stage presence.

"He'd end a song and he'd say, 'And the band was really in a groove on that one!'" Wendell recalls. "He always said, 'Let's play Moonlight in Vrrrr-mont.'"

For many decades, big bands projected a kind of hokey nostalic image. Think Lawrence Welk. But, vocalist Jane Ogle says, in recent decades, the audience has changed. It's more like Brian Setzer.

"There would be bus loads of high school kids," Ogle says. "And they would get all dolled up. It was like prom night, practically."

The popularity of TV shows like Dancing with the Stars also has made the audience more dance-focused. Crows says, he can tell folks have been practicing and has changed the set list accordingly.

"These folks that take dance lessons and are members of dance studios, they're very serious about their stylistic dancing," Crowe says. "It's easy to roll through fox-trot after fox-trot, but these dancers, if you don't satisfy them with that style that they've been working on and rehearsing, then they'll come up and tell you about it."

The Jekyll Island Big Band's annual New Year's Eve concert will be its last at the old Jekyll Island convention center. The old hall is scheduled to be torn down next summer and replaced with a new convention center. Island officials haven't ruled out the possibility of another terrazzo floor.

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