Camp Jitterbug


Chester Whitmore performs with the All-Star Big Band at Camp Jitterbug. Photo by Danny Ngan

May 24-27
Various Venues


You never know what’s right under your nose.

Saxophonist Jacob Zimmerman, an alum of Clarence Acox’s Garfield High band, grew up loving pre-bebop jazz but decided to pursue his interest in the avant-garde, attending graduate school at Mills College to study composition with AACM co-founder Roscoe Mitchell. Not long after his 2012 graduation, however, an unexpected encounter prompted him to reconsider his options.

During a trip to New York, Zimmerman met some young musicians “who were playing lots of swing dance gigs and playing traditional jazz,” he remembers. “It was a revelation for me because I didn’t know anybody my age who was playing that kind of music.” 

When Zimmerman told his new friends that he was from Seattle, “They were like, ’Hey, this is perfect. We’re coming to Seattle to do some swing dance gigs…Seattle has one of the biggest swing dance communities in the country.’ And I did not know that.” 

Zimmerman leaned hard into his new direction. He returned to Seattle to immerse himself in the swing scene, learning the clarinet to better fit the repertoire and taking swing lessons with his wife to better understand how to play for dancers.

“I think part of me always wanted to play this kind of music, and I just didn’t know it was possible,” he says.

As organizer of Camp Jitterbug, an annual Seattle festival devoted to swing dancing, Tonya Morris has helped make such a career viable, frequently hosting Zimmerman alongside other local masters of swing-era sounds like saxophonist Jonathan Doyle and pianist Ray Skjelbred. 

Nearly two decades before Zimmerman, Morris had her own revelatory encounter with swing, watching fellow University of Washington students do the Lindy Hop to John Holte’s Radio Rhythm Orchestra. She joined UW’s Swing Kids — advancing from beginners’ lessons to club board member, going out four or five nights a week to dance to Ham Carson at Pioneer Square’s New Orleans restaurant, or Floyd Standifer and B.B. White at the Pampas Room. 

As her expertise grew, Morris took up teaching; she led lessons in swing dancing to packed houses at the height of the 1990s revival, eventually traveling the world as a dance instructor. “I decided to start bringing some people from out of town to Seattle and create a festival, and it just grew and grew,” she recalls. “Today, we’re one of the longest-running swing and jazz dance festivals in the world.”

Every Memorial Day weekend, Camp Jitterbug turns Capitol Hill into a hotbed of swing, attracting devotees from as far away as Australia for four days of workshops, lessons, and dance competitions, highlighted by the Jump Session Show, a showcase performance open to the general public. 

In collaboration with choreographer and historian Chester Whitmore, a protegé of legendary tap dancer Fayard Nicholas, Morris crafts a program that considers the full breadth of African-American dance. “It’s not just the dance moves; it goes a lot deeper than that,” Morris says. “We do a timeline of jazz dance history, so people can kind of learn something from it and take away something from it: ‘Oh, I don’t know that the Lindy Hop came out of the Charleston, and then these influences came into soul music and hip hop music.’ We feel like the whole story — the big picture — is relevant.”

For many attendees, however, the real fun is more of a late-night affair.

“You’d be shocked how many people are still left in the Century Ballroom at four in the morning,” says Morris. “It’s become part of the culture [of the camp]: dance until the wee hours of the morning, like the jazz musicians used to jam over on Jackson Street.”

Morris believes that Capitol Hill’s wealth of historic venues — a vibrant alternative to the sterile hotel ballrooms where many dance events are held — and the sense of place they represent, are key to Camp Jitterbug’s appeal. When the band really cooks, “you see the whole room hit that break at once, it’s crazy. Having that happening in this atmosphere, in a ballroom that’s been around forever — or in Washington Hall, where Basie and Billie Holiday played — you have that powerful moment where the dancers are connecting with what the musicians are doing. It’s beautiful.”

For the camp schedule, live band lineup, and tickets, including weekend passes, visit campjitterbug.com.



Posted on

February 29, 2024