People dance at Post Office Park while the Ragtime Destroyers play on Aug. 1. Every Monday night, the band plays at the park and swing enthusiasts come to dance. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Duke Ellington and Irving Mills wrote a tune 91 years ago called “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

About two weeks ago, I learned just how true those words are.

Portland-area jazz ensemble The Ragtime Destroyers performs every Monday night in the city’s Post Office Park, where Exchange and Middle streets meet, and draws a significant crowd of swing dancers. (Note: as of Aug. 31 the swing dancing has been moved to Wednesday nights).

The group also draws several spectators who take delight in hearing the music and watching the dancing. This started in April and will continue as long as possible info fall.

I can’t recall the last time I saw so many people experiencing such unfettered joy.

While I may never get into the swing of things in terms of dancing (two left feet syndrome), plenty of people sure are in Maine.


Not only that, but there’s so much to love about swing from a musical standpoint. It’s playful and sassy while also enthralling, and The Ragtime Destroyers sure know what they’re doing.

As I listened to them play, I noted the distinct sound that metal-tipped gloves made as they swept across a washboard. I let the mystery of the saxophone and the swampiness of the coronet wash over me. The tuba, banjo and trombone also played key roles in the sound.

This music is rich with history but also has a present-day vibrancy and relevance.

The Ragtime Destroyers were formed last fall by coronet player Jeremy Fink, who tapped some musicians he already knew while also deploying a Craig’s List ad. When I saw them on Aug. 8, Fink was joined by Rick Rau on clarinet, Mike Beam on trombone, Will Pratt on banjo, Simone Haeusler on tenor sax, Miguel Sanchez on washboard and percussion, and Mike Mumme on tuba. Mike Berkowitz plays standup bass, though he was not there on that particular night.

Fink said that playing at the park is the best gig in town. “It’s so much fun to see people surprised to stumble upon music in the park, and everyone who stops to listen has a smile on their face.”

Fink said they have many repeat visitors. “It’s nice to get to know them personally – old people, parents with little kids and downtown characters.”


Also there that night was Gillian Davis, who founded the Portland Swing Project, which teaches, performs and brings live swing music into venues around Portland.

Davis was quick to acknowledge her appreciation for what Fink and his band are doing. “What’s super cool is having musicians like Jeremy who are so focused on building the community of music and dance in Portland.”

Davis also wanted to make sure that people understood that the roots of swing dancing come from Western Africa.

One of the most popular dances is the Lindy Hop, which Davis said was invented in the late 192os by Black teens in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom. “They weren’t classically trained, but they worked incredibly hard and were fantastic dancers.” Their soundtrack was the music of legends like Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman.

“When we talk about swing dancing, we’re talking about dances that have evolved since the 1920s. The swing family includes the Charleston, Balboa, Shag, East Coast Swing and Solo Jazz Dance, but at the heart of swing dancing is Lindy Hop,” explained Davis.

If you want to learn swing dancing, Portland Swing Project’s next seven-week session starts on Sept. 6 the Mechanics’ Hall Ballroom.


One of the most enthusiastic dancers who caught my eye was Andrew McCandless. He lives in Argentina but was in Portland visiting his parents. McCandless told me he started dancing three years ago and that he’s always enjoyed listening to jazz and loves the playfulness and exuberance of Lindy Hop. He learned initially by watching YouTube videos and then by dancing as much as he can, including in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, France and both coasts of the U.S. When he’s dancing, McCandless feels liberated.

“There’s always a connection with others, we don’t usually get that space with strangers,” he said.

And that’s the thing about swing dancing, at least the kind that happens at the park. Several dancers changed partners a number of times, and there was never a sense of awkwardness about it because the collective goal is to have fun.

The Ragtime Destroyers and everyone who comes out to dance or just watch and listen have carved out something entirely marvelous. Want to experience it for yourself? That’s easy. Just head to Post Office Park on Monday nights. The music and dancing starts at 6:30 p.m. and goes until 8 p.m.

In an imperfect world, this comes pretty close to perfect.

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