Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra

Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra

Before the pandemic, Michael Arenella was traveling to New York City three to five days a week, performing jazz at various clubs, venues and events. These days, the trombonist, singer and band leader, who moved to Tinicum Township in 2015, is more likely to be found playing in Bucks County than in the Big Apple.

“Even before the pandemic, I had been planting the seeds to play locally,” he says. “Pennsylvania was quicker to ease up on the restrictions than New York, so I’ve found myself working more in Pennsylvania. In New York, I have only one weekly engagement. Out here, I’ve been playing three days a week.”

His “First Friday” performances with his quartet at Durham Springs in Kintnersville, were among his first in the area. “I had gotten to thinking it would be nice to play closer to where I live, so I made the rounds and ended up at Durham Springs,” he recalls. He started his monthly cabaret there in spring 2019, attracting a regular crowd. “The dance community from the neighboring towns—Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, the New Hope area—would come out and dance to the music, which was wonderful.” He also performed there on New Year’s Eve and, following a pandemic-induced hiatus, outside on July Fourth.

Since Pennsylvania reopened, all of Arenella’s performances have been outdoors. His regular regional venues include a courtyard at the 1740 House in Lumberville, the porch of the National Hotel in Frenchtown, N.J., and outdoors at McCoole’s Red Lion Inn in Quakertown. He is hopeful that restaurants will try to keep open-air venues for dining, even as indoor dining returns.

“When it gets colder, it will be a challenge for musicians to play outside in the elements, he says, “but we sweated it out all summer playing on the sidewalks. Musicians are hardy and will do what need to do till everything comes back.”

The audience members have been willing to sweat it out with him, enthusiastically. “They are just aching for any inkling of what life used to be,” Arenella says. “Things that we may have taken for granted are real commodities right now. Listening to a live band, having a cocktail are simple pleasures people are really longing for.”

Arenella also has an interest in what life— and music—used to be. “I’ve always had an affinity for old things,” he says. “Old music, old cars, old books, antiques, even junkyards.” His fascination with the music of 1920s and early 1930s prompted the formation of his New York-based Dreamland Orchestra, a Jazz Age dance orchestra that dresses in period outfits and plays music that Arenella transcribed note-for-note from old 78-rpm recordings. “It’s very unique repertoire that you won’t find anywhere else in the world because I’m the only one crazy enough to sit down and transcribe a lot of that stuff.”

“That era still holds a dear place in my heart, but I’m not strictly the 1920s guy anymore,” he says. “I’m embracing anything that’s beautiful, from Frank Sinatra to Charlie Parker to Miles Davis. There’s so much beautiful music that I don’t focus on one era specifically. I play what I consider classic jazz. That can apply to Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker and everything in between.” 

His two recordings offer listeners both options. “Blue River” features the music of the1920s, played by a 12-piece orchestra, while “Just in Time,” recorded with a six-piece band, samples later styles of jazz.

With social distancing at play, most of Arenella’s recent live music making has been as part of a duo, with a guitarist or a pianist joining him. When space permits, he adds a string bass and maybe drums.

“I carve out my own little jobs and produce my own events,” he says, adding that he enjoys helping keep other artists employed. “It’s important to remember people in the arts right now.”

All That Bucks County Jazz

With some down time during the pandemic and a desire to help both his community and other musicians, local musician Michael Arenella plans to produce a jazz festival in Tinicum Park. The Bucks County Jazz Festival will take place in late September, debuting in either 2021 or 2022.

Arenella expects to start modestly, working on his own and hiring bands he has connections with, but he hopes to build the festival over the years, involving sponsors and turning it into a world-class event featuring performers from around the globe. The festival could eventually feature performances, jam sessions, master classes and other educational programs at satellite sites and businesses nearby, he says.

Arenella’s Jazz Age Lawn Party, a multiday event that draws approximately 5,000 people daily to Governors Island in New York to celebrate the music and culture of the 1920s, would have celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, had the pandemic not canceled it. While the Lawn Party focuses on the music of the 1920s, the Bucks County festival will also feature later eras and more diverse types of jazz.

“I think it would be real exciting for Bucks County, for the Lehigh Valley and for tourism,” Arenella says. “I’d like to reach out to local businesses and get them involved to help me build this to eventually reach the same scale of the event on Governors Island.”

Tinicum is an ideal location for the event, he says, noting that it is rural yet close to urban areas such as New York and Philadelphia, which are home to many great jazz musicians.

“I want to bring what I’ve built and created to Bucks County and contribute to my community in a meaningful way, and the strongest resources I have are my music and my ability to create world-class events,” Arenella says. “It’s a little lazy on my part, too.  I can walk from my house to the event.”

To get involved with the festival or purchase one of Arenella’s recordings, go to: [email protected].

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