In the mood:
High atop Joe and Mo's, which is somehow an underground restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, a dozen guys in snazzy tuxes sit curled over glinting horns at little amber-lit art deco music stands while, out front, at her reproduction Electro-Voice microphone, a chanteuse with fire-red fingernails and a figure you could slip through a straw is sultrifying on a Cole Porter number.
Have you died and turned up at the Chesterfield Hour?
Two jitterbuggers out on the carpeted dance floor just negotiated the Pretzel.
Light is bouncing off the crystal at the tables of some dumbstruck late-night diners.
The clarinetist is riding on a blue note.
And a herky-jerky Busby Berkeley nutcake of a bandleader in white tie and tails is approaching meltdown. He's the 43-year-old Merlin of this mirage, and apparently his elevator hasn't been stopping at every floor for many years -- say, ever since FDR's second inaugural. Or is this some fey, elegant, inside parody-of-a-'30s-parody the audience hasn't quite been let in on?
Never mind, they still love it. This man is a grinning fool. This man is walking after midnight. This man thinks he's Cab Calloway and Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor and Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and Peanuts Hucko rolled in one. (What, you never heard of Peanuts Hucko?) He's about to sprout wings and fly. He's spring-loaded. He's on invisible wires from the peach-tinted ceiling. Besides that he has Saint Vitus' dance in his right leg. For about the last 20 minutes, with his oh-so-slender little white-glowing tippy-tippy baton, and in no strict order of amazing motion, Doc Scantlin has been: noodling, scatting, whirling, ogling, eyebrow-arching, lip-twitching, ear-wiggling, duckwalking, preening, primping, prancing and otherwise directing his fabulous Imperial Palms Orchestra through such joint-jumping numbers as "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "Lover Man" and "I'm Just Wild About Animal Crackers."
Calling this man a conductor is like saying P.T. Barnum had cats.
He's got on suede gray spats with mother-of-pearl buttons running up the side.
He's got on a collapsible silk topper.
He's got a pencil-thin mustache that Boston Blackie would die for.
This night's not half cooked yet and Doctor Scantlin's already at full tilt. He hasn't even done his "Hi-Dee-Hi/ Hi-Dee-Ho" or "About a Quarter to Niiiiine" routines yet.
At break, glistening with sweat, breath in heaves, a little bottle of gold foo-foo in his muscular right hand, the Doc tells you this: "I usually lose interest right after World War II. With everything."
Then he grins. "Sometimes I think I'm just a visitor to 1990."
Illusion is where you find it. Yes, we've hit 1990, and raunch is all the rage, and the lambada has snaked up from South America, and new kids on the block show up practically by the week to appall or mesmerize, and Tipper Gore is not the name of Artie Shaw's current vocalist, but still: Something there is out there, even now, that seems to love putting on the Ritz, that's yet looking for paper moons under cardboard skies, that apparently just can't get enough of that gone-but-still-here elegant swellegant bubble of iconographic American musical time you can encapsulate -- and have it be instantly understood -- with a one-syllable five-letter word:
Swing is what Doc Scantlin and his Imperial Palms Orchestra are about -- not just the music alone, though the way they're able to play it is pretty wonderful: all that brassy, liquid voluptuousness we've come to associate with the late '20s and the '30s and the wartime '40s. But no, swing in some larger, more elemental sense, the sense of style, the sense of taste, the sense of living-well-as-the-best-revenge, even if the times are terrible.
(Question: How is it we think of the swing era of the '30s as an apotheosis of American style and class and rooftop elegance when what that decade really amounted to, more than anything else, was a terrible Depression?)
You hear Doc Scantlin and you start thinking of crossings on the Queen Mary. Of East Egg and Jay Gatsby's spreading blue lawn. Of the Stork Club and Sherman Billingsley. Of Nick Charles nursing a vodka gimlet over there in those shadows. Make that a Rob Roy.
These days even respectable GS-14s at the Bureau of Labor Statistics are said to be donning the gladdest maddest rags they possess and toodling on down on a Saturday night to a subterranean eatery at Connecticut and M Street to get in on the retrograde illusions and big-band jazz of Doc Scantlin and the Imperials Palms Orchestra. (Afterward, if a Doc-goer's got it truly right, he'll go riding uptown on the roof of a taxi with his date. Headed where? To the Plaza, of course, to splash around in the fountain with Scott and Zelda before the cops come.)
Joe and Mo's has been open 11 years. The place has seldom if ever known weekends like this. What during the week is just one more downtown semi-pricey lunchtime eatery for power lovers transmogrifies itself every Friday and Saturday night into the St. James Infirmary and Roseland and the Aragon and the Savoy and the Cotton Club and the Glen Island Casino to boot. They push back the tables and let the imagining begin. If it doesn't swing, there's no such thing, as old jazzmen used to say.
It's all a rooftop of the mind, once the music's hooked you.
There's a $10 cover at 10 o'clock. Come fall they may have to go to two shows a night. Recording executives have been by. There's been talk of a Doc video.
Doc Scantlin and the Imperial Palms have been in existence for not quite six years, although only for the past year or so has the band been appearing at Joe and Mo's. In its earliest form, the act billed itself as the Society Syncopators, debuting -- get this -- at a disco club on Dupont Circle called Numbers. The sound was a little rawer then. For a while the jobs were Elks lodges and wedding receptions. Then things seemed to come together all at once -- the band's personnel was shifting and experimenting, and so too was the playlist -- and before long Doc and his 15 pieces found themselves in a three-year run at the architecturally magnificent Kennedy-Warren apartment building on upper Connecticut, where the art deco setting, if not the acoustics, was just Doc-ducky.
And then one day last March, at a fund-raiser for the American Playwrights Theatre at Herb's restaurant, Mo Sussman got in the groove.
"Now I'll be frank, my weekend business was starting to stink," Sussman says. "Lemme tell you. I'd do 40, maybe 60 covers a night. When a convention was in town, okay, great, but otherwise, forget it. Then I go to this benefit at Herb's. There were several bands playing. I walked into this one room -- maybe it was in the back -- and here's this guy out of time, out of the '30s, out of I don't know what the hell, playing this incredible swing sound. He absolutely knocked me dead. We did a five-week contract at first and ever since it's been a handshake."
And that, in short, is how tunes named "Minnie the Moocher" and "Marahuana Tango" and "Taint No Sin to Take Off Your Skin and Dance Around in Your Bones" came to be played beneath the steamy macadams of Connecticut Avenue.
These days Mo Sussman manages Doc Scantlin and the Imperial Palms. Sussman's got a lot of plans. In the fall he's thinking of putting in risers and palm trees. And yet even as he plans, he wonders if the band's destiny isn't New York and the Rainbow Room.
Of this the Doc himself says, "I like what I'm doing here just fine." Beat. "The money would have to be awfully good to go to New York."
Several months ago the Imperial Palms played the premiere party for "The Hunt for Red October." Six weeks ago, Doc and the band did a job out of town: southeastern regional sales meeting for some digital firm or other in Asheville, N.C. They drove down in separate cars. Recounting this, the saddest look suddenly comes across Scantlin's face.
"We should have had Auburn boat-tailed roadsters, 10 of them, just like Coon Sanders's Nighthawks out of Chicago," he says. "Coon used to have one for each guy in the band, you know."
Doc doesn't go on for the night without a tiny gold-leaf imperial palm tree glinting from his lapel. For that matter, he hardly goes anywhere without Dixie Peach pomade in his thinning straight-back hair. One could continue almost endlessly these wondrous fashion oddities: the filterless Camels he smokes in chains, for instance. (He lights them with blue-tipped safety matches.) And, by the way, do you think for one Satchmo second this guy would wear socks from Raleighs? Nope, he wears those sheer, see-through, rayon, ribbed jobbies that your grandfather wore. Scantlin found dozens of like-new pairs in a defunct furniture store warehouse in Memphis.
By the way, they're not socks. They're hose.
He wears Stacey-Adams shoes. He owns 50 hats -- fedoras, homburgs, straw numbers. What civilized gent would think of going outdoors without a lid? The Doc has a beaver fur hat he preserves in its original 1926 English box. It's the kind of hat gentlemen leaving the opera used to swirl to get the nap just right.
Like anybody else, Doc Scantlin has his heroes.
"Well, Adolphe Menjou, for one. Because he had over 100 pairs of custom-made shoes. Right there, you have to love him, don't you? I always thought of him as originating from upper-class England, but actually I think he was from Syracuse or someplace like that."
The Doc himself is from Benton Harbor, Mich. -- but that was a long time ago. He wasn't Doc Scantlin then. He was just a kid named Steven Scantlin whose fearful and sternly religious parents had come to the industrial north from back-of-the-moon Arkansas. Their dreamy child, born in the '40s, craving the '30s, found his first escape from here-and-now in the quicksilver glow of old movies.
He picked up the trumpet at 8. Eventually he got into the repair of fine musical instruments, and still keeps his hand in it. He's a whiz at woodwork, actually.
An odd-seeming fact: Not very many years ago Doc Scantlin was a bluegrass fiddle player in Nashville with a band called the Red Hot Peppers. Don't take this too far, because even in Tennessee the Doc was still the Doc, people say. Doc himself has said, in an oft-quoted line, "I decided it was time to get out of the barnyard and back into the ballroom."
Eric Felten is one of the band's slide trombonists. Of Doc's retro-rage, Felten says, "I haven't seen him slip out of it yet. It's magnetizing." Felten went to the Kennedy School at Harvard and now writes for Insight magazine at the Washington Times -- but at Joe and Mo's the music puts a hypodermic to his soul.
"You catch him at any moment of any day, I guarantee you he's in a vintage suit with those old-fashioned shoes, a pressed handkerchief in his breast pocket, just so," says Dave Robinson, saxman, who by daylight writes weapons contracts for the Defense Department. (In his spare time he puts on jazz programs for the Smithsonian.) "I suspect if the Doc changes his own oil, he wears one of those damn elegant suits."
One of Doc's trumpet players is Marc Weigel. Weigel has another life, as most of the band members do. He's a warehouseman at Commerce. At Joe and Mo's the notes drop off his horn like a string of pearls.
Weigel recently came in off the road with the Dorsey band. (Tommy is reputed to have died in 1956, but maybe the reports were greatly exaggerated.) Before that, Weigel was out touring with the Woody Herman and Glenn Miller bands, or at least with their latter-day incarnations. Most of the touring was by bus, all those Pottstowns and Del Rios and Caribous, just like the old days, when the songs hummed endlessly against the tires and a jazzman's soft snoring.
The Doc's songstress is "The Lovely Miss Julie." That's how he introduces her from the bandstand. She's 23. "Well, okay, okay, 24," she says. The Lovely Miss Julie has a last name (it's Stacy), and she happens to live at home with her parents in northern Virginia, and she sings in church on Sundays at Annandale United Methodist, and she studied opera, and she attended Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, but you'd never have a clue to any of this if you just happened to wander in to Joe and Mo's on a Saturday to gasp at her sultriness. Illusions: It's a sultriness with a nonetheless strange wholesome edge. Miss Julie is Ella and Bessie and Billie. She's Anita O'Day. She's Eartha Kitt. She's strictly stormy weather. She wears an antique costume of hand-crocheted Irish lace, touched off by an orange-sherbet sash that tends to slide farther and farther down her bottom as she goes. This is probably not what the sainted Dublin seamstress who made it had in mind.
Miss Julie's renditions of Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call" and Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," with the Doc mugging and aping behind her, tend to bring the house down.
"He's a perfectionist," she says of the boss. "He's a puzzle. You never quite know what the man is going to do."
Here's something curious the Doc recently did: moved out of a small tasteful Connecticut Avenue apartment to a big bi-level in West Springfield, 40 minutes down I-95. The Doc in greater Fairfax? Houses there have spacious garages, the better to work on your 1949 vintage Cadillacs, two of which Doc proudly owns. Springfield also has the American Movie Classics cable network at reasonable prices.
Through an arrangement with the phone company, Doc was able to keep the same D.C. prefix for his Virginia phone number. This prefix? Why, CH-ampagne 4, what else? If you dial him up and he's not there, you get about 45 seconds of hi-dee-ho and ta-ta, backgrounded with tutti-frutti music. (He is sharing the house with one of the band members; Doc's ex-wife and teenage daughter live in New England.)
"The thing is, there's a lot of birds down here," he says. "You open your eyes and you hear all this chirping. And you wake up and the sun is in the wrong place!"
He hasn't gotten a lawn mower yet. The living room is still underfurnished. Rudy Vallee is on one wall, a colorized Duke Ellington on another. Overstuffed maroon velvet chairs and sofa. A miniature porcelain of Nipper the Dog staring quizzically from the oriental carpet into a huge upright wooden gramophone. On top of it are a lace coverlet, a silver flask, a glass drink shaker: class.
What must the neighbors think? On the first Saturday evening in his new digs, the Doc appeared at the doorway in white tie and tails. He was headed uptown. The vision startled a jogger and his wife who were just passing by. "I'm sure they thought I was a drug dealer," says Doc. He won't be barbecuing on the deck of this house, he guesses.
"See," he says, "I'm out to do what I want to do, and everybody else can kind of go to hell. That's the way I look at it. If I'm inspired, they'll feel it. It's almost like picking up a girl. It's a sensual thing. If you have the right kind of crowd, you can go to orgasmic heights. You're touching them with this music."
And then: "What I love about the '20s and the '30s as an era is that I think it was a period in American history when we were all on the same team. We weren't fighting each other. You know?"
And now, ladies and gentlemen, from Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert featuring Gene Krupa, a little number for you entitled 'Sing, Sing, Sing.' Professor, are you ready back there?
Not only is the professor ready, but so too are a room full of Lindy Hoppers and Savoy Stompers. A man just tossed his dance partner in the air with legs kicking, then tried to loopdy-doop her along the floor, feet first. Hell, he's not just any old Washington bureaucrat, not tonight.
He missed a little on that loopdy-doop, though.
Light is reflecting up from the bottom of Doc's deco music stands. Just like Gloria Swanson's swimming pool.
Doc'll soon be barking wildly into a megaphone. He's a penny arcade, he's a Looney Tune parade.
Meanwhile some snazzy guys behind him have nothing on their minds but notes. To them it's all cheek-bulged ecstasy.