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Back in the Swing

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 1998

  In Style  

    Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Neo-swing groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy borrow more from the riff-rooted jump blues of the '40s than from Glenn Miller. (Interscope Records)
The swing revival keeps rolling along, fueled by cadres of New Swing Kids rifling through their grandparents' closets and searching out local thrift shops for vintage threads to wear when they go jitterbugging to bands with such jive monikers as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Royal Crown Revue and Dem Brooklyn Bums.

These neo-swing bands are filled with refugees from punk and alternative rock who sport shiny zoot suits, wide ties, wide-brimmed fedoras and two-tone shoes. They serve up a propulsive sound built on screaming syncopated horns, thundering drums and thumping stand-up bass and sing sly, fun-filled songs about gambling, drinking and romancing dizzy dames.

They call it swing, but little of this music fits the traditional definition of swing, the lush, sweetly melodic dance music of the '30s and early '40s purveyed by Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Count Basie.

While traditional swing, supported by both original fans of the music and later generations attracted to social dancing, has survived in small pockets around the country, what's really being revived is the aggressive, riff-rooted jump blues popularized in the late '40s and '50s by Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown.

Royal Crown Revue, self-styled purveyors of "hard-boiled swing," were the first retrofitted swing band when they started playing at San Francisco's art-deco nightclub the Deluxe in 1989. They also released the movement's first album, 1990's "Kings of Gangster Bop," and provided swing's first mainstream break in 1994 when they performed "Hey Pachuco!" in Jim Carrey's film "The Mask."

It's another movie, however, that set the table for the current craze: 1996's "Swingers," whose writer and star, John Favreau, was inspired by the swing revivalism he encountered at Hollywood's Derby Club. That film featured performances by Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, both of which were not well known outside of retro-swing's two epicenters, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

MTV helped the revival along last year when it put Squirrel Nut Zippers' quirky "Hell" into heavy rotation. Though it's considered the first new-swing hit, the song is actually calypso, and the Zippers' main influences – hot jazz, string band music and Dixieland – all predate swing. Earlier this year, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies did the same with the tom-tom-fueled "Zoot Suit Riot" on MTV; that song remains the revival's only Top 40 radio hit. The MTV exposure pushed albums by both acts to the platinum level.

However it was a commercial, not a music video, that pushed the swing revival into overdrive, when the Gap unveiled its Lindy-hopping "Khakis Swing" spot in April during the highly rated finales of "ER" and "Seinfeld." Set to Louis Prima's 1959 classic "Jump, Jive an' Wail," the 30-second spot featured high-flying kids and proved so popular that the Gap recycled it this fall, which it did not do with its corollary ads for "Khakis Rock" (electronica music and in-line skaters) and "Khakis Groove" (hip-hop and break dancing).

"'Swingers' brought the swing lifestyle to the heartland," says V. Vale, author of the recently published book, "Swing! The New Retro Renaissance." What the Gap's "Khakis Swing" ad did, he adds, "was expose the dance and music to a large and underdeveloped demographic – kids under 18. As soon as it came out, all the dance studios were besieged with young-sounding voices who'd gotten their names out of the Yellow Pages, asking if they could teach them to dance 'like in that Gap commercial.' "

Suddenly, dance schools are as crowded as the Roseland Ballroom was in the '30s, with new generations learning an old style of dancing that has many variations – Lindy Hop, shag, jive, jitterbug, jump, push, whip – almost all the names suggesting the vibrancy at the heart of swing.

Concurrently, there's been a revival of classically flashy fashion, from zoot suits, high-waisted pants and gabardine shirts for men to flared-skirt dresses for women. With authentic '40s and '50s threads now hard to find at vintage clothing shops and thrift stores, some companies have begun manufacturing new lines based on original designs.

And though it's still a rarity on the radio (except on some very oldies stations), swing is now a favored style on Madison Avenue, in ads for the Gap, Toyota, Dockers, Coke and other products, as well as in promotional music on the WB network. It's hip, and in terms of corporate image, it's a safe thing compared to rock and hip-hop.


A good number of swing's new practitioners are reformed punks and rockabilly cats who have brought the driving energy – and occasionally, the dark lyricism – of punk to swing. They are not fierce traditionalists; they freely mix traditional swing and jump blues, hot jazz and bebop, honky-tonk and western swing, boogie-woogie, blues and rock – all styles that underscore Count Basie's definition of swing as anything "you can really pat your foot by."

"That's why it works," Vale suggests. "It's a reinvention, a new form of music we just happened to call swing. The music in the culture has to be relevant to today and influence things of today."

"The new bands break down the barriers between different styles of music," says Michael Moss, publisher of three-year old Swing Time magazine. "The jazz and rock worlds both have a stuck-up nose. The new swing is not either, it's both, and it invigorates both genres."

Much of the music of this revival bears only a mild resemblance to its roots – it's swing as imagined by rockers. Aside from the Brian Setzer Orchestra, there are few actual neo-swing big bands with the traditional swing lineup of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and a three-piece rhythm section, in addition to vocalists. The music simply rocks too hard, and perhaps too loud, to be swing.

It's also full of electric guitars, absent the first go-round for swing, when guitars were little more than semi-audible rhythm instruments. The electric guitar didn't really make its mark until the '50s, when the already-dwindling big bands were overwhelmed by rock-and-roll. Now it's blending with the brass, nowhere more effectively than in the Brian Setzer Orchestra, in which a '50s-style roots rock guitarist is fronting a '40s influenced big band.

Growing up in New York in the '70s, Setzer used to sneak into Village Vanguard to hear the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band and go hear punk rock at CBGB's the next night. "The big band struck me as being as powerful as an electric guitar through an amp," recalls Setzer, who first worked the revival route with his wildly successful rockabilly trio, the Stray Cats. In fact, it was an offer to have Doc Severinsen's "Tonight Show" band back the Cats on their hit "Rock This Town" that first put a big-band notion in Setzer's pompadoured head.

By 1992, the Stray Cats "ran out of gas," says Setzer, and he put together a 16-piece band in California. "We hit the road in 1994, but it was slim pickings – mostly leftover Stray Cats fans and guitarheads. People dressing up and going out was still a couple of years off."

Not too many swing-style bands were touring at the time. "Even two years ago, we were still the only band on the road nationally week in and week out," says Royal Crown Revue guitarist James Achor. He and former punk vocalist Eddie Nichols had first met in an L.A. rockabilly band, the Rockomatics, but by the late '80s, "the L.A. punk scene had been dead for two or three years, along with the second wave of rockabilly," Achor explains. Both genres had strong connections to American roots music, so it wasn't all that much of a leap backward into swing when Achor and Nichols first teamed up with saxophonist Mando Dorame, a huge fan of screaming saxists like Big Jay McNeely.

"The culture was already in place before the music got here, with the scene at the Club Deluxe," says Swing Time's Moss. "It was the first retro-swing hangout in the nation, where people could listen to records and celebrate the culture. When Royal Crown Revue appeared in 1989, there was already a built-in audience for this music and this band."

Vale suggests in his book that the swing revival is both "a rejection of corporately-dictated consumption and an embrace of forgotten and/or ignored aspects of the American experience." It's a reflection of a desire for change built on elements popular in the past, including music, dance, clothing and traditional values. The revival, he says, is also a reaction to "information overload, and to rock music, which seems to have gotten so much louder in the last three decades, inundating everybody everywhere you go. The Deluxe started as a refuge from rock music."

While some have dismissed the neo-swing culture and its revival of partner-dancing as little more than a new singles scene in old wolves' clothing, Vale suggests it goes deeper, signaling what he calls "a reemergence of diplomacy, social grace, courtesy." Swing Time's Moss says the swing social scene represents "the return of manners, a backlash against grunge and rap where manners are the least thing they are concerned about."

    Peaches O'Dell Peaches O'Dell. (Courtesy of Jennifer Harper)
Certainly it represents a fun alternative to the dressed-down angst and anger of grunge, the assaultive energy of hip-hop and the lack of showmanship that characterizes much electronica.

"We're in the happiness business," says local singer Peaches O'Dell, whose seven-year-old He-Man Orchestra recently set the attendance record at Glen Echo the same week it sold out the Black Cat. "We mean to give you a sense of occasion. We want you to feel like you're part of our movie!"

Washington has an abundance of swing bands. The 16-piece Tom Cunningham Orchestra has been in existence since 1976. Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra came into being in 1985, and the 23-piece band has become so popular in corporate circles and at private parties that it hardly ever plays for the public any more. There's also the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra, Big Joe and the Dynaflos, the J Street Jumpers and the repertory-rooted Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

While many of the venues that used to be home to the more traditional swing bands have closed, the action has moved to clubs like the 9:30 and Black Cat, to suburban venues like America Restaurant in Tyson's Corner (Friday nights) and Club Hollywood in Annapolis (Mondays). The Washington Swing Dance Committee, which formed in 1985 and is one of the nation's oldest swing organizations, sponsors two dances a month at the Glen Echo Ballroom. Committee President Michael Hart notes that swing dancing is drawing such big crowds that his group recently shifted to two dances per night: one from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. with a 45-minute dance lesson, and a second one from 10 to 12:30.

"The biggest need now is all-ages venues with large dance floors," says Vale, who recently did some jitterbugging at Portland's renovated Crystal Ballroom, whose 7,500-square-foot dance floor sits on springs.

Moss estimates that there are now 200 swing bands in the country, most of which started without any idea of financial success. Until recently, none of them had much success.

"The band's just now bobbing its head above the water," says Brian Setzer. "I was just barely able to pay the guys until the last tour, when I broke even."

Now that the music is in the national spotlight again, the neo-swing bands find themselves struggling for identity. Squirrel Nut Zippers actually distance themselves from the swing revival (as they should), and a band like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies is as much ska as it is swing (its platinum "Zoot Suit Riot" album is actually a compilation of swing tracks from the band's three indie albums).

Other bands choose to accent different things: Dem Brooklyn Bums emphasize camp nostalgia; The New Morty Show re-creates the Las Vegas chic of Louis Prima and Keely Smith – and do swing versions of Billy Idol's "White Wedding" and Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Richmond's Bio Ritmo does a Latin-swing crossover.

The music's potential downfall, Achor suggests, is commercial radio with its tight playlists and uninviting formats. For instance, though Royal Crown is credited for laying the foundation for the swing revival, radio has not embraced that band. Neither has MTV or VH1, though the band's new single, "Zip Gun Bop," is getting a little airplay, and its attendant video is slated to show up this week on "120 Minutes."

As for radio exposure, "Hell" and "Zoot Suit Riot" remain the exceptions, along with the Brian Setzer Orchestra's current version of "Jump, Jive an' Wail," which is also being supported with a video, the band's first after three albums for Interscope. "There was no reason to make a video before because nobody would play it," says Setzer, adding that the only reason it was made was because VH1 came to them and said "if you make it, we'll play it."

"It's a strange situation to do something for a long time," says Achor, "from when there was nothing to now when it's Top 40 music – again!"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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