Just in case you're not already convinced, the stylistic departure
of new albums by Brian Setzer and Andrew Bird should quell any
lingering doubt that the recent swing music revival is dead and done.
Unless you had an economic interest in it, your reaction to the news
probably falls somewhere between "who cares" and "good riddance"--the
decline of any trend is inevitable, plus it's hard to say how much
the brief popularity of some watered-down big bands with a segment of
today's young'uns ever meant to jazz itself.
Still, I don't want to get too cynical about the revivals of jazz and related styles that will crop up from time to time, because some of them have been pretty interesting. In 1973 when The Sting came out in theaters, I was in grade school and witnessed the flurry of activity and media interest in ragtime that resulted from the anachronistic soundtrack's mainstream popularity. It meant a-plenty for a genre that still needs and deserves all the support it can get. The Sting's musical director, Marvin Hamlisch, unwittingly accomplished the improbable unseating of "Maple Leaf Rag" as Scott Joplin's most-recognized piece in favor of "The Entertainer" nearly six decades after the composer's death, and the single got into the Billboard Top 3 to boot.
The previous decade, the 60s, will forever be associated with revolutions in pop music, but it was also a time when traditional jazz could make the charts. Which American act knocked the Beatles out of the number one spot they held for 14 straight weeks in early 1964? Not the Beach Boys or Four Seasons, but Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (Hello Dolly). Even before the Fab Four's invasion, British "trad" jazz artists like Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, and Kenny Ball all scored major U.S. hits.
I recently discovered a compilation CD called By Jingo...It's British Rubbish (Hux), featuring two trad-ish bands from the era that may have lacked American hits, but more significantly show how far a stylistic revival can extend beyond the trappings of trendy nostalgia. Both blended jazz and comedy, revealing a penchant for novelty songs of the 1920s.
First there was the Temperance Seven, whose campy "vo-do-de-o" vocalizing and oom-pah rhythm were offset by impeccable musicianship and exquisite arrangements, all delivered with a deadpan wit and dollops of hot jazz. Though I don't imagine anyone is especially looking for a splendid treatment of "Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)," in the Temps' hands it truly shines. Their version of "You're Driving Me Crazy" landed producer George Martin his first number one single, in early 1961; ironically, forty years later the then-throwback holds up much better than most pop records of its time, which kind of sums up the odd brilliance of this dead-serious novelty act.
Funny bands usually get dismissed as inconsequential, but in his liner notes for the By Jingo... CD, Neil Innes credits the Temperance Seven with influencing his own Bonzo Dog Doo Dah (originally Dada) Band, who themselves usually get included and treated with considerable respect in critical surveys of 60s British rock. At a point when the Beatles ruled the scene, Paul McCartney was most eager to be the Bonzos' producer and he even had the group appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film. Has there ever been a dixieland band with hipper credentials?
In truth, by the time Paul got a hold of them, the Bonzo Dog Band had evolved somewhat beyond their trad roots, towards electric guitars and psychedelia. According to Innes, this happened after the group turned down a business offer to tour as the New Vaudeville Band, an entity whose monster hit "Winchester Cathedral" had been cut by anonymous studio musicians. Only one among the loose-knit Bonzo clan elected to go Vaudeville (and make some real money, no doubt), but before long the original daft stage act of the Bonzos was being mis-perceived by audiences as a mere ripoff of the much more derivative New Vaudeville Band, and so a change in direction by the former ensued.
The Bonzo Dog tracks on By Jingo... emphasize the group's early jazz leanings, including a romp through King Oliver's "Dr. Jazz" and the Wilton Crawley-esque "Laughing Blues," which at points sounds uncannily like a real 20s recording, albeit a pretty bad one. Innes names "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold," as a special favorite that sums up the band's original spirit. For this one, apparently the guys traded instruments with one another for what they vowed would be a single-take run-through of "Tiger Rag." The result is a hilarious specimen of authentic dada dixie.
It's hard to say how much any of this inspired British foolishness ever meant to jazz itself, but it's also interesting to note that one key member of the Temperance Seven would go on to become a revered name among reissue collectors in the present day, that being remastering engineer and multi-instrumentalist John R.T. Davies. Who's to say how much of his acoustic wisdom might be attributed to recording with George Martin at the Abbey Road studio? For me it's enough just contemplating that this dedicated rescuer of arcane jazz was once part of a dapper band that got all the way to the Top of the Pops..
Musician, composer, and Bix fan Frank Youngwerth works for Tower Records