Last night I had the pleasure of catching the musical group Postmodern Jukebox at the Regency in San Francisco. I honestly did not know what to expect. I maybe caught a video or two produced by Postmodern Jukebox, but I put them in the same box as novelty, tongue-in-cheek remakes of modern songs in a "vintage" style.
I quickly realized that Postmodern Jukebox is something bigger and weirder.
For those that don't know Postmodern Jukebox is the a musical project started by pianist Scott Bradlee a few years ago. They take contemporary pop hits and re-arrange them as classic jazz, soul, blues, and R&B songs with live instrumentation and hot young singers. And while there have been many similar efforts before (from Weird Al to "Glee") they appear to have hit the zeitgeist at just the right time.
As a phenomenon PMJ is damn impressive. Their Youtube channel has 1.2 million subscribers to date, with over 200 million total views of their videos. Just their cover of Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop" has over 13 million views! But how would that virtual fandom translate to a live concert?
In the packed Regency Ballroom (which holds about 1,000 patrons), I met a cross section of fans that I rarely see together at a concert. There were excited teenagers in their best "vintage" garb — girls in flapper dresses, boys in suits with fedoras. Older folks were as giddy as the teenagers, fighting for a spot near the front of the ballroom. Entire families turned out together, alongside couples in their 20s and 30s.
I wormed my way up to the edge of the stage with my friend Jesse, who scored me the ticket for the sold out show. (Thanks, Jesse!) As the band took the stage — Scott on piano, a drummer, acoustic bass, trombone, and clarinet — hundreds of phones and cameras came out to catch the first song. When the first singer launched into one of their many hits, you could feel the ridiculous excitement in the crowd. They were cheering for the horn solos, key changes, high notes, really everything.
And it just kept getting more and more hype, with singer after singer taking the stage.
I was most excited about the tap dancer Sarah Reich who came out to perform with the band for some numbers. She destroyed her solos and danced up a storm on her little tap board. I had a huge dance crush right then and there.
Seeing hundreds of people of all ages cheering for a tap solo, a horn riff, and a jazz diva belting out a pop song opened my eyes to the possibilities for bringing jazz to the masses. This was some solid jazz and blues songs that were reaching people and exciting them about music in a way I've rarely seen before.
"Back in the 1920s and '30s, jazz musicians were taking popular music and making it into jazz — taking Broadway standards, which were pop back then. So this is a continuation of that tradition."
I'd love to see efforts like Postmodern Jukebox be a gateway for people to get excited about jazz and other traditional musical genres. I wonder what the takeaway is for jazz artists struggling to find an audience? I assume not everyone is going to want to stop doing standards and work a remake of a Kanye song. But there's definitely a lot that they could learn about showmanship and creating something that has wide appeal to current audiences.
I definitely learned a lot. Excuse me while I go and bob my head to their motown version of "Poison."