How swing swung back into style Swing-revival bands have made it to MTV and Top-20 lists. The zoot suits probably helped.

Pop Music

August 30, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,sun pop music critic

When Jason Moss was in high school, playing in a blues rock band, his grand-father worried that the young guitarist was wasting his time. "When's Jason going to get into a real band, a big band, when this rock thing blows over?" Grandpa complained to Moss' mother.

These days, his grandfather couldn't be prouder. Moss is one of the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, a Seattle-based swing-revival band whose current album, "Zoot Suit Riot," became a Top-20 hit after the title track became a staple on MTV.

"It's kind of ironic," says Moss. "I wind up playing swing in a band, and we're doing pretty well. So I guess he was right in a sense."

Rock and roll hasn't exactly "blown over," of course, but there's no getting around the fact that swing is back in a big way.

Turn on MTV, and there's one-time rockabilly Brian Setzer in front of a 17-piece big band, urging viewers to "Jump, Jive and Wail" as a group of dancers jitterbug madly. Head out to the clubs, and bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Royal Crown Revue, and the J Street Jumpers are blaring brassy, swing-driven arrangements to kids in zoot suits and poodle skirts. Even Madison Avenue is trying to get into the act, as ads for the Gap remind us that "Khakis swing."

This isn't a return to the days of Basie and Ellington, though. In the '30s and '40s, big bands really were big, boasting five saxophones and eight to 10 trumpets and trombones in addition to a four-piece rhythm section. Today's swing bands are much smaller, generally carrying just three or four horns, and generating a sound closer to the jump blues of Louis Jordan's Tympany Five than the suave swing of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

Even so, swing has clearly swung back into fashion.

"There definitely is a swing revival," says Ken Mosher of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. "Bands playing swing music are definitely getting a lot more exposure than they would have three years ago."

Mosher should know. The Zippers, after all, got the ball rolling early this year, when MTV started airing the band's jazzy, campy video for "Hell."

"How did it end up on MTV? A miracle," says Mosher, laughing, over the phone from the band's home base in Chapel Hill, N.C. Although the cartoony look of the video undoubtedly appealed to the channel's sense of visual style, Mosher knows that there wouldn't have been "Hell" to play if the music hadn't fit into the rest of MTV's programming strategy. "How they concluded that we, or swing bands, or anyone, fits that formula, I don't know," he says. "They have market research that's probably way beyond me."

Up until then, swing was an underground thing. Although bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and the Royal Crown Revue had been working the circuit for a decade, their music was way out of step with the rest of alternarock culture. James Achor, the guitarist who co-founded the L.A.-based Royal Crown Revue, says that when his band first started touring, they'd be sharing the bill with grunge rockers like Nirvana.

"That was club music," he says. "We would just go where people would let us play, and try to beat them up into liking it. For us to show up and play in suits on a bill that was grunge bands ..."

Achor laughs, but admits that their retro look was as much a part of swing's appeal as the brassy abandon of the music itself. "It

wasn't really a conscious thing," he says. "We just started dressing this way, and then it became like a competition to see who could out-dress each other. Like, 'Check this tie out!' 'Dig these shoes!' The music had a great look, and that was a big part of what captured me."

That look finally began to catch on in Southern California, where teen-agers would deck themselves in thrift shop finery to revive dance moves that had fallen out of fashion before their parents were born.

"I could tell that it was happening on an underground level when high school kids started swing dancing and stuff like that," says singer Steve Perry, the leader of the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. "I thought, 'This is going to blow up,' but only in terms of the underground. I thought this would be a really, really minute version of what ska is."

It's not surprising that Perry would link swing with ska. Both styles were big in California before breaking nationally, and both built their audiences through sweaty, supercharged live shows. But the ska and swing scenes have another element in common: Both have roots in punk rock.

"Inherent in punk there has always been a connection to roots music of all sorts, like mod, soul, ska and rockabilly and things like that," says Perry. "Swing is just one of the roots music."

Perry, in fact, started out playing punk rock, as did the Cherry Poppin' Daddies' bassist and drummer. Most swing-revival bands, in fact, are blends of jazz-schooled horn players and reformed punk-rock rhythm players.

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