The shim sham. The balboa. The jitterbug. The boogaloo. They are all derivatives or descendants of an energetic, stylistic dance form known collectively as swing. When John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John perform the intricate hand jive in Grease, that too can be traced back to the swing era which began in the 1920s when big bands were all the rage. Starting in Harlem, the swing sound and the dances associated with it spread across the country. St. Louis was no exception. Nearly a century later, swing dancing is alive and well here in part through the efforts of the Nevermore Ball and Swing Dance Festival organizers (and swing dance instructors) Christian Frommelt and Jenny Shirar. The Cherokee Street Jazz Crawl, taking place Saturday, November 5, features more than a dozen bands at a variety of venues up and down Cherokee Street as part of the multi-day festival of classes, dances, and performances running from Thursday through Sunday. I had a chance to talk to Christian and Jenny about what to expect in the 2016 edition of the event, including Saturday's several introductory-level classes offered in a variety of styles by a range of instructors.
Bill Motchan: This year marks the fifth Cherokee Street Jazz Crawl. How did it originate?
Christian Frommelt: The Nevermore Jazz Ball and St. Louis Swing Dance Festival was an event we started in 2007. We wanted to have our own dance festival here in town. We'd been traveling regionally, and we really wanted a dance event that was as fun but also showcased the city of St. Louis. The first year it was dances and classes, there was no Jazz Crawl, but we were at Casa Loma Ballroom and we said, it's really a shame that we're not getting people into more of these cool places up and down Cherokee, and our solution was the Jazz Crawl, which showcased bands that we didn't have space for on the dance schedule and it got people in to some of these really unique places that we wanted people to go into and patronize. So that was the genesis of the Jazz Crawl, which allowed us to showcase more of our local music as well as showcase our local businesses in that neighborhood.
Bill: What sets the Cherokee Street Jazz Crawl apart from other swing dance festivals?
Jenny Shirar: Lots of cities host swing dance festivals, they'll have dance workshops and dances at night. Most of them will bring in bands from out of town and they'll have the same ten swing bands from around the world that get hired. St. Louis is unique because we have such a wealth of amazing music acts here. There are lots of festivals that happen, but this is unique. There is nothing like the Jazz Crawl. The other thing great thing about it is we wanted to not just connect people with St. Louis music and St. Louis businesses but create a way for the festival to be open to people who might not have that much experience with swing dancing, or they might not be able to buy a ticket to the ball, and we wanted to create a festival that anyone could come to. It's free to audiences and communities and we can bring in more people.
Bill: How did swing dancing become popular here?
Christian: It's a little unique here. What's happening in St. Louis is a global trend. There are lots of young adults and very young folks learning to swing dance, and that's just the nature of the dance. It's very energetic. In the 1930s, it was really a young person's dance. We have people of all ages, but until the end of time, it will be led by the younger people who have the stamina to do it. But I think if you expose it to people of any age who have that energy, they'll want to try it.
Bill: What age groups in St. Louis tend to be attracted to swing dancing?
Jenny: The history of swing dancing in St. Louis is unique. There was a nationwide craze for swing dancing and big band music in the 30s and 40s and as the music changed and as air conditioning was invented, swing dancing might have died out, but in St. Louis there's been a continuous development of swing dance in the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, and they're continuing to do it, and in addition to this young, worldwide subculture of college age kids and twenty- and thirty-somethings are grabbing onto it. There's also a generation of swing dancers in St. Louis who started in the 60s and 70s, so we have this unique interaction and cross-generation.
Bill: How did you get interested in swing dancing?
Christian: I went to the University of Iowa as a freshman and that's where I went to my first swing dance class. Champaign-Urbana was a swing dancing hub for a while. Sometimes it's not a big city. The following year, in 2008, I transferred to Washington University -- the same time Jenny did -- and I told her, "You should really check out this swing dancing," and she did. From there we went together which included the St. Louis form of jitterbug and the St. Louis shag and the more general dance styles, the Lindy hoppers and the Harlem, and we all practiced and excelled at it that way.
Bill: What should newcomers to swing dancing expect during the Jazz Crawl?
Jenny: With the Jazz Crawl, you should definitely come with an open mind. A young, energetic style is very characteristic of the Lindy hop, but swing dancing is very adaptable. On November 5, for visitors, it's more about watching and taking in the spectacle. At the different types of venues you'll visit, you'll see St. Louis in all of its glory.
Bill: Will there be opportunities to learn more about swing dancing during the Jazz Crawl?
Jenny: We have a Community Dance Day during the Jazz Crawl, a day of free and open-to-the-public dance classes at 2720 Cherokee to make the festival more open and attractive to everyone. You can drop in and there will be classes in swing dance and the St. Louis shag and other styles like hip-hop, breakdance and the St. Louis bop, which is a great dance. It will start at 11 a.m. and continue until about 5 p.m. Christian and I have a group called the St. Louis Jitterbugs and we offer beginning dance classes through that group.
Bill: Do you have to be in good physical condition to try out swing dancing?
Christian: I think that swing dance gives you the opportunity to tell a different story. Jazz is very vast in terms of what it can make you feel. Swing dance is a very joyous, uninhibited, expressive activity and so that's why it's so infectious.
Jenny: It's a jazz dance so it's improvisational in nature. When people learn it, there are some basic steps and patterns, but from there it's open and free form, so you can riff on it. And in our lives, there are not a lot of opportunities to do stuff like that, so for that reason swing dance is a great outlet.
Bill: Is swing dancing difficult to master?
Christian: The cool thing about it is you can be a beginner and go to a dance and dance with everybody. It's a very welcoming community. Everyone remembers when they were beginners. We don't have a dance that isn't all levels. There aren't dances that are just for beginners or for experts. And there are always new people coming in. The types of moves that are customary to learn in swing dance are the swingout, which is kind of a trademark eight-count move, the Lindy hop from Harlem, where you use the momentum that you and your partner have and the leader redirects the follower and you swing around each other and it really feels like flying. You can put your own spin on some of these traditional moves. And it keeps us pretty fit.
Jenny: The barrier to entry is low and you can have a great time on the dance floor and like any hobby, the more you want to put into it, the more you can get out of it. So it's up to the individual dancer. There are some very complex moves where you flip each other over, but only in competition, not on the social dance floor. We practice, we learn, we put a lot of time into learning techniques and complex dance moves, so for us, we've gotten more serious about it.
Bill: Have you noticed the popularity of swing dancing grown in St. Louis over the five years since you originated Nevermore Ball and the Jazz Crawl?
Jenny: Yes, definitely. There are some people who we knew from dance events outside of St. Louis and they've actually moved here because they want to be in the heart of the action.
Christian: And some people we've met who just stumbled on the Jazz Crawl because they were out and about and they said, "We want to learn how to dance!"
Bill: What kind of impact has the Jazz Crawl had on the businesses along Cherokee Street?
Jenny: Some businesses tell us they have their best day of the year during Jazz Crawl. It brings a lot of life to the street, a lot of foot traffic. We've gotten some good reports on the economic impact of it.
Bill: The Nevermore Ball and Jazz Crawl "code" reads in part: "Nevermore is for fun! It's ok to take risks and try new things, be loud and silly at the right time and place, joke around, have some drinks (or not), relax and let loose. Nevermore is for fun! It's ok to take risks and try new things, be loud and silly at the right time and place, joke around, have some drinks (or not), relax and let loose." I can't help but realize that the event falls near the end of a particularly tense election season.
Jenny: I think the thing that's really important to remember during a tense time in the country and in the world is that dance brings people together. It forces you to see someone as a human equal, and that's one of the most important and beautiful things about dance.
Christian: That's one of the things dance has always done. It gives you a chance to relax. When you get on the dance floor, the things you've been worrying about just go away.
Jazz Crawl notes and notables: In the first set, from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 pm, Saxquest will feature a full orchestra; the Loot Rock Gang will be making their first appearance on the Jazz Crawl at Retro 101, and The Bottoms Up Blues Gang will make their first at Hop Shop. The Moonshine Rhythm Club, a Nashville-based band, will perform at Van Ella Studios. In addition to these, the first set will also include performances by Roth/Ryback Duo (South City Art Supply), Miss Jubilee (Foam Coffee and Beer), Wack-A-Doo (Fortune Teller), Sweetie & Chase Garrett (Bespoke), and The Gaslight Squares (Yaqui's house band). At 4 p.m. the second set will start off with a jazz jam led by veteran jazz trumpeter Bill Mason of St. Louis Ragtimers fame. Marty Eggers on bass/piano and Virginia Tichenor (daughter of St. Louis Ragtimers founder and composer Trebor Tichenor) on piano/percussion will help lead this jam at Yaqui's. Also in the second set will be Annie and the Fur Trappers at Propoganda.
In the densely-populated world of female singer/songwriter/musicians, very few have built their success on a foundation of accolades and accomplishments even close to the lengthy list of them achieved by Loreena McKennitt. Over the approximate 30 year span of her critically-acclaimed career, the 59 year-old Ontario resident has released nine studio and six live albums, which have collectively sold close to 15 million units worldwide. She has been honored with two Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy) in 1992 and 1994, a Billboard International Achievement Award in 1997, a Western Canadian Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, and received two Grammy nominations in 2007 and 2012. She even had the rare privilege of performing for Queen Elizabeth.
In addition to the writing, recording and performing aspects of her livelihood, McKennitt founded her own independent label, Quinlan Road, shortly after her career's 1985 inception. Being the label's sole artist has allowed her to assume full responsibility of overseeing every aspect of the highly successful company's operation. Unlike a typical label, McKennitt sees her company's mission as "facilitating enriched life experiences" rather than simply promoting profit and fame. To that end, she contributes a substantial portion of Quinlan Road's revenue to various charitable causes.
Anyone who has ever heard McKennitt sing would most likely agree that her pristine and captivating soprano voice is about as close to that of an angel that most mortals will ever be fortunate enough to experience in this particular realm of existence. What hasn't been so unanimously agreed upon by critics and music industry personnel, however, is how to classify or categorize her style of music. It has been given many genre titles and subtitles, including Celtic, folk, classical, world music, and new age; the latter being McKennitt's personally least favorite. The genre that she feels the most genuine connection with is Celtic; primarily due to the extensive research on, and passionate interest in, Celtic culture that McKennitt has spent many years developing and cultivating.
That interest began at a folk club that she regularly frequented in Winnipeg in the late 1970s, and it was through some of the musicians she played with there that much of her early knowledge of traditional Celtic repertoire was gained. Slightly over a decade later, in 1991, McKennitt discovered a great deal more about Celtic culture through an artifacts exhibition she attended while traveling in Venice, Italy. "Until I went to that exhibition, I had thought the Celts were people that came from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Britain," stated McKennitt in an Alternative Music Press interview. "Seeing the unimagined riches and variety in the centuries of Celtic art from as far away as Hungary, Ukraine, Spain, and Asia" made McKennitt feel "exhilarated," and was a pivotal, transformational point in her career, inspiring her to utilize this knowledge of cultural history as her creative muse. "At the essence of all of my music, there is a Celtic or Irish resonance," she explains, "but it is embroidered with Eastern or Middle Eastern influences."
McKennitt has also applied her extensive global traveling for subject matter research to many of her albums' conceptual themes. Ireland was the inspiration for both 1985's Elemental and 1989's Parallel Dreams, and 1994's excellent The Mask and Mirror emerged from a trip to Spain, where she spent time studying Galicia, a Celtic section of that country. Her research of the various cultures in Asia was the creative foundation for 2006's An Ancient Muse.
Spirituality has also been a strong and prevalent theme in much of McKennitt's work, both lyrically and sonically. "I am deeply interested in the connections between physiology and our spiritual and psychological beings, and the many events and experiences that inspire us," she stated in an interview on her website. She particularly relates to the Sufi's spiritual perspective on life, which emphasizes that it is better to participate with the world than to be detached from it.
The United States is currently experiencing McKennitt's best-known form of world participation, a 22-date tour that brings her back to this country for the first time in nine years. She will be performing as a trio along with her longtime collaborators, cellist Caroline Lavelle and guitarist Brian Hughes; shows will feature music and stories inspired by McKennitt's journey-filled life. Her show at the Pageant on Friday, October 21 will mark the first time McKennitt has ever performed in St. Louis.
Dweezil Zappa is going to play "Whatever The F@%k He Wants" on his Cease and Desist tour Thursday, October 13 at the Ready Room. This show will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Freak Out, the Mothers of Invention's first major studio release.
Zappa, the son of the late guitarist and composer Frank Zappa, brings his rocking teenage combo to Saint Louis for what has become an annual event. This time it will be under his own name. This is due to a squabble with his younger siblings Ahmet and Diva who were given control of the family's business, the Zappa Family Trust, with the passing of their mother Gail. He normally uses the moniker Zappa plays Zappa but that has become impossible due to licensing issues with the ZFT. In what has become an incredibly public battle, Dweezil is funding and producing these very expensive shows to continue bringing his father's music to as many people as he can. One of the major issues driving this feud are monies owed for merchandising from previous Zappa plays Zappa concerts. The ZFT are claiming overwhelming debt accrued since the untimely death of Frank Zappa in 1993 from prostate cancer -- a claim very difficult to swallow, considering the numerous products that have been released since his death, ZPZ tours, the Kickstarter campaign to open the "vault" holding all of the unreleased audio and video to filmmaker Alex Winter, and most recently the sale of the Zappa home to Lady Gaga.
Regardless of this crap, which surely is very stressful, Dweezil is paying homage to his father like none of the other siblings can or will. Having seen this group play, they are finally coming into their own. They are giving concertgoers a glimpse of what it was like to see a Frank Zappa show. This music is not for everyone. At times humorous, other times quite sophisticated, one moment it may sound like a rock band, and suddenly much like an orchestra, it is always original and very precise. The group performing with Dweezil on Thursday have been together for several tours and have really consumed the material. With him on this tour will be Scheila Gonzalez, Ryan Brown, Kurt Morgan, Ben Thomas, Chris Norton, and new vocalist Mikki Hommel.
Dweezil released his own solo record Via Zammata to critical praise in November 2015, making it incredibly clear Dweezil is becoming a major force on his own. I for one can't wait to hear Whatever The F@%k He Wants to play!
Long time Frank Zappa band collaborator Ike Willis will be making his Dweezil Zappa debut in Chicago on Wednesday night at the Concord Music Hall. This will end a long drought of alumni performing with this group. Willis was a target of the ZFT's wrath for many years because of his promise to Frank to continue to play the composers music. In addition to Dweezil's performance this coming Thursday, October 13 at the Ready Room, one of the many bands that Willis has fronted, Project/Object, will be performing Sunday, October 16 at 2720 Cherokee along with another FZ band alumnus Don Preston.
Nine years ago, singer-songwriter-producer Nick Lowe told the New York Daily News that he didn't want to turn into a "tragic" aging rock star caricature, doing the same act he did as a young man. At age 67, Lowe's commitment to age gracefully is as revolutionary as the clever, melodic songs he wrote and artists he produced almost 40 years ago. A few hours before kicking off his current tour in Minneapolis, Lowe spoke about his current preference for songwriting over recording, his love of American music in the hands of British musicians, and how his work continues to evolve. He'll perform a solo acoustic set at The Pageant on Tuesday, October 18 with opener Josh Rouse.
Robin Wheeler: Aside from the Christmas albums it's been five years since The Old Magic came out. I'd like to catch up with what you've been doing creatively since then.
Nick Lowe: Rather disappointingly, not much. [laughs] I haven't exactly been idle. I suppose I'm not so driven to make records of my own at the moment. I'm still writing songs. I've started going to Nashville, for instance, and writing for other people. I've made a lot of records, and they all make a profit eventually. It's incredibly expensive to make the kind of records I make, with real musicians in a recording studio. That's why no one is doing that anymore. They're doing it all with computers -- and there are some great records made like that -- but I just don't know how to do that and I'm getting a bit too long in the tooth to learn how to do that. I'm much more interested in writing for other people and getting other, younger artists to record my songs. I might change my mind. I've got quite a good store of songs. I'm much fussier now than I used to be. I'm not as prolific now as I used to be. Or maybe I am but I'm much quicker to say, "Ah that's not good." I do have a few pretty good ones, so there might come a time when I change my mind.
RW: Who have you been working with?
NL: I arrived in Minneapolis the day before yesterday [October 9], and I met with a fantastic act of two brothers called The Cactus Blossoms who opened for me when I was touring with the Christmas album, backed up by Los Straitjackets. I came to town a bit early to see if we could write something before they left for Australia today.
RW: I've always been interested in how you came up as part of this group of British artists who, in the late '70s and early '80s, were making American music better than Americans were making it. What motivated you from the beginning to work with these strongly American influences, like early country and rockabilly, and what continues to motivate you?
NL: You mean that mysterious connection that Brits seem to have with American music [laughs]? It's something that comes from my mother. She was very musical. She taught me how to play the guitar, just two or three chords. She had a few really good records that most middle-class families had in the 1950s -- Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, show tunes. I played these records over and over again. In amongst them, I don't know why she had these records, but she had two records by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I'd never heard anything like that. Something happened when I heard that. I thought he was so fantastic, and still do. I never got over it.
When I got a little bit older we had this fellow in the UK called Lonnie Donegan who started skiffle. We didn't know it at the time but he was playing a lot of Leadbelly, so we were getting this lesson as well in how this stuff went. It was very easy music to play and you could get a groove going very, very easily without much talent. It was the best thing, really, that we had on the radio unless other American music was playing. The pop from England, aside from Lonnie Donegan, was really hopeless.
In my case my father with in the RAF [Royal Air Force] and I spent my youth abroad, wherever he was stationed. There was usually an Armed Forces Radio Network nearby, and you could pick it up. That's when I heard people with names like Howlin' Wolf and Ferlin Husky. I mean, what the hell is a Ferlin Husky? Howlin' Wolf? What does he look like? I just thought it was the most fantastic thing. I never got over it.
Nowadays, I know a bit more about it and how it works. As much as I still love American music, I love what happens to it when it goes across the Atlantic and we sort of mess with it. That's the way it should be. It's ridiculous for someone like me, someone who comes from the south of England, to try to sound like he's from Alabama and went to Nashville. Some people can do that, like The Shires. Good for them, but it's silly for me to do that.
RW: The last few times I've seen you, I've appreciated that you're not being a traveling greatest hits act. I know the changes you've made to "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" have been discussed, how you've taken the cynicism out of it and turned it into something very poignant. How did that come about?
NL: I did make up my mind at one point that, if I was going to have any longevity in this business, I was going to have to learn how to write songs -- this was quite a long time ago -- and I'm going to have to find a way to use the fact that I'm getting older as an actual advantage, instead of trying to disguise it. We all do that, no matter what walk of life we're in, but in music especially. I didn't want to just play to the same people, the people who, God bless them, discovered me when they were kids -- and when I was a kid -- and have stuck with it, and I'm still trying to behave like I'm a kid so they can relive their youth. There's plenty of people who do that, and I feel very sorry for them, but I really, really don't want to do that.
RW: When I see artists doing that, all I can think is that it must be exhausting.
NL: It's exhausting. That's quite right. And humiliating as well. I thought if I get this right, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don't, but if I can mostly get it right, I won't just play to my old fans. I'll be able to bring new people in, younger people who'll dig it and get a kick out of it. You won't see much stodgy old folk stuff. It'll be funny and entertaining. Really, that's how it's turned out to be. I get quite a few younger people, people in their late 20s, and they have a great time. They really enjoy it, alongside the older people. I've lost quite a lot of my old audience, because they're not rocking anymore, but I can cope with it.
RW: What can we expect to see from you in St. Louis?
NL: When I say I have to do some songs, I don't feel like there are nooses around my neck. I love some of these songs that are really well-known. Strangely, though, this touches on something you said earlier; sometimes I'll hear my old records, the original versions played on the radio, and I can't believe how much they've changed. It's not because I set out to change them. I suppose if you set out to play acoustic versions of them, you can't really copy what the full amp sounded like. But if the song's good, I think it can take that and people can still enjoy it.
At any rate, I play quite a few of the songs I'm known for, but also a lot of others, some that I haven't recorded but people seem to really enjoy them. They fit in with the other songs so it's a real mixture of old stuff, like "Peace, Love and Understanding," which is the oldest song I do, to brand new stuff. I don't do too much unfamiliar stuff because people get sick of it, but I do ones that are fun.
The New Music Circle will begin its 58th season with the piano duo of Craig Taborn and Kris Davis who set out on a tour to mark the release of her album Duopoly, on which she plays with a number of luminaries including Bill Frissell, Tim Berne, and Don Byron as well as Taborn. Kris Davis spoke to KDHX from her NYC studio, before embarking on the two-week twelve-city journey. Kris Davis and Craig Taborn will play the 560 Music Center in University City this Saturday, October 1.
JK: How long has this tour as a piano duo been planned for? Did the idea to tour come after Duopoly?
KD: The idea to tour pretty much came right after recording the pieces -- I'd say within five minutes of playing (laughs), Craig and I were like "This is great!" and our producer, David Breskin [who is producing the Taborn / Davis two week US tour] also really loved the duo, so he wanted to create an opportunity for the two of us to play again. So it's been in the works since the recording, which has been a year and half now.
JK: Can you tell me more about writing material for the new album?
KD: I was trying to think of a different approach, trying to find a different sort of project that wasn't group based. Usually I'm trying to put together material to be played by many musicians and tour with a full group, which can be really difficult to put together, so i wanted to try doing something that would capture the moment of the first meetings I experience when playing with people -- which can be risky business because you don't know how it's going to turn out, but it turned out great. I tried to come up with pieces that were appropriate for everyone, that made them more comfortable and would help bring out their voices. We gave everyone three hours, some of which were really easy and some we had to figure out how to make it work for the duo format, usually by bringing in compositions that I have not yet played and trying to figure out how those could translate into the duo.
JK: And what about the piece you and Craig Taborn did together ?
KD: The piece for Craig was really composed and detailed, but once we got in the studio and started working on it, we ended up just improvising off the concept of the piece. So it turned better out much more improvisational that what it was written, which originally was pages and pages of rhythmic interplay with heavy intervallic lines. So we took the spirit of that and improvised upon it, and it turned out for the better.
JK: What are the similarities or contrasts of your and Craig Taborn's playing?
KD: I think we have similar approaches actually, and honestly Craig has been such a big influence on me -- in terms as both an improviser and composer he's certainly one of my favorite pianists. So it's been a real honor and amazing experience to play with him. I'm just looking forward to learning from him over these next two weeks during the tour. We both certainly have our own styles, but I think the nuances of our individual approach are pretty subtle. We certainly draw from many of the same influences and musical inspirations.
JK: What will the live material consist of on tour? Compositions or spontaneous material?
KD: We are riffing on the idea of having compositions and then opening them up, which is something I do with my groups quite a bit anyways. But on the recording it opened up even more than I thought it might -- so for live material we thought that having compositions to work with, and improvising between them, makes for a nice landing spot, and not feel like you have to come up with all the material right in the moment all the time...