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Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox has been viewed on the ensemble’s YouTube channel well over a hundred million times. Most of those doing the viewing, however, are not fully aware of the method to Bradlee’s madness.
On the surface, the method is video – clips of full-band performances (that’s Bradlee on piano) shot in the bandleader’s living room with a single stationary camera. The madness: pop hits of the present performed à la pop hits of the past. Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” assayed as a doo-wop number; Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” tricked out in flapper jazz; Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” rendered a 1940s big-band standard.
In fact, Bradlee’s method runs deeper. He’s educating his audience about 20th-century song styles; he’s commenting on the elasticity of the pop form; he’s confounding cultural context; he’s uniting generations; he’s breaking the rules. He’s manifesting postmodernist ideas in his approach to production and business as well as music. But as far as the fans are concerned, it’s just fun (and sometimes funny). Bradlee himself will tell you, simply, “I reimagine a song in another style because I want to hear it that way.”
Clearly, so does everyone else, as evidenced by PMJ’s presence on concert stages (stateside and abroad) and Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart, where its self-released 2014 opus “Historical Misappropriation” landed in the Top 10 alongside John Coltrane’s “Offering: Live at Temple University” and “All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller.”
This proximity of Bradlee’s outfit to Waller is particularly fitting; the former, a self-taught jazz pianist, considers the latter, an innovator of the Harlem stride style who helped lay the groundwork for modern jazz piano, a key influence, as is Jellyroll Morton, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum.
Which isn’t to discount the importance to Bradlee’s development of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” the vinyl incarnation of which was, he says, “the first album I ever loved.” That was when he was six, growing up in Pattenburg, New Jersey, where he moved at four from Nesconset, New York. He took piano lessons, but they didn’t take. Then, at age 12, Bradlee heard “Rhapsody in Blue” and was forever changed. “I got the sheet music and taught myself how to play it,” he recalls. “I started wondering, ‘Where does this come from? What else sounds like this?’”
Asked what appealed to him about the popular music of the 1920s, ragtime especially, he says, “I could play it fast and loud. It was brash. And it had contempt for rules, which really appealed to me.”
Bradlee began his career as a jazz pianist during high school with a standing gig at a local eatery; he began his career as a pop-cultural provocateur during high school with a “this might be cool” ragtime medley of classic rock songs. “Not much has changed,” he says of the lyrical content of pop music. “In the 1920s, in the ’60s and ’70s, today – it’s still about love and drinking and dancing.”
He pursued Jazz Studies at the University of Hartford, then moved to New York to become a starving artist. He booked gigs, but as he puts it, “Jazz pianists are a dime a dozen in New York City.” So he moved to Astoria to save on rent and, in 2009, started making videos. “There was this niche on YouTube where people were doing experimental, interesting, funny things with music,” he notes. “It was another way to reach an audience.”
Bradlee’s first video was straight-up jazz. He didn’t have much footage of himself, however, so he decided to try a video experiment of his own: a ragtime medley of ’80s pop. He managed to amass 100 views. But through one of those viewers, Neil Gaiman discovered him. The author tweeted Bradlee’s flying fingers to his millions-strong Twitter following. Within a week, Bradlee reports, “more people had seen that video than had seen me play live my entire life.”
Things went viral from there, affording Bradlee and the coalescing Postmodern Jukebox a receptive online crowd. Among Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox’s subsequent hits are a New Orleans-flavored take on Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” – 3+ million views; the “grandpa-style” reiteration of “Thrift Shop” – 6 million views; and “We Can’t Stop” – 10.5 million views. Media coverage, including the likes of “Good Morning America” and NPR, ensued.
How does he come up with this stuff? “A lot of pop songs are constructed of elements that lend themselves to a certain feel,” he points out. “The simple progression of the bass line in ‘Blurred Lines,’ for instance, reminded me of bluegrass. ‘Sweet Child’ sounds like an old blues song – the structure, the way the chorus repeats …” With Cyrus, it was more an instance of tongue-in-cheeky cultural criticism: “She’d gained all that notoriety from her 2013 VMA appearance. I had to recast her song for the ’50s, which everyone thinks of as this squeaky-clean era.”
Then there were the gifts from the pop-music gods, like Meghan Trainor’s #1 hit “All About That Bass.” Bradlee knew a musician-singer named Kate Davis. “I’d wanted to do something with Kate for a while,” he reveals, “but I was waiting for the right song to come along.” Check the PMJ video for “All About That Bass” and you’ll find Davis singing – and playing stand-up bass. If you do click there, you’ll be in good company: 3.5 million views and counting.
The mashup of Davis and Trainor is some good old-fashioned A&R. The repertoire Bradlee selects for PMJ’s vocal artists has furnished a platform for some very talented but previously little-known performers. And it’s not just the eyeballs afforded by YouTube; Bradlee provides an intuitive musical context for the singular gifts of these singers that allows them to be seen in a new light – it’s as if he’s somehow cracked the code to their essential appeal.
Take Puddles. “Last week, a seven-foot clown dropped by my apartment to sing an epic cover of Lorde’s ‘Royals.’ NBD,” Bradlee blogged in November of 2013. Puddles the Clown (née Michael Geier), frontman for Puddles Pity Party, is possessed of a dramatic baritone that has thrilled cabaret-goers for years – but it wasn’t until Bradlee asked Puddles to cover “Royals” in his signature style that he clicked with a mainstream audience. The reinterpretation of Lorde’s chart-topper, just one of Puddles’ collaborations with PMJ, has been viewed more than nine million times.
Discovering talent and knowing what to do with it is fundamental to the business of music. Bradlee is something of a postmodernist here, too, having achieved renown doing everything himself, mostly online, “with no budget” (i.e. using the recording equipment he’d had since college). His adherence to the DIY ethos also suggests the decidedly postmodern form of punk rock. “I was a struggling jazz pianist sitting in my basement apartment in Queens,” he attests, “but I just figured it out and made it happen.”
That said, punk rock is likely not top of mind for those attending a Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox show. The scene is more reminiscent of a speakeasy, with swells in vintage threads swilling Prohibition-era cocktails. “It’s a variety show, a musical revue featuring special guests,” Bradlee illuminates. “Coming to a PMJ show is like time-traveling back to Old Hollywood – it’s an experience.” Creating that for audiences appears to be PMJ’s ultimate mission.