- Braverijah Gregg
- “They didn’t play a whole lot of ragtime at school dances back then.”
But it worked like a charm for Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox project, an ensemble created with the idea of taking modern pop hits and playing them in ragtime, vintage jazz and other retro musical styles.
In less than a decade, the concept has evolved from a basement video to a recording and touring juggernaut with a rotating cast of more than 50 singers, including American Idol alumni Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams. Last year, they played some 300 shows, including such prestigious venues as the Sydney Opera House and Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
Not a bad outcome for an idea that had its gestation period when the New York City bandleader was still in high school.
“I was getting into really like early jazz, stuff like ragtime and New Orleans music and things like that,” he recalls. “You can imagine that most of my peers weren’t really into that kind of stuff. They didn’t play a whole lot of ragtime at school dances back then. So I taught myself a lot by ear. I would just kind of pick out pop songs that they liked and turn them into ragtime or jazz and stuff. And they were like ‘Wait, I recognize this song. How do I know this song?’”
But making a career out of doing that wasn’t exactly what Bradlee had in mind. “I was trying to become a jazz pianist in New York City,” he recalls. “It’s like OK, you study jazz and then you go and play jazz clubs and you do jazz albums and everything.”
Those gigs ended up being in restaurants and bars where he was little more than background music for patrons. As Bradlee grew more frustrated with life as a working musician, that old hobby of reinventing pop songs came back into the picture. One who saw his video was British novelist and comic book writer Neil Gaiman, who tweeted about it, and soon the clip went viral.
A Motown tribute to Nickelback followed, as did a 1930s jazz rendition of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” a ’50s doo-wop take on the Miley Cyrus tune “We Can’t Stop,” and then a torchy jazz version of Lorde’s “Royals,” sung by the 6-foot-8 man dressed as a clown, Mike Geier, who performs under the name Puddles and fronts his own act, Puddles Pity Party.
In addition to tours and videos, Bradlee has compiled songs onto more than a dozen self-released albums and EPs. And now he’s expanded the Postmodern Jukebox platform by signing a deal with Concord Records, which last year released a best-of album called The Essentials, followed by The New Classics, a live CD/DVD that’s doing double-duty as a PBS special.
“It’s been a wild ride,” says Bradlee, “and it’s been awesome to see how much support there is from fans who are hungry for just the idea of real musicians playing real music.”