Put another dime in Postmodern Jukebox
Performing Sunday in West Palm Beach, Scott Bradlee’s ensemble turns Top 40 pop into vintage jazz.
Struggling to land music gigs as a jazz pianist in New York’s overcrowded scene five years ago, Scott Bradlee struck on an old idea he once considered a “party trick”: transforming current pop songs into jazzy throwback arrangements. Bradlee remembers falling for standards as a 12-year-old in New Jersey after hearing a recording of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” For kicks, he would sit at the piano and take the thencurrent ’90s singles that his friends enjoyed and reinterpret them as retro-sounding songs.
“In order to get gigs for myself, I had to create my own work,” Bradlee recalls, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I … made a show based around taking all these current song, and reimagining it, like, What if all these artists were alive back in the ’50s or ’40s and wrote those songs then? How would it sound?’”
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, which he formed in 2013, sounds like modern pop coated in vin- tage gloss: Pitbull and Kesha’s single “Timber” reimagined as a doo-wop standard; Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” converted into 1940s swing; Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” as a smoldering lounge cover; and Justin Bieber’s current Billboard chart-topper “Love Yourself” as a 1920s New Orleans ragtime tune.
Music videos on Postmodern Jukebox’s YouTube channel (nearly 2 million subscribers) depict singers outfitted in flapper dresses and pinstriped suits, performing today’s hits in yesteryear style. Most of the videos have gone viral, averaging millions of views, and it started when Bradlee released a doo-wop cover of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” the day after the singer’s infamous twerk at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
“[ The Cyrus video] showed up on the front page of YouTube,” Bradlee, 34, recalls. “I think it tapped into current nostalgia. Miley Cyrus did her controversial performance, but this was like the opposite, in some ways: squeaky-clean doowop. What I love about this project is it’s making people think, ‘What makes a good song? What defines it? If a song is done in a different style, what does that mean?’”
Postmodern Jukebox’s performance on Sunday at SunFest 2016 will fall two weeks after the band selfreleased its 12th album, “Swing the Vote!” via iTunes. Bradlee’s act has grown so popular that two versions of Postmodern Jukebox are currently touring the world (the European tour visits Denmark that week). Bradlee won’t confirm that he will appear with the band at SunFest, but says “it’s a pretty strong possibility.”
Even the musicians Bradlee covers share Postmodern Jukebox’s songs on social media, including Gwen Stefani and Celine Dion. For SunFest, Bradlee says, “There’s so many possibilities. We’ve got everyone from Duran Duran to Alabama Shakes, Meghan Trainor [at SunFest]. I’m open to all kinds of ideas onstage. If Meghan is reading this, tell her to hit meup.”
The roster of pickup musicians has also swelled in size, with 50 members joining Postmodern Jukebox since 2013, lured by the novelty of making new music sound old-fashioned.
“Our musicians really enjoy it because it lets them enter the pop-culture space while enjoying some of the music they loved,” Bradlee says. “Audiences might not know anything about jazz or the history of Motown, but you’ll sing along with our jazz remakes because you know the lyrics. It’s making jazz mainstream again.”
So far, Bradlee says, Postmodern Jukebox has recorded “almost 140 Jukeboxed songs,” mostly from his New York living room. The songs are released every Thursday via his YouTube channel.
Bradlee admits that YouTube’s immediacy drove him away from traditional record labels.
“It’s a crazy amount of music in three years,” Bradlee says. “Sometimes, we’ll do two videos a week because it felt right, which means a lot of deadlines. But I get a lot of ideas from Twitter followers, other musicians. In every case, the way you nail a cover in the Jukebox style, you want to say something new about the song, but change the context so it’s completely different.”
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox will perform 3 p.m. Sunday on the Tire Kingdom stage at SunFest.