(Taken from my Spotify podcast, The Postmodern Formula — audio version here.)
Hey folks, Scott Bradlee here — if you do know me, it’s almost certainly because I’ve spent the last decade making vintage remakes of modern pop hits, as the creator of Postmodern Jukebox. Now, for me, this is a labor of love: I grew up fascinated by classic styles of music like jazz, doowop, Motown and ragtime, and always dreamed of creating music in those genres with other talented musicians. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to live my dreams and share my love for these timeless genres in concerts all over the world, but until now, I’ve never really gotten to talk in detail about the specific records that inspired me most, as an arranger and producer.
Today, in the first of a five part series, we’re going to go back 100 years — back to the start of the Jazz Age and the birth of the record industry. I’m going to break down some of my favorite 1920s themed Postmodern Jukebox arrangements, and share with you some of the historical recordings that influenced their creation. For each one, we’ll listen to three tracks: the original version of a modern pop hit, a classic 1920s recording that that modern song somehow relates to, and then the resultant PMJ remake. So, this is kind of like a mixture of VH1’s Behind The Music, MTV’s Total Request Live, and perhaps a much-less-researched Ken Burns documentary. Let’s see where this goes!
For starters, let’s pick a tune that everyone and their ‘80s loving parents know: the Guns ’n’ Roses classic, “Sweet Child ‘o’ Mine.”
Although “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is one of the songs that best defines the hard rock sound of the ’80s, when we look closely at the lyrics and song structure, it’s quite traditional. In fact, when you strip away the distorted guitars, the pounding drums, and Axl Rose’s snarling vocals, it’s really just a bluesy folk song. It has some nice, poetic verses, followed by a refrain — just like an old folk song — and the melody has a mournful blues character to it. So, it’s actually not a huge stretch to imagine this song performed by one of the blues greats of yesteryear — someone like Bessie Smith — the legendary “Empress of the Blues.”
We are fortunate that the origination of jazz tracks somewhat closely with the advent of recording technology, because otherwise, the voice of an incredible legend like Bessie Smith would be something we could merely imagine. Instead, Smith recorded extensively, often alongside other New Orleans pioneers like Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong — who we’ll be discussing later. In this 1925 recording of “Careless Love Blues,” listen to how powerful and full Smith’s voice sounds, even on such an old record, and try to imagine what it felt like hearing that voice in the recording room. Also give a listen to how Louis Armstrong and trombonist Charlie Green seem to converse around her phrases; this type of playing together is known as “improvised polyphony,” and is a key characteristic of the New Orleans jazz sound.
When I set out to arrange “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in this style in the early days of Postmodern Jukebox, there was only one vocalist that I had in mind: Miche Braden, who portrayed Bessie Smith off-Broadway for many years, and who had recently worked with me creating concept music for the video game, Bioshock Infinite. Remember how we can only imagine hearing Bessie Smith’s voice in the same room as us? Well, I’m pretty sure hearing Miche’s in the same room is the closest anyone can come today; when she sings with the full power of her voice, the walls shake with the sound of the blues.
Adapting “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to the 1920s New Orleans style was mostly a matter of changing the chord qualities and feel into a looser, more blueslike sound, and then adding the traditional New Orleans “front line” of trumpet, clarinet, and trombone to the mix. I took the liberty of moving Slash’s iconic guitar riff to the bridge; see if you can hear the horns play it. Also, listen for clarinetist Tom Abbott quoting the beginning of Slash’s guitar solo to begin the outro section. Finally, listen to Miche’s last note, which indeed rattled the walls of the one bedroom apartment that was home to this and most of my early Postmodern Jukebox recording sessions. She captured the spirit of Bessie Smith as well as the swagger of Axl Rose, turning this into an entirely new song in the process.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” was an easy one; it’s structured in a traditional style, with a blues-inspired melody. But how would we take something far less traditional and melodic back into the 1920s? Let’s look at a song that would require a much more drastic overhaul: Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s 2014 hit, ”Fancy.”
The style of this song seems to be completely at odds with the classic sounds of the ’20s, but hear me out: the song is about being fancy — living that hedonistic, freewheeling life…much like the flappers of the 1920s, who celebrated their newfound freedom with hot jazz and bootleg gin. Much like the popular music of today, bands in the 1920s began creating music specifically for dancing. This emphasis on dance peaked in the jazz world during the big band / Swing era, but bandleader Fletcher Henderson planted the seeds for this craze when he invited Louis Armstrong to join his orchestra in 1924, creating one of the first jazz Big Bands as a result. This recording from that same year is a track called “Shanghai Shuffle” and it contrasts precisely orchestrated sections with wild improvisation — pay attention to how the band comes alive during Louis Armstrong’s brilliant trumpet solo. It’s immediately obvious that Armstrong’s penchant for improvisation would have a profound impact on the direction of Henderson’s band in years to come.
The Postmodern Jukebox version of “Fancy” came back in 2014, just as the Iggy Azalea song began climbing the charts. I arranged this for multitalented singer / dancer / choreographer Ashley Stroud; the idea of a 1920s flapper performing this number was compelling, and Ashley truly delivered. Not only was she up for the task of turning Iggy Azalea’s rap verses into an original melody, but she also got to show off some shim sham tap steps in a stoptime section after the bridge. Although there wasn’t much instrumentation in Iggy Azalea’s version of “Fancy,” there was a repetitive synth bass line that I was able to expand upon into a minor key chord progression. Once again, I brought in a three piece horn section to provide some background textures, but this time, I wrote figures that were more in line with the early Fletcher Henderson sound: tighter, more syncopated horn lines that would complement my bouncy piano playing (known as “stride” piano) and give the piece a danceable feel. The result is undoubtedly the most realistic approximation of how a most unlikely song would sound, had it been written in 1924.
“Fancy” was a song that offered us little more than a bassline to work with. Now, let’s turn our attention to a 2003 hit that features one of the most iconic basslines in rock history — “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.
Jack and Meg White’s retro minimalist sensibilities hit the jackpot with this song, which somehow channels the blues, “Pixies”- era grunge, and stadium rock, all at once. The lo-fi recording style of the track gives it a raw, wild character that reminded me of some of jazz composer Duke Ellington’s early records from the 1920s — back when his soon-to-be-famous orchestra was called The Washingtonians. Ellington’s band immediately stood out among other jazz bands of the era because of the unusual instrumental textures he created and the sophisticated tone poems he wrote. Where other similar sized bands aimed for a more classical, “society band” sound, Ellington’s band growled and snarled one minute and cooed sweetly the next, telling a story in each record. In particular, Ellington favored the use of a plunger mute — made from an actual plunger — on the brass section, to create a vocal wah wah effect that was later adopted by electric guitarists like Jimi Hendrix. When all these textures were combined in Ellington’s intricate arrangements, the resulting sound was both dangerous and refined, as evidenced on one of his first hits, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” recorded in 1927. Here, trumpeter Bubber Miley takes the lead in performing the melody in a raw, expressive manner that established the Ellington band as the architects of a brand new sound.
In the Postmodern Jukebox arrangement of Seven Nation Army, I brought in my own incredible soloist known for fusing jazz, rock, and blues together into a whole new sound: Haley Reinhart. Since Haley’s multifaceted voice is capable of taking on a wide array of tone colors in the course of a single song, I wanted the arrangement to tell a story; one that would take us from a smoky jazz club to a mournful New Orleans dirge to a wild party, in true Ellington fashion. To get the right instrumental sound, I brought in some of my favorite horn players — equipped with plunger mutes, of course — and experimented with creating different instrumental moods. As Haley’s voice changed colors and timbres, so did the backing band: one moment she’s softly crooning over a bassline a la Peggy Lee, the next she’s channeling Janis Joplin as the band matches her intensity. Have a listen and take note of the imagery each section conjures up.
For the next track, let’s listen to a 2016 breakup anthem with a rather harsh message: “Love Yourself,” written by Ed Sheeran and recorded by pop superstar Justin Bieber.
Breakup songs generally come in only a couple of flavors — they typically either take the yearning, sentimental-with-a-touch-of-martyrdom approach (think Adele’s “Someone Like You”), or the resolute, post-hoc rationalization-of-why-this-was-actually-a-good-thing approach. This song is firmly in the latter camp. Unlike other similar breakup songs, though, this is a more serene affair. Listen for the simple chorus, the sparse, accented guitar accompaniment, and the mellow trumpet riff in the bridge.
Just as Justin Bieber has become something of a controversial pop icon in the 21st Century, jazz’s first great composer was a controversial icon in his own right. Jelly Roll Morton — born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe — was a colorful character somewhat prone to telling tall tales; most notably claiming that he “invented” jazz back in 1902. Born in New Orleans around 1890, Morton began his professional career playing piano in brothels at the age of 14, and from there, reinvented himself as vaudeville performer, snake oil salesman, and pimp before landing a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company in Chicago in 1926. Although his self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz” title was likely little more than some slick branding, Morton was, indeed, a major innovator in music history as the first composer of jazz compositions — many of which he recorded while in Chicago under the name, “Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers.” One example is a tune called, “Kansas City Stomps.” Morton’s solo piano style was notable in that it essentially functioned as a miniature New Orleans jazz band; he would play bass and tuba lines and percussive chords in the left hand, and horn style melodies and countermelodies in the right. When it came time to bring in musicians to record his compositions, he already had the arrangements mapped out precisely — he had been playing them on piano for years, after all. In “Kansas City Stomps,” you can hear the instrumentation and tone colors shift throughout to keep things sounding fresh. Never content to simply jam on a melody, Morton’s compositions were full of intricately woven melodies that conjured up opera arias as much as they did the blues. He also demanded precision from his band — allegedly going as far as keeping a pistol on top of the piano to emphasize how seriously he took the recording process. Have a listen.
In setting out to arrange “Love Yourself” for Postmodern Jukebox, I didn’t write an arrangement as precisely notated as Jelly Roll Morton would have written — and I certainly didn’t do the thing with the pistol on the piano — but his influence can be heard in the overall approach I took. To keep what is at its heart a simple song feeling fresh throughout, I dipped into the Morton playbook and introduced ever-changing instrumental combinations and new rhythmic patterns based on the original guitar accompaniment throughout, which gave the arrangement a sense of motion behind vocalist Sara Niemietz’s jubilant, defiantly soulful vocals. I also took the liberty of expanding the melodic trumpet riff from the original song into a New Orleans second line parade; historically, these were the upbeat parades that followed more somber funeral processions. In the context of “Love Yourself,” this second line parade is a celebration of life after mourning the death of a relationship.
Speaking of pop hits from recent years, let’s get into one of the biggest hits of 2019 that — much like Postmodern Jukebox — broke the walls of genre in its own right: the rap / country smash hit, “Old Town Road,” recorded by rapper Lil Nas X with longtime country star, Billy Ray Cyrus. This is a song that, in theory, shouldn’t work — yet it does, opening up a whole new genre of possibilities in the process. It’s a guaranteed earworm, too; just try to get this one out of your head after you hear it.
Within a week of hearing this song, I was already planning to fly Miche Braden across the country to help me put a New Orleans blues spin on it. The hook clearly had a strong blues influence already, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to rewrite some of the chord progressions and include some horn improvisation. Plus, it was a song that brought together two seemingly disparate genres of music, just as New Orleans jazz combined European traditions of marching band and concert music with African-American traditions of ragtime, blues, and spirituals — plus a helping of West African and Cuban polyrhythms. This amalgamation of musical styles took place in the French Quarter — one of the truest “melting pots” of American history — and this cultural exchange gave America its first true art form.
As jazz’s first star soloist, Louis Armstrong invigorated a number of bands with his sensational playing before forming a band of his own. The recordings he made from 1925 to 1928 — with his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” groups — introduced jazz as a vehicle for innovative soloing, rather than merely collective improvisation. This 1927 “Hot Seven” recording of “S.O.L. Blues” demonstrates Armstrong’s new vision beautifully; from his clarion opening cadenza to the tempo shift into blues where Armstrong showcases his vocal chops as well as his sense of humor, to his much-studied solo that takes the record to its high point, Armstrong’s “SOL Blues” is the perfect frame to show the vast extent of his creative genius and star power. Give it a listen.
As “S.O.L. Blues” was a vehicle to demonstrate Armstrong’s brilliance as a soloist, I wanted the Postmodern Jukebox version of “Old Town Road” to similarly showcase Miche’s brilliance and charisma. Like Bessie Smith in her day, Miche’s voice commands attention, and her stage presence — honed by decades of experience as a live performer — is equally compelling. her interpretation of Lil Nas X’s lyrics carries a swagger and sense of humor that matches the wild tuba whoops and silky clarinet lines behind her. She even takes her turn at the piano, playing a barrelhouse blues riff over the bridge, and gives us an authentic mic drop for emphasis. Oh yeah, and the crickets you’re hearing are real — they were living in our studio and having a good old time listening to Miche give this knockout performance. Enjoy!
Last but certainly not least, we’re going back to the days of leisure suits and platform shoes for a quintessential piece of ’70s disco-inspired Europop: “Dancing Queen,” by top selling Swedish pop group, ABBA. I’ll be pretty impressed if you *don’t* know this song by heart already, but just in case, let’s give it a listen.
Now, I will admit that the idea for our PMJ arrangement of this wasn’t nearly as calculated as some of the others. The PMJ version was really a last minute jam session featuring another Swedish music superstar — multi instrumental jazz virtuoso, Gunhild Carling. We had just finished recording a version of “The Final Countdown” by the Swedish rock group, Europe, so in keeping with the overall Swedish theme of the day, we decided to tack on some ABBA, as well.
I could talk about how amazing Gunhild is all day — she plays upwards of 40 instruments, makes her own vintage clothes, and writes a jazz song each day — but just watching a few of her performances on YouTube will give you an idea of the scale of her talent. Although her first instrument was trombone, her trumpet playing is equally impressive and harkens back to the era of trumpet players like Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong.
As a pianist, I always admired the expressive, bold nature of Armstrong’s trumpet playing, and so did legendary pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines — who revolutionized jazz piano in the 1920s by incorporatating a linear, melodic solo style in part inspired by Armstrong. The two recorded a notable trumpet-and-piano duet back in 1928 called “Weather Bird,” which was widely regarded as the most famous duet in jazz history: two innovative giants, at the top of their game. Have a listen:
Our version of “Dancing Queen” took place at the end of a long day of recording, which meant that the only musicians left were Gunhild, drummer Aaron McLendon, and myself. Not having a bass player meant that I was going to need to cover the bass notes myself, much like Earl Hines did in “Weather Bird.” Of course, this was an easy feat compared to the role that Gunhild took on: singing, playing a brilliant Armstrong-esque trumpet solo, and even tap dancing throughout the recording. The loose, spontaneous vibe made this one stand out as a recording that was both intimate and grand.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this bit of history as much as I’ve enjoyed revisiting some of my own biggest musical influences. From Jelly Roll Morton’s precise arrangements, to Louis Armstrong’s enduring star power, to Duke Elington’s effortless blending of the sophisticated and the primal, the music of the 1920s introduced many new ideas into the lexicon of both jazz and American popular music as a whole — ideas that would be further developed in years to come, and continue to be found in the DNA of the popular music of today. In the next episode, we’ll explore what happens when a Michael Jackson hit becomes a Cab Calloway showpiece, how David Bowie carried on the tradition of Bille Holiday, and what on Earth Macklemore could possibly have in common with Benny Goodman. See you next time!