By Alan Sculley
The popular phrase may be “everything old is new again.” For Scott Bradlee, it might read everything new is old again.
That essentially is what he does as the founder and lead arranger in Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, an ensemble created with the idea of taking modern pop hits and playing them in ragtime, vintage jazz and other retro musical styles.
It’s an idea Bradlee had as far back as high school.
“When I was in high school, I was getting into really early jazz, stuff like ragtime and New Orleans music and things like that,” he says.
“You can imagine 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 wanted to be able to share this stuff with my friends, and one thing I wound up doing since I had pretty good ears – I taught myself a lot by ear – I would just kind of pick out pop songs that they liked and turned them into ragtime or jazz and stuff. And it was really fun for my friends because they were like ‘Wait, I recognize this song. How do I know this song?’”
But making a career out of reimagining today’s pop hits in pre-rock ‘n’ roll form wasn’t exactly something Bradlee envisioned. Instead he planned to pursue a more traditional musical career.
“I didn’t really think much of it because then I went to school and I was trying to become a jazz pianist in New York City,” Bradlee says. “It’s like, OK, you study jazz and then you go and play jazz clubs and you do jazz albums and everything.”
It turned out to be a lot harder and less satisfying than Bradlee had hoped. Most of his gigs ended up in restaurants and bars where he was little more than background music for patrons. And as he grew more frustrated with this life as a working musician, that old hobby of reinventing pop songs came back into the picture.
He decided to do a video of a song and post it on YouTube. Bradlee crafted a medley of 1980s hits in ragtime piano style and filmed a performance and posted it on YouTube. One person who saw the video was noted British author/comic book writer Neil Gaiman, who tweeted about it, and soon the clip went viral.
“From there, I just thought, ‘Well, there’s something to this that’s interesting people.’” Bradlee says.
So Bradlee continued to do his videos. He hit paydirt again in 2012 with “A Motown Tribute to Nickelback,” which recast that group’s grungy hard rock hits into 1960s Motown, and then in 2013 scored huge viral hits with a 1930s jazz rendition of Macklemore’s “Thrift Ship,” 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.
“That was a productive year,” Bradlee says. “That kind of planted all of the seeds where people started to learn about what we were doing and there became more and more interest around it.”
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox has done nothing but gain momentum since then. He now has a rotating cast of more than 50 singers and musicians that allow the PMJ to do simultaneous tours in the United States and abroad.
In addition to touring and doing 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. That label last year released a best-of album, The Essentials, and followed that in November with The New Classics, a live CD/DVD that was released to coincide with the airing of a PBS special that essentially is the DVD. Now, a follow-up, Essentials II, is set for release on November 2, featuring another set of songs from across the career of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, with the ensemble’s versions of songs ranging from Soundgarden (“Black Hole Sun”) to Michael Jackson (“Thriller”) to Meghan Trainor (“All About That Bass”).
The New Classics concert was filmed last year at the Smith Center in Las Vegas and was a memorable experience for Bradlee and his musical cast.
Bradlee doesn’t reveal many details about which singers and musicians are on each tour. That allows the cast to change as needed over the course of a tour. The show is tailored to the singers who are performing on a given date.
“We always play to the singers’ strengths and the things that they do best, so depending on which singers we have on the tour, that will change the set list,” Bradlee says.