When trumpeter Joe Smith listens to the great jazz of the 1930s, he hears sounds that are fresh and new, not “vintage.”
Smith was studying trumpet in college, and had just transferred from Drake University to the University of Iowa.
“I wanted to meet people,” he said. “I’d just moved, and I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I started swing dancing.”
A swing dancing competition led him to New Orleans, “where I fell in love with traditional jazz music. I got to see a lot of people my own age playing it. It was a really cool thing, and it made it a lot easier to understand.”
Put a love for all things swing and a deep respect for the roots of jazz together and you’ve got Smith’s career: He’s the leader of the Denver-based band Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles. They play the Wright Opera House tonight (Friday) at 7:30 p.m. Smith’s mission is introducing the music and dance of the Swing era to the masses, and that includes the young masses. After all, the Pickles are youngsters themselves.
“Most of these kids…” Smith said, referring to his band. He caught himself. “I’m the oldest. I’m 32,” he explained. “The youngest member is 22.”
It’s hard to keep a touring band together when, by day, its musicians are establishing careers of their own, and pairing off (Smith’s own 9-to-5 occupation is owner of 5280 Piano Tuners in Denver).
“People come and go, and they have their own lives,” he said. “We had a drummer find a girl, and they moved to upstate New York and bought a farm. We’ve been really lucky, though — even though they don’t teach this style of music, C.U. Boulder has a really great music program and a professor, Brad Goode, who’s very interested in it. At first, I found musicians on Craigslist. But now” — five years on in Denver, with Goode’s assistance — “my network of musicians has grown. And our audiences are continuing to grow across all demographics.”
The demographics are the challenge. People assume that because Swing music defined the sound of an era 85 years ago (it was the pop music of its day) it sounds “old” and that only older people listen to it. As Smith said to Westword magazine, “I think the hardest part of it is that everyone thinks (big-band-era music) is so antiquated. They really associate it with blue-hairs.” But “the energy changes when you put a young group on stage. When young people see it played by young people, they can actually relate to it. I think that’s the huge difference.”
Smith and the Pickles perform a mix of original compositions and classics like “Creole Love Call” (made famous by Duke Ellington and jazz singer Adelaide Hall), Ellington’s scorching, woozy “Mood Indigo,” and “One O’Clock Jump,” the Count Basie Orchestra’s theme song (as well as the Pickles’).
“There’s a really great song we love called ‘Swingin’ On That Famous Door,’ about a club Basie used to play in New York City,” Smith said. “There’s a book titled ‘52nd Street,’ one of the only places where you can find pictures of all the major jazz clubs, like the Yacht Club,” whose swank interior resembled a luxury sailing ship and which was “where Fats Waller played from 1936 to 1938.” He sighed. “They definitely don’t make clubs like they used to.”
But they do, well, jazz them up with great music, which is what Smith will supply at the Wright, a venue more “historic” than N.Y.C.’s “Swing Street,” as 52nd Street was known (the Wright opened in 1888).
On Friday, the dance floor will be open at the opera house — as will a cash bar — and the atmosphere will be fluid. Not because of the drinks, but because of “the conversation,” as Smith put it, between dancers and musicians.
“I see it as an important relationship,” Smith said. “What happens today in a club with a DJ is kind of reminiscent” of what has always taken place between a swing jazz band and dancers. “To be able to play off what the dancers are doing, and to allow them to interject and mold what happens in the band, is an important part of bringing people together.”
By contrast, the idea of a mere “concert” seems passive — even antiquated. “Swing is totally as relevant as ever,” Smith said. “Once you actually see it live, it makes a world of difference, how it’s perceived.”
Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles play the Wright Opera House Friday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at ocpag.org or at the door.