At 30 years of age, British bandleader Alex Mendham is too young to have seen any of the swing band leaders of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw all had passed away by the time Mendham started studying and playing their music. Today, he leads the Alex Mendham and His Orchestra, an 11-piece band complete with a 1930s style stage show and authentic tuxedos on all of his musicians.
Recently, Mendham successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign for his 4th crowdfunded release, The Roaring 2020s, which drops in September.
Mendham’s upbringing in Essex, a county in southeast England, holds no indications that he would help revive the sound of 1920s and 1930s jazz in the United Kingdom by coming a bandleader, saxophonist, and singer. As he tells The Syncopated Times, his approach to big band music is different because he doesn’t see it as nostalgia but as a living, breathing, and swinging form of music that is attracting new, young audiences.
Brian R. Sheridan: What do you mean when you say that you grew up in “an unmusical environment?”
Alex Mendham: [In my family] nobody played a musical instrument and nobody sang. My mom and dad were both working class, working for Ford Motor Company. I am the middle of three children and my older brother was quite sporty. I was more into books and learning about different things—more of a scholarly kid, I suppose. At age five, for whatever reason that I don’t know, I wanted to play the piano. My parents relented and got me a piano, but they didn’t really know anything about it. They bought an old second-hand piano and some lessons. But I didn’t really get on with my teacher because the teacher wanted me to go through the piano books. I was more interested in playing by ear. The lessons kind of wound up quite soon and out went the piano.
That could have meant the end of a musical career but what made you persist?
I was probably about 8 or 10 and someone came into our school who demonstrated musical instruments. This girl brought a saxophone, and I thought, “Wow, you know, this looks incredible!” I had never seen one in person before, and I thought that’s what I want to do. Again, I went back to my parents, and begged and begged, and eventually they rented a saxophone, and we had started my lessons at age 10.
Did any other music you were hearing as child shape your interest in swing and jazz?
All I had at that time in the house were Disney on VHS. And I didn’t really know at the time, but I was kind of switched on to the musical segments of these Disney films, especially The Jungle Book and the song “King of the Swingers.” I knew that I liked that music. But I was at such a young age and I didn’t have any guidance. I didn’t know why I liked it or what it was about or who these people were. There were all of these influences, but I couldn’t really piece any of it together.
How did you finally figure it out?
It wasn’t until I started playing saxophone. My teacher asked me. “Who are you listening to?” I didn’t really know. I just know that I was playing the saxophone. She recommended all these different people to check out like Charlie Parker and [John] Coltrane. But this was before Spotify, and it was the early days of YouTube, but we didn’t have a computer at home, anyway. I didn’t have access to any of that stuff.
Then, Borders music shops started making its way into the UK. You could go in, scan a barcode of a CD and listen to 30 seconds of a track. Being a budding saxophonist at that time, I went to the jazz section and searched out for those artists that she recommended.
I listened to Coltrane and Parker and thought, “yeah, it’s not bad.” While I didn’t mind it, I didn’t really understand it. Then I came across a Bix Beiderbecke CD. The cover had the old fashioned photo they use time and time again with Bix as a young man with his horn on his lap. This I thought looked interesting and scanned the bar code. The first track that came on was “Goose Pimples.”
What was your reaction to Bix’s sound?
I thought “Wow—what is this?” This was unlike anything I ever heard before. It was similar to the stuff I liked from those old Disney films but it had energy. It was totally different from anything that was popular. I bought that CD and it opened up a whole world for me. I wanted to find out who else played music in the ’20s and ’30s. It led me to Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Paul Whiteman.
Did you share any of this music with your friends? How did that go over?
I had to keep it pretty much a secret. When I took the bus to school, everybody would have their Walkmans. And I get people asking, “What the hell are you listening to?” It was difficult. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was bullied, but I was very much misunderstood. Definitely. People want to follow the trend. Even I tried really hard to like music that my peers were listening to, but I just couldn’t get into it. They didn’t like what I was listening to because it’s just so, so different. And even a lot of the adults that are around me, even today, still can’t understand that music. They think it’s like a quirky or weird novelty.
It definitely didn’t curtail your interest in this style of music. What happens next?
The next question was “who plays this music now?” [By this time] we bought a computer and a name that kept coming up, time and time again, when I searched, was Vince Giordano. I thought I should get in touch with his guy because he seems to be one of the main people today playing this music well. Luckily, he was very responsive. I wrote to him when I was about 16 and he said, “Come on over.” I went to New York City and stayed with him. He taught me the ins and outs and the ups and downs of leading a dance band.
You were just 16 years old? Didn’t his struggles running a 1920s-’30s dance band in the 1990s & 2000s scare you off?
Yes, in a way. I kind of imagined it to be a bit more glamorous. But, it was very interesting nonetheless. And for me, it was a strange thing because I saw how difficult it was to keep the band going and how underappreciated it can be. But I also saw the highs. It was around the time that Vince was doing [music for] The Aviator (2004), and it just seemed incredible. I also thought if this is able to flourish in a place like New York, there should be a band like it in London.
What was your plan when you returned home?
I was just continuing with saxophone lessons and doing part time jobs in shops. By age 19, I started to put foundations together for a band. Taking the lead from Vince, I went to a London nightclub that was closed on Mondays and said, “Look, if we can open the doors at the club, I’ve got a band.” This is before I actually did have a band—I was just bluffing it. And I said you get the bar take and we get the door. They were quite happy with that. I also made the provision that I was able to go there have a rehearsal…with this still nonexistent band. Then, I took out an advert in the musicians’ union magazine looking for young musicians interested in learning about the ’20s and ’30s music and who wanted to form a band. I got about 100 replies, which I thought was really good. I whittled the number down to the best 11 musicians.
Only someone so young would take that risk, booking a job with no band, but it seemed to have worked for you.
Yeah, we started that way, really. I got my first shock when the musicians obviously wouldn’t turn out for no money, they had to have a guarantee of some kind, so I guarantee them 60 pounds [about $75 USD] each, which didn’t seem like a lot. But they agreed to do the Monday nights. Then, I found out the only people who would turn up for the first couple of gigs were parents and close friends. I think I ended up about 500 quid out of pocket on the first night. And that’s probably where I should have stopped. [laughing] I had about four dates already in the book with this club, and I couldn’t cancel them. I had to push the promotion.
How did all of that play with your new band?
It was very difficult because some of the musicians were older and more experienced. They didn’t take to the idea of somebody being 20 and telling—or asking them—what to do, musically. I had to ride roughshod over that for a while, and eventually young guys came and the older guys went. I’ve managed over the years now to end up with a team of guys that’s more like a family. I very rarely use other musicians, other than the standard 11 that I use.
Unless you found 10 musicians exactly like you, was it difficult to get the young musicians to play in the authentic pre-war style?
One of the things that definitely made the difference was going to London. At home, I was “out in the sticks” so to speak. When I came in to London, and started mixing with musicians that have gone to university but who were also my age, it was it was totally different. They had different views on life. They were enthusiastic and positive about things rather than trying to be negative. It was a great experience and an eye opener for me working with these young guys and it made me feel like I’m not alone in my love for this music. At the time, I thought I was just a weird kid on my own. It was really strange to meet so many other young people that love this music.
As the band’s overall age came down, and you began playing in London, did it mean a younger audience as well?
As time goes on, the band has become a magnet for younger people. I don’t want to keep harping on young people because we’ve had some senior members in the band who also played great and where just as enthusiastic about the music. But definitely as a younger person, feeling as an outsider who put this band together, it unlocked something.
You talked about assembling the band but it is also important you choose the right music. How did you assemble your repertoire?
I started collecting band arrangements when I was in secondary school, about 15 or 16-years-old. And that would have been on eBay, or anywhere that I could find them such as older musicians who were local to me. A lot of these were original copies of things that would have been in bands in the ’20s and ’30s. I ended up with quite a lot of stuff but these were mostly stock arrangements. They weren’t that interesting.
As time went on, we started to get some pretty good arrangers and transcribers in the band people like Simon Marsh, who plays lead alto sax. He’s got a fantastic ear for stuff. Also, Mike McQuaid has joined the band, and he’s contributed some really nice transcriptions. But it’s been a long process trying to get the band up to speed. When we first got together, the band sounded pretty terrible but we’ve all grown together. It’s being together has made the band as tight as it is now.
Playing in the style that you do, are there any concerns or debate as to how closely should you stick to original sounds or arrangements from that period?
It’s funny because the needle has gone both ways for me. There were times in the band’s career, whereas I’ve wanted to be totally purist though never so far as to say we are only going to play music from 1925. I think that’s ridiculous. There were times, however when I wanted to give the audience a totally authentic 1920s performance. I’ve tried to do away with as much amplification as I could. I’ve tried recording that way as well with just one or two microphones.
But I’ve also gone the other way with On with the Show . I would say the repertoire for that was more middle of the road, in terms of being music people would know say from Fred Astaire films. I tried to make it more 1930s, more of a Hollywood-type repertoire. Now I’m kind of in the middle.
In order to make the band more of a viable proposition, I think we need to definitely tick a few boxes in terms of the repertoire and make sure that we play things that people know. And then I like to slide in things that they might not know but I think they’ll enjoy. My concept now is thinking if you put a 1920s band in a time machine and they ended up in 2020, how would they do it now while staying true to the music and compositions?
How does that work?
I think that they would probably want to use the best of technology that they’ve got available today. And, I think that they would present the band in a way that was exciting. I don’t think audiences today really respond that well to just a formal sit-down concert, number after number. I think that there needs to be added elements. We make it a little bit more like the show bands from the early ’30s. For instance, bandleaders Jack Payne and Jack Hylton would do variety, and even Paul Whiteman to an extent, where every number offers the audience something different. I’m right in the middle. I don’t think a concert should be a light show with pyrotechnics, but I’m also not sure that it should be very museum-like.
Speaking of audiences, your sold-out appearance last year at the Cicada Club in Los Angeles attracted many young swing dancers and people from the vintage community dressed in period-correct clothes. It looked like a wild time. How did that differ from what you might be used to playing the swanky Savoy Hotel or other venues in the UK?
Well, it might be a bit stereotypical, but I think that in general, British audiences are a bit more reserved. We do quite a lot of concerts in the UK, rather than dances. There’s not really that many large buildings left in the UK anymore to put on that kind of a dinner and dance event. In the UK we are more likely to be playing mostly theaters or hotels. [At the Cicada Club] the atmosphere was totally different. It was more like a huge welcome party!
And you and the band in vintage tuxedos playing authentic music must made further fulfilled your time machine idea.
I want it to seem as though people have stepped back into an old film. You have to give people something else now with Netflix and other services making it easier for people to just stay home and watch television. It is really difficult to get people to come out and see live music. I want to give them something extra. The look of everything is an additional pull. I also love these vintage events for me because when I look out over the dance floor, and I see everyone dressed up, it is about as close as I will get to the real thing.
Bandleader Don Neely once said older people would get mad at him for playing “It Had to Be You” in its original 1920s style and not the 1950s Sinatra arrangement they remembered. What is it about your music that attracts younger people who have no nostalgic connection to it?
I think that we are living in quite a unique time now. And I guess I’m quite lucky because when Don Neely was doing his thing, there were still a lot of people who would probably know the Sinatra versions of all these kinds of songs. But now, audiences have even started to forget about those records. When I play these things, whether the 1920s version or the 1930s version, it is fresh to a lot of people who are coming out to listen to our stuff. For young people, they just lump the whole lot together and say it’s all “old-fashioned music.” A lot of people are digging it now and come to the music with “fresh ears.”
One area where you are definitely not vintage is in your use of social media and crowdfunding. You have a robust presence on Instagram and used Kickstarter to fund all of your records. How much has it helped spread the word about the band?
As much as I love the old stuff, I do embrace new technologies to get work done now. You have to do it to be relevant. I’m always looking for new platforms. The old traditional way of getting a record label involved is not cost effective anymore. Even the big guys like Sony and Universal haven’t got the money to produce something with a big orchestra. It’s too much risk for them. We have to rely on our friends. And we get young people coming to our gigs who say that they saw us Instagram or YouTube. It’s great to be able to give people a direct link into this music from the past, but you’re doing it on these new social media platforms, and you can do it for cheap.
You have named your new album The Roaring 2020s and are touring in the US plus parts of Europe and Russia. How excited are you that this year, we have returned to the ’20s?
It’s incredible! I think that things are gathering momentum. I’m just going to keep going with it really. To be honest, it was very difficult in the first few years trying to gain momentum with the band and keep the guys together. People came and people left. People didn’t want to rehearse. But it’s much easier now. They’re enjoying the work and they enjoy each other’s company. I don’t know what the end goal is. I think it’s probably just to keep playing and to continue sharing this wonderful music with people.
Visit Alex Mendham online at www.alexmendham.com.