In my essay about the decline of jazz festivals (“What is to be Done?” March 2018) I wrote “None of the early legends of jazz thought anything of collaborating with comedians and jugglers. On the local level such partnerships are starting up again…I think the variety show medium is ripe for a comeback, and jazz bands will still fit in.” Now I’d like to introduce you to an artist who is making that happen. Drew Nugent, along with his band, the Midnight Society, has been reshaping the Philadelphia traditional music scene in his own Vaudevillian image.
Drew Nugent learned piano as a child, then added violin and cornet, as he—and his musical tastes—developed. “My first introduction to vintage music was really through Ragtime. I’d heard some local pianists playing tunes by Joplin, Tom Turpin, James Scott, Eubie Blake, and the like; it captivated me. That heavy syncopation, with rich colorful melodies and phrases; I never heard anything like it. Slowly but surely my interest became a full-on obsession, and I started following the evolution of Ragtime into Jazz.” He lists among his influences on piano: Jelly Roll Morton, Willie The Lion Smith, James P. Johnson, Frank Melrose, Lennie Hayton, Arthur Schutt, and Irving Brodsky, as well as, yes, Fred Astaire. His influences on the horn are a rundown of the greats—Louis, Bix, Red Nichols, Jabbo Smith, Jack Purvis, Phil Napoleon, and Leo McConville.
He started playing parties, singing at the piano, when he was 15, but his first real break was appearing on Prairie Home Companion’s Talent from 12-20 show in 2005. “I went into this ‘racket,’ initially, only wanting to play tunes and styles of the 1920s to the very early part of the ’30s. I had already done my first schooling in the field of Ragtime, and I wanted to move along with the course of syncopated music, as it were. I was all about the Hot music. Over the last decade I learned more and more of the different styles of popular music, Jazz and otherwise leading up into the 1940s, and it really broadened my approach as to the material I wanted to cover. It also really inspired me to start writing more originals.”
His recent album, Hot, Sweet and Sassy, reflect this broadening interest. He gives loving treatment to some novelty and sweet songs not often heard in the hot jazz canon. “There were so many songs written during the first 40 years of the 20th century that have yet to be pulled out of dormancy and dusted off that it’s a sin for us to keep on going along playing the same thing and expect it to stay fresh. If what’s old is new, then let’s keep digging up these golden oldies.” His current shows feature tunes from the World War I era all the way up to WWII.
He has written a handful of originals, some through collaboration with Peter Evans. Many appear on his “solo” album, I’ll Never Be The Same, where Evans gets producer credit. It wasn’t actually solo but featured Nugent with smaller units of no more than three to highlight some of his new discoveries. The tight groupings really show off his comfortable vocal style and gift for honest interpretation. His cover of C.W. Murphy’s 1902 music hall number “I Live In Trafalgar Square” is tragi-comic genius.
“The point is” he says, “there is much more to classic/vintage music than just jazz, swing, blues, boogie woogie….essentially all the genres we have come to know as being the most recognized of the eras passed. The classic jazz/popular music idiom is largely glanced over by the more ‘straight ahead players’ or be-boppers of post-1940s jazz.” He describes the sound of his band as “hot, tight, and authentic, yet not purist in its approach to the music.”
Drew founded the Midnight Society in 2009, not long out of college, with the help of his drummer Skip Rohrich. The tuba player, Doc Cattley, has also been there nearly from the beginning. Banjoists/guitarists Mike Kuehn and Greg Wright are longtime members. The band’s steady lineup has grown while they also acquired a deep body of substitutes to fill in on their busy schedule. “Having a long list of subs and sidemen is a good tool to have in this business and helps to bring a bit of variety to the overall and ongoing sound of the band.” The process also fosters musicians along the way who may start their own hot jazz bands while providing the band opportunities to play with real stars in the field. “You definitely find yourself playing with a lot of different reed, brass, and even string players, due solely on who’s available at the time. I have had the privilege to play with truly brilliant players like Paul Butler, Jay Rattman, Evan Arntzen, the Anderson Brothers, Patrick Bartley, Dan Levinson, Jim Fryer, Matt Tolentino, Andy Stein, and many more. All of these gents also lead their own ensembles and projects.”
The band quickly became popular locally for their hot shows. In the early years they didn’t have much competition. “Our group was really the first to bring the classic/trad/vintage Jazz/hot music… whatever ya want to call it…back to Philly. That was around 2010/11…Since then quite a few other bands have popped up like the Red Hot Ramblers, Christopher Davis-Shannon and his band, amongst others.” “Philly is a different beast than the other cities of the East Coast. There’s definitely a decent amount of bar/restaurant/club gigs. On the other hand there are quite a few dance societies and events going on.”
While many bands will play anywhere that will let them set up, Drew Nugent has a knack for finding venues that add some cachet to the performance itself. He’s made several appearances at The Race of Gentlemen, a multiday festival of vintage motorcycles and cars on the beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey. You can easily find clips of these performances on YouTube. The band stands on a trailer bed in the best old-time style with a small wooden dance floor out on the sand. Better yet you can catch him there this year with his trio on June 9th and 10th. This summer the whole band will also make a reappearance at Michael Arenella’s Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island. That event has become so popular that this year it will take place twice, June 16-17 and again August 25-26.
The success of these themed events hasn’t escaped Drew’s notice. He recently recruited friends Adam Iezzie and Buddy Schreerer to help him with creating some of his own. The weekend of August 11th he has arranged a Jazz on the Strazz event in conjunction with a historic short line railroad. He hosts a monthly swing dance event on Philadelphia’s Olde City, a burlesque show called the “Blind Tiger Speakeasy” complete with a secret password you must acquire by word of mouth, and a variety show called “Nugent’s Follies” held in the Trocadero, a historic Vaudeville theater on the edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
Nugent’s Follies features a local dance troupe, The Old City Sweethearts, and sideshow acts including magic and slapstick comedy. It’s all held together by red hot jazz and Nugent’s skills as an MC. “Growing up,” he says, “I was heavily influenced by front men. Louis Armstrong was my first true inspiration in the Hot music vein. The Complete Hot 5’s and Hot 7’s Collection made high school bearable. Not to mention completely made me obsessed with the other sounds of the ’20s and ’30s. I immediately and equally fell in love with the likes of front men like Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Noble Sissle, Al Bowlly, just to name a small handful. I was also, however, heavily influenced by Vaudeville and Novelty performers like Cliff Edwards, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, the Marx Bros., Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Olson and Johnson, Burns and Allen….you name it! Too many folks out there take themselves too seriously. I’d rather not be one of them.”
On dressing well, and using vintage instruments in the band when possible, he says that it’s just what comes naturally to him. “I am always at ease while wearing a nice suit of clothes. It’s kind of the same thing with collecting old instruments. Some folks believe they play better than modern ones. In some cases yes they do, but not all. These are instruments approaching 100 years old, if not already past it. They have stories that we may never know. It’s thrilling to play on something that old, wondering who might’ve owned it, what they played, so on and so forth. And they can play! If you have one that is in solid shape, they can have beautiful tones, ranges, and attack.”
The excitement generated in the lead-up to theses shows fills seats and encourages interest in the music. These events also create opportunities for non-musicians to contribute to the hot jazz scene by rehearsing dances and routines, helping with costumes, or simply by making the effort to show up in vintage gear and add to the atmosphere. That personal buy-in keeps people coming back and strengthens the community.
This Memorial Day Drew provided music for a USO style Veterans fundraiser at the 100-year-old Ruba Club in north Philly. The venue has a full upstairs cabaret dine-in theater and the show featured jazz, swing dancing, and models in vintage pin-up girl dress. There seem to be many such events scattered throughout the region. Art Deco on the Delaware is an August outdoor event in Philadelphia featuring the same mix of music, dancing, and fun. Though the hot jazz scene is small it has an intense following.
Drew Nugent isn’t the only notable musician out there riding a wave of interest in Vaudeville and the burlesque. Dandy Wellington, who also sings with Glenn Crytzer’s Orchestra, is traveling the country with similar acts and his natural gift for promotion. But Drew Nugent provides a good model of how to share your enthusiasm, and be ambitious with your music, in a city that doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think hot jazz. Someday soon, maybe vaudeville will find its way back to your town, too.
Visit Drew Nugent online at drugent.com to purchase CDs and for a complete list of upcoming performances.
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