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. The band performs Thursday, Nov. 30, at the Varsity Theatre in Baton Rouge.
Bradlee had the idea for the group when he was in his teens.
“(In high school,) I was getting into early jazz, stuff like ragtime and New Orleans music,” he said. “You can imagine that most of my peers weren’t into that kind of stuff. I wanted to be able to share this stuff with my friends, and I would just kind of pick out pop songs that they liked and turn them into ragtime or jazz.”
But making a career out of re-imagining today’s pop hits in pre-rock-and-roll form wasn’t something Bradlee envisioned. Instead, he planned to pursue a more traditional musical career.
“I didn’t really think much of it because I was trying to become a jazz pianist in New York City,” he said. “It’s like OK, you study jazz, and you go and play jazz clubs, and you do jazz albums.”
That career path turned out to be less satisfying than Bradlee had hoped. Most of his gigs were in restaurants and bars where he was little more than background music. As he grew more frustrated with his life as a working musician, that old hobby of reinventing pop songs came back into the picture.
He got the idea that he could do a video of a song and post it on YouTube. Bradlee crafted a medley of 1980s hits in ragtime piano style. He filmed a performance and posted it. After noted British author/comic book writer Neil Gaiman tweeted about it, the clip went viral.
“From there, I just thought, ‘Well, there’s something to this that’s interesting people,’ ” Bradlee said.
Bradlee continued to release videos. He hit pay dirt again in 2012 with “A Motown Tribute to Nickelback,” which recast that group’s grungy, hard rock hits into 1960s Motown. In 2013, he scored 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 a 6-foot-8 man dressed as a clown.
“That was a productive year,” Bradlee said of 2013. “That kind of planted all of the seeds where people started to learn about what we were doing.”
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox has done nothing but gain momentum since. 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. This year, he’s expanded the Postmodern Jukebox platform by signing a deal with Concord Records. That label recently released a best-of album, “The Essentials.” In November, he released “The New Classics,” a live CD/DVD filmed at the Smith Center in Las Vegas.
“My goal with it was to show the variety of a PMJ concert, how many different performers there are and how many different styles are represented,” Bradlee said.
This fall’s U.S. tour is one of the most extensive outings yet for the ensemble. Bradlee doesn’t reveal many details about which singers and musicians are on each tour. However, he did note that each show is tailored to the singers who are performing on a given date. Expect anything for next week's show.
“We always play to the singers’ strengths and the things they do best," he said. "Depending on which singers we have on the tour, that will change the set list.”
SCOTT BRADLEE'S POSTMODERN JUKEBOX
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show starts at 8 p.m.
WHERE: Varsity Theatre, 3353 Highland Road, Baton Rouge
COST: $27.50 in advance, $35 after doors open