Might as Well Jump
On a recent Tuesday night at O'Hara's Pub and Jazz Cafe in Fort Lauderdale, Dale Powers, leader of the five-piece band Jump n' Jive, glowers as he stands over his electric keyboard. A lanky 43-year-old with pointed features and slicked-back black hair, Powers cuts a dapper figure in a red tuxedo shirt, matching shoes, and suspenders emblazoned with an image of piano keys. Like a combination of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, the keyboardist-singer throws his entire body into every chord. The hips swivel, the butt shakes and thrusts and humps. Even Powers' tongue gets in the act, wagging at women in the audience -- until he bangs it onto the keys to play a few notes for a particularly raucous solo. The music is "jump swing blues," according to Powers -- but his persona is heavy metal.
In cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, hundreds of bands like Jump n' Jive are playing music from the Forties for kids in their twenties sporting gabardine suits and greased-back 'dos. The swing revival -- a close cousin of the martini-fueled lounge scene -- has reinvented a culture that peaked before the parents of its current disciples were born.
Yet South Florida has barely felt its influence. In Broward County college-age kids flock to dance at boom-box warehouses such as Baja Beach Club or the Bermuda Triangle. Jump n' Jive (which, in addition to Powers, includes Pete Berard on drums, Al Shikaly on alto sax, Richard Malfitano on tenor sax, and Tom Roberts on bass) is perhaps the only local band to fully embrace the swing trend. Ironically it plays its weekly gigs at O'Hara's on Las Olas Boulevard, a club where twentysomethings are more in danger of running into their parents than their peers.
"In the year and a half we've been around, no one else has done this," Powers says as he sits at an outdoor table at O'Hara's before taking the stage for Jump n' Jive's regular Tuesday-night gig. "I think one of the problems with creating a scene here is the lack of a venue. You need a big room with a dance floor. O'Hara's gets some pretty wild people who are into being entertained, but they don't have that floor."
The high-energy, horn-fueled music known as "jump" came to prominence in the Forties thanks to artists such as Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. A combination of blues and swing jazz, jump was music for the feet, with fast rhythms and hot riffs. With the rise of bebop in the Fifties, jump's popularity waned, but thanks to a growing number of young groups -- Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mighty Blue Kings, Royal Crown Revue, and Cherry Poppin' Daddies, to name but a few -- jump's jivin' vibe has found favor with a new generation.
At O'Hara's the average age of the audience is 35 and older -- sometimes so much older that Jump n' Jive's music feels less like a revival and more like nostalgia. "In New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago swing is really hot, but there it's mostly young kids in their twenties," notes Powers. "They're into dressing up and taking the swing dance lessons prior to the sets, so that when the bands come on they're ready to test their skills. But here it's 30 to 50 -- we're not getting the twenty-year-olds."
Powers' energy in conversation reflects his on-stage turbulence: Body in fluid motion, hand gestures in overdrive. His fingers never stop playing keyboard. Whether discussing the local music scene or his twenty-year heroin addiction, Powers' digits are always in midsong, banging out Louis Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie" or perhaps his own "I'm a Dirty Bird" on the pub's checkered tablecloth.
"Maybe they're just not hip to it here," he suggests. "We're trying our damnedest to spread the gospel, and people dig it, but we're not getting the younger crowd."
Kitty Ryan, the owner of O'Hara's, plans to include a dance hall in a soon-to-be-finished second O'Hara's in Hollywood. The venue's restaurant, cafe, and bar sections will open toward the end of this month, but the dance hall, called Alley Cats, will not open until the end of this year. Ryan plans to pair dance lessons with band performances, and Jump n' Jive is slated to play at the new O'Hara's every Thursday evening. Ryan believes the swing scene can catch on here, but she expects her Hollywood locale to draw the same age group that currently populates the O'Hara's in Fort Lauderdale.
"When you have a younger crowd, they haven't found their niche yet -- they're unpredictable," she explains. "Jazz has worked for us and given us a steady base. The younger crowd likes to jump around. You never know what trend they are going to like next."
Michael Moss, the publisher of San Francisco-based Swing Time Magazine, believes that swing is more than just a trend. "We started listening to swing seven or eight years ago in San Francisco," says Moss, speaking on the telephone from his office. "There was a whole community of people wishing to hear more melodic music. Swing was a stand against grunge and rap, a rebellion against the tattoo crowd. It wasn't manufactured or marketed, it came from us and spread by word of mouth."
Moss feels that while scenes in major cities are already well defined, the rest of the nation still has a chance to catch up. "Delray Beach has a band called the Saffire Kings making good music," he points out. "It sounds like Fort Lauderdale already has the band with Jump n' Jive -- now you need the club. Cities like New York and San Francisco have several clubs close together, so people can go to the same places on a consistent basis. South Florida just needs to get the kids in front of a great band."
If Jump n' Jive fails to ignite the swing scene in Broward County, it won't be for lack of trying. Powers' magnetic, kinetic stage presence draws scores of revelers to O'Hara's every Tuesday. Whether asking the musical question "Are Those Things Really Real" or advocating safe sex with the up-tempo "Wrap It Up Baby," Powers has a natural enthusiasm that's downright infectious.
Make that downright addictive. Powers, who started playing piano at age thirteen in his native Chicago, began using drugs the same year. A professional musician and burgeoning junkie by age eighteen, he developed a fondness for acid, downers, and heroin. At age 24 he was living in Los Angeles, where he worked with musicians such as Etta James, Sly Stone, and Tito and Randy Jackson. His then-wife moved him and their two children to South Florida in 1989 to escape the L.A. drug scene, but Powers had heroin FedExed to him here. In 1993 his wife had him locked up -- it was Powers' fourteenth drug arrest -- and filed for divorce shortly afterward.
At the time Powers had choice words for his wife, but now admits, "In retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me." He recalls, "I was 39 at the time, in jail, losing my family, I had blown my career, I was strung out, and I thought, 'Could something possibly be wrong here?'"
Powers kicked heroin cold turkey in jail (a two-week process he describes simply as "a nightmare"), then spent three months in rehab. He quit music for two years as part of his recovery, and performed odd jobs to pay the rent. In early 1996 he decided he was ready to devote himself to music once again. After a six-week solo gig at Evangeline's on State Road A1A, Powers formed Jump n' Jive to perform at the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, writing seven original songs in the span of three days for the gig. Those seven songs, and five covers, can be found on the band's CD, I'm a Dirty Bird, which was released in February 1997.
Powers can thank jump music for bringing him the woman he plans to marry later this year, though his rampant sexual energy almost drove her away. "We were playing O'Brian's in Juno Beach," Powers recalls, "and I saw this great-looking chick. I started wagging my tongue at her, went over and said, 'What's happening, baby, nah, nah, nah,' and she ran out of the club."
Not long after Powers noticed the same woman at another of his shows: "So I see her, I'm wagging my tongue again, I say, 'Hey, where you been, baby' -- and she's gone again. When I eventually saw her a third time, I was setting up my equipment, and before she could run out, I went over, put my hands on her shoulders, walked her to the grand piano, and played Gershwin, Cole Porter, and love songs for her. She realized I wasn't totally crazy, and we've been together ever since."
Powers has gained other admirers as well. During a recent Jump n' Jive set at O'Hara's, a balding, middle-aged man dancing near the stage wears piano-key suspenders exactly like those that are slipping from Powers' shoulders. A waitress points to the unlikely groupie and notes, "Jump n' Jive is the only band we have that makes people crazy, where we have to tell them to keep it down."
Powers attributes his zeal for jump music to "flamboyance, extravagance, and insanity." If he has his way, the craziness has just begun.
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