(UPDATE: The Sept. 23 bands, including the Hot Sardines, have been cancelled, because of the forecast of bad weather, but the Sept. 22 bands will still perform.)
Fresh off a five-night, 10-show stand at the Birdland Jazz Club in New York, The Hot Sardines will perform in a far different and, hopefully, sunnier setting — the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, which draws a large crowd every year to the Morristown Green park in downtown Morristown — on Sept. 23.
The free festival, an annual event since 2011 (the same year The Hot Sardines released their debut album, coincidentally), will expand this year to two days, with The Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band, the Debra Devi Group, Ty Stephens & the Soul Jaazz and Morristown High School’s Spectrum Jazz Band on Pioneer Plaza (between the 1776 restaurant and Headquarters Plaza), Sept. 22 from 4 to 10 p.m.; and then Louis Prima Jr. & the Witnesses, The Ana Popovic Band, The Hot Sardines, The Gotham City Latin Jazz Septet and The U.S. Navy Jazz Band (The Commodores) at Morristown Green, Sept. 23 from noon to 10 p.m. The Hot Sardines are scheduled to play from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
As The Hot Sardines’ name implies, they play in the mostly upbeat, crowd-pleasing style of traditional jazz known as “hot jazz.” Their repertoire includes songs associated with giants such as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton as well as more obscure jazz artists, with some more modern sources mixed in — like Robert Palmer, whose “Addicted to Love” they cover, with an original, swinging arrangement (listen below). They also perform original songs written by their co-founders, singer Elizabeth Bougerol and pianist Evan Palazzo.
Their new album, C’est la Vie (A Jazz Soundtrack), includes a handful of songs sung in French by the France-raised Bougerol, as well as an atmospheric cover of the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” classic, “Moon River” (listen below).
I spoke to Bougerol by phone on Sept. 18.
Q: You do, of course, most of your performing in nightclubs. Is it really a different show when you do a big outdoor event like this?
A: We have some really kind of big-feeling arrangements and we have some more intimate stuff, but we definitely enjoy bringing the bigger arrangements to something like Morristown. We’re an eight-piece band. We have three pieces of brass and we have someone in the rhythm section who also tap-dances. So, you know, there’s the sound but there’s also the visual and the vibe onstage, which for us is really fun to bring to a festival setting.
Q: And of course, it’s a different kind of audience. You have families and people who are big jazz fans as well as people who aren’t big jazz fans.
A: One of the things that I think for us is really rewarding about festival settings is, first of all, this music … we’ve seen it over and over in our shows: We’ll see sometimes three generations of the same family coming to a show because, you know, you might have the grandpa who’s a big jazz fan and then his daughter might be the mom who listened to jazz because her dad introduced her, and then her son or daughter might have just seen “The Jungle Book” or “Mary Poppins,” and we’ll plug into one of the songs by the Sherman Brothers that we might be doing in our set. And what’s so cool about classic jazz is it cuts across so many demographics. For some people, it feels nostalgic. For some people, it feels fresh. It’s a really welcoming kind of music.
Q: Also, with classic jazz there’s so much to discover. You can get deeper and deeper into it and discover new songs and new artists and feel like you’re always discovering new things.
A: Absolutely. I always say that a lot of the songs we think of as being the Great American Songbook … they’re songs that get covered again and again. And it becomes almost a self-reinforcing system where, because 100 people have covered “My Funny Valentine,” 1,000 people will then discover “My Funny Valentine,” and some of those will cover it. But that leaves so much music from these eras of early jazz and pop untouched, undiscovered or relatively obscure. And as much as we love connecting with audiences through well-known songs, we also love digging up obscure gems, and people go, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never heard that song.” That’s really fun. There’s so much great music from the ’10s and ’20s and ’30s and ’40s.
Q: Can you give me an example of an obscure gem that you’re doing?
A: Sure. We love doing “Goin’ Crazy with the Blues” (listen below), which was recorded by Mamie Smith in 1926. She was hardly obscure at the time. But when we added “Goin’ Crazy with the Blues” to our setlist, I hadn’t really heard anyone do it, and it’s this great gutbucket-y, mournful but energetic, bluesy number. That’s one we love to play and it seems to really connect with audiences. And I’ve heard a couple of people say, “I’ve never heard of Mamie Smith, but thanks to your version of that, I went and I listened to a bunch of her stuff.” Which is great. She should be better known. She was the first Black artist to record the blues, and everyone should know that.
Everyone knows and so many people love the Billie Holidays and the Ella Fitzgeralds. But what about the Mamie Smiths? And what about the Marion Sunshines and, you know, Ethel Waters, who you don’t hear so much about in the mainstream these days. There’s a wealth of fantastic material created by people with fascinating personal stories that they brought to their music.
Q: Do you feel kind of in a niche of your own or are you part of a community of bands doing this sort of thing?
A: I feel like we’re very much part of a community of bands who are reinterpreting this music. But the great thing about all of us is each of us, through our own personal histories and experiences, creates our own niche. There are so many fantastic people who are re-approaching songs from sort of the Songbook these days and giving it their own flair, like one of my personal favorites, Catherine Russell, or Kat Edmonson, who writes a lot of her own material in the vein of Great American Songbook stuff and also covers early songs. Just phenomenal musicians who are bringing a 2023 perspective to this music, which oftentimes is kind of dismissed by the mainstream and yet is so connective with audiences when you hear it live.
Q: As you probably know, this festival is being headlined by Louis Prima Jr. & the Witnesses. Is Louis Prima Sr. someone whose music you’re interested in?
A: Oh, absolutely. In addition to being a phenomenal trumpet player, he was just a consummate showman. And one of the things we believe in is that the musicality has to be there, but beyond that, there’s connection through entertainment. Entertainment is not a dirty word. We both want to make a song live again through solid musicality, but we also are aware that audiences connect through so many different levels. Some through the chord changes, some through the lyrics, some through a particular solo someone might play, or feeling the vibe that the tap-dancer might set with what he or she does. That’s all part of it. And Louis Prima is someone who definitely created ways to connect through all those different things. He’s an inspiration, for sure.
Q: Is there really such a thing as hot sardines or did you make that up?
A: Well, when Evan Palazzo, who I run the band with, and I went to our first open mic, we just needed a name and I saw a tin of sardines and hot sauce at my local Key Food. We honestly just needed something to put on there. We had been listening to a lot of music by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven and Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. So we put “hot” in the name and we thought, you know, “Hot Sardines, that’ll be fun.” We never expected to see the name printed on a record cover or in a newspaper or anything like that.
We did our first open mic and a couple of people came up afterwards and said, “Where can I find information for your next show?” We had no next show planned. So I just wrote “Hot Sardines” on a cocktail napkin and my phone number and gave it to people. And the next day I created a Facebook page and we said, “If we need to, we’ll change the band name later.” But it stuck.
Q: I do a lot of interviews with musicians and that’s almost always the answer when a band has a weird name. “We came up with that on the spur of the moment and we figured we’d change it later and then we just didn’t.”
A: Famous last words, right?
For more on the festival, visit morristownjazzandblues.com.
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