Though the popular phrase may be “everything old is new again,” for Scott Bradlee, everything new is old again.
That essentially is what he does as founder and lead arranger of 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.
It’s an idea Bradlee had as far back as high school.
“When I was in high school, I was into really early jazz, stuff like ragtime, New Orleans music and things like that,” he says during a telephone interview. “You can imagine that most of my peers weren’t really into that kind of stuff. They didn’t play a whole lot of ragtime at school dances back then. I wanted to be able to share this stuff with my friends, so I would pick out pop songs they liked and turn them into ragtime, jazz or other stuff. It was fun for my friends. They’d say ‘Wait, I recognize this song. How do I know this song?’ ”
Bradlee and his band will put their spin on modern pop hits and retro pop stylings at 8:45 p.m. Thursday, June 21, at Britt Pavilion, 350 S. First St., Jacksonville. Tickets are $51 for reserved seating, $216 for premium seating for four, $108 for premium seating for two, $38 for lawn seating, and $29 for ages 12 and younger. Tickets can be purchased at brittfest.org, at the box office, 216 W. Main St., Medford, or by calling 800-882-7488.
Making a career out of re-imagining today’s pop hits in pre-rock ‘n’ roll form wasn’t exactly something Bradlee saw as a future. 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,” Bradlee says. “I thought that was the path I had to take. It’s like OK, you study jazz and then you go and play jazz clubs and you do jazz albums and everything.”
It turned out to be a lot harder and less satisfying than Bradlee hoped. Most of his gigs were in restaurants and bars where he was little more than background music for patrons. As he grew more frustrated with this life as a working musician, his old hobby of reinventing pop songs came back into the picture.
Then he got the idea he could record a video and post it on YouTube.
“I didn’t know too much about YouTube,” Bradlee says. “I thought it was kind of more for people who played music for a hobby or something like that. There weren’t too many professionals there. So I avoided it unfairly for a little while. At the time, I was kind of just over what I was doing in jazz, and playing the same depressing restaurant and bar scene. It was like I had nothing to lose. So I thought YouTube might be an interesting way to get seen by other people.”
Bradlee crafted a medley of 1980s hits in ragtime piano style, recorded the performance and posted it on YouTube. One person who saw the video was noted British author and comic book writer Neil Gaiman, who tweeted about it, and the clip soon went viral.
“From there, I just thought, ‘Well, there’s something to this that’s interesting people, so I’m going to keep exploring it,” Bradlee says.
Bradlee continued to create and post videos online, and the cast of singers and musicians he would bring in to perform the songs started to grow. The videos were recorded in his apartment with no special sets or other visual accouterments. The emphasis was squarely on the songs and the people performing them. The approach was quick and allowed Bradlee to get into the routine of posting a new video almost every week.
He hit paydirt in 2012 with “A Motown Tribute to Nickelback,” which recast the Canadian rock group’s grungy hard rock hits into ‘60s Motown, and then in 2013 scored huge viral hits with a ‘30s jazz rendition of rapper Macklemore’s “Thrift Ship,” a ‘50s doo-wop take on Miley Cyrus’ tune “We Can’t Stop,” and a torchy jazz version of Lorde’s “Royals,” sung by Mike Geier, a 6-foot-8 man dressed as a clown who performs under the name Puddles and fronts his own act, Puddles Pity Party.
“That was a productive year,” Bradlee says. “That kind of planted all of the seeds where people started to learn about what we were doing and there became more and more interest around it. So in 2014, we started touring. During this whole time, I’m meeting more and more people and doing more and more performances with this project.”
Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox has done nothing but gain momentum since. Each year, PMJ’s touring business has grown markedly, and Bradlee has built a rotating cast of more than 50 singers (including several “American Idol” alums, including Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams) and musicians who now form two separate units that allow for simultaneous tours in the U.S. and abroad. They finished 2017 having played some 300 shows, including stops at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” Bradlee says. “It’s awesome to see how much support there is from fans who are hungry for this kind of music, for just the idea of real musicians playing real music.”
Bradlee and his performers are at a similar pace this year. In addition to touring and recording videos, Bradlee has compiled songs onto more than a dozen self-released albums and EPs. He signed with Concord Records in 2017 and released “The Essentials,” followed by “The New Classics,” a live CD/DVD filmed at the Smith Center in Las Vegas that is set to air on PBS.