An interview with band leader/guitar player/singer
Doug Sammons of Midnight Serenaders...
Sepiachord: How did the Midnight Serenaders come together?
I have always been a huge fan of the music of Jimmie Rodgers, who is considered to be the father of American country music. Some of his music crossed over into the popular music of the 1920's and 30's featuring horns and Hawaiian Steel guitar. In fact, jazz legend Louis Armstrong recorded on Rodgers' 1930 recording Blue Yodel #9. I was very drawn to this sound. Prior to forming the Midnight Serenaders I had played a lot of old-time country and bluegrass and had a collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs in my repertoire. In 2005 I met Hawaiian Steel guitarist Henry Bogdan and the two of us started getting together playing these songs. We decided to add other instruments to the mix - bass, clarinet, banjo - and the Midnight Serenaders was born. Personnel changes happened until we landed on the current line-up about three years ago: Dee Settlemier - ukulele & vocals, Doug Sammons - guitar & vocals, Henry Bogdan - Hawaiian Steel guitar, Pete Lampe - upright bass, Garner Pruitt - trumpet & vocals, and David Evans - clarinet & saxophone.
SC: What sorts of bands were you in before you joined the 'Serenaders?
Before the Midnight Serenaders I had played rock, jug band music, and bluegrass. Our ukulele player, Dee Settlemier, had led a popular Pacific Northwest alt-country act, and had also performed jazz standards in a small combo. Henry Bogdan moved back to Portland from New York City where he'd spent years playing with a Hawaiian group called the Moonlighters, and had also been a founding member of the punk-metal group Helmet. Consummate bassist Pete Lampe had been in jazz, swing, and rock bands, including stints with area jazz greats Mel Brown and Ron Steen. Garner Pruitt on trumpet is a true jazz cat playing primarily jazz and swing. Saxophonist/clarinetist David Evans has performed with many jazz and R&B greats, and had for a number of years played with a traditional jazz group on a New Orleans riverboat.
SC: When did you realize that you wanted to play vintage jazz?
As I mentioned I came into vintage jazz through the music of Jimmie Rodgers. At the same time I started to explore the music of the 1920's and 30's by checking out compilations from the public library. I think I finally knew I wanted to play vintage jazz when I discovered Fats Waller. His energy, talent, and passion - the man's been dead for more than 60 years - is infectious and inspiring. In general, it is the cleverly funny lyrics and strong melodies that make us want to play these songs. We also play this music because it is happy music, and these days we all need cheering up.
SC: Is "vintage jazz" the best way to sum up the sound of the band?
Perhaps not. We use "vintage jazz" as a convenient way to direct people to our music. The songs we cover include popular songs, hot jazz, blues, and even 'hillbilly' music from the 1920's and 30's. The word "vintage" is definitely overused these days - perhaps we should come up with some different words to describe our music. Any suggestions?
SC: The Midnight Serenaders primarily play period compositions... how do you all decided what goes into the repertoire?
Initially I was the one who would find all the songs for our repertoire. Dee works with me now on this. When we're listening to older material we are basically looking for good songs, melodic and clever. Although we do perform songs that would be familiar in some circles, we are constantly on the lookout for that obscure gem of a song. Of course, we always have an ear out for songs that will work well with our unique instrumentation.
SC: A few of the songs on your new CD "Sweet Nothin's" are written by the band's vocalist and ukulele player Dee Settlemier. Do any of the other band members have tunes up their sleeves?
Not that we know of, but if they do we hope they share them with us. Dee writes amazing songs that sound like they come directly from 1930's Tin Pan Alley......I think the rest of us are too intimidated by her writing to submit our own songs.
SC: Other than the Dee penned numbers how does the new collection differ from your last release, "Magnolia"?
Our new CD "Sweet Nothin's" probably leans a little more into hot jazz than did "Magnolia." The sound is sometimes bigger.....powerful horns and ensemble instrumental passages. There are a couple of numbers with more intricate arrangements. Basically, the new CD is tighter and more dynamic because the band has matured and we've just gotten better at playing this music.
SC: How would you describe a typical Midnight Serenaders show?
Phenomenal! Astounding! Unbelievable! How's that? Okay, we love to dress up. The boys are always dressed in suits and ties......bow ties for me. Very clean cut and respectable. Then there's Dee....sometimes a bit cheeky & flamboyant. Feathers, fishnets, baubles, etc. It's all about the accessories....as long as she's able to hold and play the ukulele. We love the visual.....we wanna be looked at. Customarily in this music the musicians sat in chairs; we like to stand and shuffle and slide - to entertain. The music is, of course, high energy. A swingy, bouncy number...a hot jazz barnburner...a steamy torch song. Then there are the swing dancers who are truly part of the show. They get just as much attention as we do on stage.....damn them!
SC: The group always has plenty of upcoming shows.... anything you're particularly excited about?
We are excited that summer is here and that we'll have opportunities to play outdoors to all ages audiences. We will be performing for the Portland Parks' Summer Concert series, another summer concert in Longview, Washington, and the Salem Art Festival in Salem, Oregon, amongst others. Also, there is a show being put together for February 2010 featuring three early jazz groups: the Stolen Sweets, the Shanghai Woolies, and the Midnight Serenaders. That will certainly be one fabulous show. Readers may go to our website to learn of future dates: www.midnightserenaders.com.
SC: The Stolen Sweets also hail from Portland, OR. Does your city have a secret vintage jazz underground?
I suppose there is a bit of a scene here. The Stolen Sweets have become somewhat of a sensation and have a huge following in our area. They certainly deserve all the attention they get. Then there are the Shanghai Woolies, featuring Pink Martini member Gavin Bondy on trumpet. The Coney Island Cartel, the Bridgetown Sextet, the Pete Krebs Trio, Trashcan Joe and Kung Pao Chickens are other early jazz favorites around town. Part of what fuels the scene are the swing dancers in Portland. They come out to our shows and dance and help create the scene, and they put on live music dance events and hire us. We LOVE them.
SC: Other than continuing to put out great CDs and put on great shows what's next for the Midnight Serenaders?
We're just going to sit around and wait until 1920's and 30's music becomes the next big thing and then we're going to get rich. Until then, we'll continue to make great CDs and put on great shows and introduce new songs to the genre.
SC: Anything else on your mind?
Yes, we're always happy to turn people on to our sources, so take a listen to Fats Waller, Clarence Williams, Ethel Waters, Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, Annette Hanshaw, early Cab Calloway, the Boswell Sisters, Mildred Bailey, Cliff Edwards, etc. This music is very cool.