Lavay Smith and her band of veteran artistes are fueling a jazz and blues revival in San Francisco, and may be poised to take their sex-powered musical resurrection nationwide
SAN FRANCISCO - It’s not even 9 p.m., and already the heavy breathers are out in force. They’re lined up along a back wall, straightening their ties and murmuring to one another as they unconsciously touch their hair or pet their sideburns.
A stunning redhead struts past, long legs shining, cleavage straining against a snug white top. She stops near the edge of the dance floor and gazes back over the row of heads.
Nothing. Not one of the fidgeting, on-the-make men in front of her tries to make eye contact, or even notices her. The redhead pauses, shifting her weight from one hip to the other, seemingly unsure if she should make another pass.
She must be new. After all, this isn’t a pickup joint. All the men in the house on this warm December night, and many of the women as well, have lust in their hearts only for one woman - and she’s up on stage right now.
That woman, the center of the universe here at the swank Top of the Mark nightclub, is Lavay Smith. And to give the redhead her due, Smith has an unfair advantage. For one thing, she’s got the spotlight on her at all times. For another, she knows how to use it. Trussed up for maximum effect in a tight pink dress, hips swaying, eyes flaring like a scratched match, she manages to look both saucy and elegant at once - like Marlene Dietrich (or, perhaps more appropriately, Bettie Page) at the height of her power.
The 31-year-old singer wasn’t named one of California’s sexiest women by Los Angeles magazine for nothing, and she knows it.
But it’s not just Smith’s sex appeal - or even her sultry, dead-on voice - that draws camp followers from all over the Bay Area to pack her performances. It’s also the men arrayed behind her, many of them comfortably past retirement age, who are belting out some of the hottest jazz and coolest barrelhouse blues since Japan surrendered to the Allies.
With this one-two punch, Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are the hottest regular ticket in Northern California. “They’re so popular - everyone wants them,” says Jules Broussard, one of the band’s rotating sax players.
Tonight is no exception. For those arriving late, the Top of the Mark - nestled atop the luxurious Mark Hopkins Hotel - unfolds like a Robert Altman tracking shot. The room is packed. Dancers leap and swoop at all angles, smiling fanatically, kicking and shaking like out-of-control wind-up toys. Waitresses glide by, bemused smirks cutting through jam-colored lips.
More dancers stand next to their tables, stretching limbs and rotating their heads as if limbering up for a 10K fun run. “Lavay!” one of them shouts, and the room erupts into applause and cheers - not just because the Skillet Lickers are playing hell-for-leather, but because Smith has stepped away from her microphone and is on the way, moving gingerly through the tables to shake hands, hug friends and pose for pictures.
A man in a fedora and heavy overcoat trundles in and heaves an armful of roses down on the hostess’ stand. Flowers for Lavay. He won’t be the only flower-toting gent this evening.
Let’s get something straight up front. Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are strictly small time. They aren’t on MTV or VH1. They make their own bookings, record on their own little independent label, and, outside of their home base of San Francisco, are known by precious few.
But for those convinced that jazz is dying out with its last original adherents - or, worse, that’s it’s been co-opted by the Kenny Gs of the world - Smith and her band are here to prove otherwise. And by the end of one evening, the group and its devoted fans will have you believe the second Jazz Age is upon us, ready to explode into the mainstream.
Smith, who began playing with pianist Chris Siebert on San Francisco street corners 10 years ago, has developed a sweaty-palmed, hyperventilating following in the Bay Area that would make many rock stars envious. She’s been on the cover of almost every local magazine, and more than once she has found herself inadvertently drawing a crowd on the street and in the grocery store.
Witnessing this, at first blush it might be easy to conclude that San Francisco, a city famous for embracing cranks and lost causes, is the one place for Smith to thrive in the age of Britney and Eminem. But, in point of fact, she and her band have begun to make inroads across the country. Drawing mostly young people to their shows, they’ve played to sold-out houses in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, and they plan to tour Europe this year. They’ve even got sales figures to back them up: Their second CD, "Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing!," has sold more than 50,000 copies, an impressive number for a jazz group (making it a Billboard Jazz Top Ten) - all the more impressive considering that they don’t have the marketing muscle of a major label behind them. And as one of the most successful jazz bands in the country, their profile is likely to get even higher in the wake of Ken Burns’ popular documentary Jazz, which is airing this month on KERA/channel 13.
Not that they’re in it for the fame and groupies, mind you.
“You have to have passion - to the point of obsession, really,” says Siebert, who’s also the band’s musical director.
Sitting restlessly between sets, the 35-year-old musician, with his sweet-baby moon face and a mud-colored fedora pushed up on his head, is a born evangelist for jazz. “People don’t get the opportunity by the mass media to hear [alternative music like jazz,]” he says. “But when they do, they get it. It just works. They hear it and they like it; it doesn’t matter if they’re punk rockers or whatever. ... If you listen to [the music] enough, it gets in your ears and stays there.”
It certainly got in Smith’s ears. At 11, she moved with her family from her native Southern California to the Philippines, where her father worked for the government. Already a music and attention addict, she “hooked up with some bands, started hanging around,” she says.
At 15, she took to the stage at clubs in Manila, where she sang old pop songs while American sailors drank, took swings at each other and propositioned the waitresses.
Most teen-age girls would be terrified to find themselves standing before a roomful of raucous, half-sloshed sailors looking for a good time. Not Smith. As she describes the scene, sweaty walls and all, it’s easy to picture an adolescent version of her on stage, big teeth flashing, eyes squeezed shut, belting out Blondie tunes at the top of her lungs until the sailors finally stopped yelling for her to take her top off and settled down to listen.
Smith, who would soon return to California to finish high school, had found her calling.
“[The servicemen] loved you, just because you were a girl from back home,” she says.
And she discovered the secret to making an impact as a live performer. “It’s about communicating to an audience, not about singing some scale that’s never been done before; that doesn’t interest me. It’s about relating to an audience.”
The best way to do that, she quickly learned, was through her va-va-voom. Indeed, she knows all too well that her image as the busty girl-next-door is the perfect entree for some people who otherwise might not ever be exposed to classic jazz, bop and boogie blues, which she herself discovered and fell in love with at age 17 after hearing a Bessie Smith album.
“Having a sexy image is great fun; people can relate to it,” she says. “I get some pretty far-out e-mails - ‘Lavay, you are so hot! I loooove you!’ I just laugh reading them and think, ‘If you could only see me now.’ “
She throws her head back to allow a hearty guffaw to escape. “We probably wouldn’t have gotten as much attention without the sexy stuff,” she says. “It shows people it’s not elevator music, makes it interesting for nonjazz fans. Hey, whatever it takes to get the music out there.”
Because it is, in the end, all about the music. Indeed, few frontwomen night after night would happily give so much of the spotlight to their band.
“Every night is great, listening to these great soloists,” she says.
In fact, at least on this night, it’s another Smith in the band who is the greatest tease. Allen Smith (no relation to Lavay) started in the jazz racket in the ‘40s and has played with Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan, among many others. Dressed to the nines, a fedora pulled tightly over his forehead, Smith now moves slowly, carefully, rising from his seat for a solo as if at gunpoint. But when he puts his trumpet to his lips, he proves he is perennially young, tapping his foot, leaning into his mouthpiece to produce the kind of sweet sound that, at full throttle, makes you want to slap the back of your neck to reinstate some semblance of reality.
Next, on Goin’ to Chicago Blues, saxophonist Broussard scoots forward on his seat and cuts loose on cue, playing like his head is on fire, the whole place erupting in stamping, cheering approval.
Siebert and Lavay Smith, who are romantic as well as musical partners, have recruited a clutch of these veteran jazz superstars, who now line up to play with them. As a result, the band has increased from five pieces to nine, and Siebert has instituted a rotation system.
“This is the best band there is,” says Broussard, who began playing professionally at age 12 in 1949 and also has his own well-established band in the Bay Area. “They have the right idea about the music.”
Smith and Siebert feel the same way about musicians like Broussard. They rotate their horn players, Smith says, “because we love so many of the musicans and want to work with so many different guys who bring different colors and personalities to the music.”
As Smith builds to the peak of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” her band members squint up at her as if watching a shuttle launch. Smith spreads her feet, arms pulled back like wings, mouth open wide as if she’s about to swallow the mike. For a moment this image seems to freeze in place, her Teddy Roosevelt teeth glinting off the lights. Then the sound cuts through, and the dancers stutter-step and whirl into view.
Fans who come to dance are an integral part of a Skillet Lickers show, whipping together and breaking apart like molecules, so close to the band that a foot or hand occasionally flicks Smith’s standing microphone, sending it into a Weeble-like wobble.
There are the couples in matching outfits, arms rolling together, smiles set like pie molds - so into each other they seem to be pushing through an invisible vat of syrup. There are the Don Juans with their goatees and black turtlenecks, hepped up and ready to party, switching partners with fervor, laughing, the whole room a brilliant, spinning orb. There’s even an ice queen, impossibly thin and buff in her black spaghetti-strap top and form-fitting Danskin pants, absorbed with her every perfect step, eyes gazing not at her disposable partner but off into outer space.
The swing-dance fad that burst unexpectedly onto the music scene in the late ‘90s gave a huge boost to the Red Hot Skillet Lickers’ visibility, and provided the impetus for Smith and Siebert to stretch out beyond their California base. At the same time, they don’t want to be categorized as a swing band.
“We don’t want to limit it to just swing, or just bebop, or just boogie-woogie,” Siebert says.
Nor do they want to limit it just to jazz and blues standards, which is what their 1996 debut CD, "One Hour Mama," is made up of.
“When we started in 1989, no one was playing this music in the Bay Area, certainly not young people for young people,” says Siebert, who counts Fats Waller and Bud Powell as key influences. “So when we played [vintage jazz songs], it was new to the audience; everything was new because no one had heard it.”
That all changed when swing became the Big Thing. Siebert fears the fad did some damage to perceptions of the music, seeing as many of the bands that popped up to fill the demand “took the most basic cliches of it. It was more about the pose, not the music.”
But though Siebert can be dismissive about the swing revival, he also acknowledges that it helped spur his ambitions. Once Louie Prima could be heard in every restaurant and mall in the country, Siebert and Smith decided it was time to do something that was entirely their own.
“We needed to do something different, and we were ready to do it,” Siebert says of their decision to write original songs and beef up their horn section. To Siebert that meant classic jazz and blues with a very personal stamp, “such as lyrics that conform to Lavay’s personality and strengths,” he says. “It must be feminist and fun and humorous. No cryin’-in-your-soup songs.”
And even if the result by definition lacks the pure invention, the feeling of catching genius on the fly, that distinguished their idols, Smith and Siebert’s original compositions nonetheless have an undeniably fresh groan and jump that clearly set them apart on the jazz scene.
The upshot of all this creative stretching: The Skillet Lickers left the swing phenomenon behind with their most successful year ever in 2000, though they have no desire to kick dirt on the now-faltering fad.
“I don’t want to knock the swing movement, because it’s been good to us,” says Siebert. “But we make a point of not just catering to the swing scene. We’re inspired by the music we love - classic jazz and blues, acoustic, not electric. We play from a heartfelt position, and the music has got to speak for itself.”
Despite her star status in San Francisco and a growing following outside Northern Californa, Smith has no illusions about million-selling discs and playing stadiums. “I don’t really care about being a huge, huge star,” she says. “I never see any jazz artists on TV, so I don’t see us being MTV stars.”
But Siebert, a hard-case optimist, sees no ceiling for their popularity - with more visibility and educational outreach, that is.
“The rest of the world recognizes jazz as our classical music,” he says, leaning in to make his point. “This is America’s classical music. What’s wrong with bringing up kids to play and enjoy America’s music?”
– By Douglas Perry, published in the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, 2001