Duelling Horns and Swinging Scientology
The Jive Aces, one of England’s hottest swing bands are such a clean-cut, well dressed bunch with their matching sky-blue suits and greased-back hair, they look like they were plucked out of a ’50s sitcom or a barbershop quartet. They hardly come off as rabble-rousers. And yet, the players — Alex, Ken, John, Ian, Peter and Vince are known for their high-energy performances and stage antics. During a recent gig at Manhattan’s Supper Club, where they played on their cross country tour to promote their latest album, Planet Jive, trumpeter and lead singer Ian Clarkson and trombonist Alex Douglas leapt off the stage in the middle of a song and blew solos at each other while thrusting and parrying with their horns.
The band plays a lively mix of original compositions, classic big band and lounge. They’re bold yet not as overbearing and wild as say, The Big Six. They’re goofy, though not as goofy as Steve Lucky. They’re playful, likening themselves to Louis Prima though without the bawdiness. And most of all they “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive” with their music, a motivation that comes straight out of their beliefs as dedicated Scientologists.
Following their Supper Club show, Clarkson met with Atomic in the basement lounge of a dark Russian bar in the West village of Manhattan to talk about the band’s music and their religion. One flight up a Dixieland jazz group is beginning its third set in the main bar, the ceiling creaking under the weight of the dancers swinging above.
Atomic: So how did you guys get started?
Ian: We started as dancers in 1984. We got into jazz and swing. In London there was a scene that liked ’50s rock and roll, but there wasn’t any swing dancing. There was a modern disco jive, but nobody did the original style of swing. We used to watch old films—Helzapoppin’, Rock Around the Clock, The Benny Goodman Story, Whities’ Lindy Hoppers, all this sort of stuff. We used to dance and tried to get groups together to dance. We opened a club, twenty of us, called the Cotton Club, just outside of London. We were the only ones in the London area into the music. Me, Ken [Smith, string bass] and this other guy and our girlfriends had a dance troupe called the “Jive Hoppers”. We used to dance and people would watch us. But there weren’t enough bands to dance to, so we formed our own band. Our original band was called the Aces of Rhythm—mainly small band jump stuff with guitars, like the Spirits of Rhythm. Then we became the Emperors of Rhythm. Then we formed this band in 1988 and we called ourselves The Jive Aces.
Atomic: You guys have such a great energy in concert with the horn duels and jumping around on stage.
Ian: People say we’ve got great choreography. But I can’t think of anything we do which we worked out specifically. One of us would do something, the crowd would like it, and we’d remember to do it the next time. The horn duels and the piano moving around started out as just a jam. It just developed and just got nuttier and wilder.
We’ve turned people into swinging jazz fans. People wouldn’t really know what sort of music it was, and they would come and see us out of curiosity. And they’d tell us, “Wow, we’ve never listened to this type of music before, but it’s great!” Because basically, the music sells itself.
With the audience, it’s a communication thing. And it’s two-way. You’ve got an audience and you. If I go and see a band, I want to be entertained. You want the acting. The greats are subtle but they are acting. See Frank Sinatra-he acts the feeling of every song he sings.
Atomic: This must come up a lot since those Scientology quotes are on your CDs. What’s the relationship between your religion and your music?
Ian: We were a band a long time ago. Then about 7 years ago we started using Scientology. We were doing a gig for a big Church of Scientology in England. That’s what started it. It just did so much for us I don’t know how much you know about Scientology. The word comes from the word “scio,” meaning truth, knowledge, and “ology” meaning study. The study of truth. The actual word means the handling and study of the spirit in relation to the universe, itself and other life. You use it to better conditions in life. It’s very practical.
Atomic: And how does it relate to your creative process?
Ian: It’s related to all of life. It’s different for each of us. But it can handle anything that’s blocking you in life. It can enhance you as a person so there’s more of you to create with. Because of our outlook on life, we are happier, positive, so we choose happier songs, “When you’re smiling”, “Accentuate the Positive”, stuff like that. In that way it shows through. Also, the stage show has a lot to do with the energy we have.
So for instance, writing songs, it just helps with that flow. And when there are problems, they are easier to handle. There’s more of you to flow out. It’s easier on stage. It’s easier to write songs. It’s easier to get along in relationships-wives, girlfriends, family, things like that.
That’s why we play at bookstores that sell L. Ron Hubbard’s books. Because people keep asking about it, they’ve recently brought out a book called “What is Scientology?” It’s got everything in there. That way people can find out about it for themselves.
You mainly hear about the celebrities like John Travolta, Chick Corea, Kirstie Alley, Tom Cruise, Isaac Hayes, Doug E. Fresh. But there are a lot of people in the general public who use it. It’s non-denominational; any religion can use Scientology.
Atomic: Do you feel a responsibility as a band and as Scientologists to inform people about it?
Ian: I think musicians have a responsibility as people look up to you. You get Charlie Parker and other jazz musicians who used drugs. Other people see Charlie Parker and think they need to use drugs. What they don’t realize is that without the drugs, Charlie Parker would have played a lot better, lived longer. Elvis would have been better, lived longer.
As a band we do want to help the swing scene. Like in some of the smaller towns—how do you say it—whistle stop towns. We play in a small town and they have the impression that swing isn’t doing well. The reason is you have a small area, and they used to have one swing club, maybe one band that everyone loved. Then the amount of people taking lessons starts growing. Then all of a sudden you have three bands. Then six clubs open swing nights. There’s not enough people to go to them. Then three weeks later they shut down. Then you are back to one club again. Then the newspapers think swing is dead. But what they don’t realize is that the one club from before is twice the size.
We surprised a lot of people. We played in a lot of clubs where they were thinking about stopping swing. And just because we played there, the place was packed. And it revitalized it.
Atomic: How do you compare the scene in Europe to the American swing scene?
Ian: It’s much smaller in Europe. There’s one jazz station in London, but they play latin, funk, jazz, cocktail. One hour a week they play good music. They started out as a purely jazz station, but that wasn’t getting enough listeners. In England and in Europe we are popular, but it’s outside of the swing scene. They play us on the radio, but it’s not as swing.
The reason it’s grown bigger here than in Europe is because of the communication and friendliness between all the groups. In Europe, like in Holland, say, you’d have three swing dance clubs and they’d all have different audiences in the same town and none of them knew each other. Whereas here [in New York], you’ve got the Internet, ATOMIC magazine, Yehoodi.com. People are in communication and discussing things. They may be arguing about who originated a dance but at least they are communicating.
That’s what I love about the scene in New York. Because you can play at the Supper Club. It looks like the Cotton Club. You’ve got a band dressed well on stage. They’re communicating and jumping around and full of energy, which most swing bands are. Obviously, we’re the most energetic! You’ve got girls dressed like an idealised version of Hollywood in the ’40s, all beautiful. All the guys look smart in suits and ties. Everybody’s dancing. Everybody’s putting on an act, but in a genuine way, being what they want to be. You walk into that, it’s a whole event.
It isn’t just like walking into a club and getting drunk, watching someone in a pair of blue jeans, thrashing out a guitar thing. It’s like a whole world. It’s like you create a world for the evening. I think it’s a beautiful thing.