The rootsy jazz sound of The Hot Jazz Jumpers goes back. Way back.
Growing up, guitarist Nick Russo used to jam with his grandfather, a sideman for legendary jazz great Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. His grandfather also played with band leader Spike Jones.
Russo, who performs with his band The Hot Jazz Jumpers Friday night at Live on the Levee in Charleston, said, “What was funny was that I was studying jazz guitar, learning about Charlie Parker, Joe Henderson and John Coltrane, and my grandfather would tell me to check out ‘Five Foot Two’ and all these old tunes.”
At the time, the banjo player, guitarist and bandleader said he was so focused on modern jazz. But it’s funny how much those old jam sessions and what his grandfather told him influenced what he does now.
Based in New York City, Russo said, “I play just about every night with a different band.”
A lot of these bands play 1920s jazz, New Orleans music and music whose heyday was in the first half of the 20th Century.
“Whenever I go out, there’s always a new song to learn,” he said.
Russo formed the Hot Jazz Jumpers with singer/dancer Betina Hershey around a decade ago. Hershey remembered picking up an old fakebook with easier versions of early 20th Century music when she was in fourth grade, picking out pieces from the pages and learning the music.
Her career, however, leaned more toward acting, dance and theater. She was in Disney’s “Enchanted” and “Mona Lisa Smile” and was part of national and international tours of Broadway shows. But when swing dancing made its resurgence in the 1990s, she said she was drawn to it.
“I was going out, dancing, checking out bands and just having a great time,” she said.
At some point, she and Russo met, became a couple and moved in together. The band came later, but was based on their mutual appreciation of the music of the time.
“What I like about that music is, it’s so bouncy,” Hershey said. “A lot of that music came up through the Great Depression, so it was upbeat.”
Some of it was also raunchy, she laughed.
Russo said, “The melodies are so strong, so singable and just so well constructed.”
Most of the songs aren’t terribly difficult to learn. Working with different musicians on different nights, some of the music he’s picked up over the years, he learned while at the show.
“You’d have one guy feed you the melody and you’d learn as you went,” he said.
Sometimes, Russo goes back and looks at the original sheet music. He has a 90-year-old musician friend who will help him find songs out of print.
“There’s a really great community built around this music,” Hershey said. “It’s really based around the dancing.”
“And a simpler life,” Russo added. “Some people make it kind of a lifestyle.”
For the show on Friday night at Live on the Levee, Hershey said they were looking forward to having a couple of local dancers, Mary Louise King and Jim Wallace, join them to do some swing dancing.
Hershey said she might even jump out there, if she can fit it in with her singing.
“It might be too good not to,” she said.
“We always have a good time,” Russo said. “People always tell us that we look like we’re having so much fun.”
They really are, he said.