Imagine yourself in a 1950’s diner, with a juke box jumping, playing a hit parade – one great song after another: “Autumn Leaves,” “S’wonderful,” “Bill Bailey,” “Just Squeeze Me,” “Anything Goes,” “It’s a Good Day,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” and so on. That’s what it’s like listening to Jennifer Keith’s new CD, Live Aboard the Queen Mary. All of a sudden you’re transported to the time of hula hoops, swing skirts, wedges and pumps, driving around in a Buick Roadmaster or a Pontiac Chiefton, with the radio blaring post-war, “feel-good” songs, sung by Connie Francis, Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford, and Peggy Lee.
Jennifer lives in this world. She and her fiancé drive classic cars, their home is decorated with ‘50s furniture, and her performance attire is made up of vintage clothing – mostly the real deal, with the very occasional reproduction, if it’s going to be stuffed into suitcases and taken on a long road trip. Even her shoes are vintage, because her feet are small enough to fit into the actual shoes of the era.
Her desire to sing the music of this period goes back to her high school days, when she was studying musical theatre at the Orange County High School of the Arts. Her father, TV director/writer/actor Thom Keith, gave her a box of CDs of music he had been using in commercials he directed. Among them were recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, singing songs Jennifer recognized from her musical theatre studies… Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin, Porter, etc.
However, her urge to perform is in her blood. Her great-great-great-grandfather was part of an act called Keith and King (“A little bit of Irish and a wee bit of Scotch”). Her great-great-grandfather, B.F. Keith, was the “K” in RKO. He was not involved in filmmaking, but did provide talent for the radio. Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO) grew out of the vaudeville talent provided by the two biggest vaudeville circuits – the Keith Circuit and the Orpheum Circuit -- for the early radio shows. Her mother, Celeste, is a stage actress, particularly known for her work in Pasadena and Long Beach. (Her mother met her father when he was directing her in a show.) But it was her grandfather, Frank Keith, who was noted for his Al Jolson tributes in the ‘40s, who taught Jennifer the old slapstick routines and jokes, who no doubt put the young girl on her path to performing.
When she was 19, Jennifer met Mando Dorame, the tenor saxophonist and co-founder of The Royal Crowne Revue (a band who is credited with reviving the swing movement). She was in college and he tutored her in music theory. They started dating. He created a trio (bass, guitar and sax) to back her, and they started performing. Jennifer says she learned how to sing with musicians while performing in the sandwich bar at a place called the Tam O’Shanter in Los Feliz – literally singing for sandwiches!
Eventually, she joined the Royal Crowne Revue, and toured all over the world. In 2010, they traveled to Egypt as a guest of the State Department, in a brief revival of the cultural ambassador program that was so successful in the 1960s – when Diz, Duke, Satch, and Brubeck, among others, traveled the world as jazz ambassadors. They played at the Cairo Jazz Festival, went to Alexandria and played at The Library, did a few clinics with elementary school kids (which included a big jam session with the kids), saw the Pyramids, and Jennifer even rode a camel!
From 2010 to 2013, the newly-formed Jennifer Keith Quintet performed regularly at the Observation Lounge aboard the Queen Mary (where her CD was recorded-- the first recording ever made there, as a matter of fact!). The band featured Mando on sax, Mark Cally on guitar, David Miller on bass, and drummer Paul Lines (who is the founder of the Pasadena Jazz Institute, and has just moved to Thailand). They left the Queen to take a residency at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, where they remained for 2 ½ years.
There’s a little something for everyone in the band’s repertoire. Swing, rockabilly, blues, bossa nova, and straight ahead jazz. They even perform some original material, inspired by the sounds of the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Now back in southern California with their new drummer, Gareth Price, they play every third Wednesday at Vibrato in Bel Air, and often at the Sky Room in Long Beach. In fact, they have a gig there at the Sky Room on Friday, June 23rd. (There’s no cover, and there’s a big, 1920’s dance floor.) For all the Quintet’s upcoming shows, visit www.jenniferkeith.com.