Scott Bradlee fell in love with Jazz as a 12-year-old living in New Jersey, then went on to study music at the University of Hartford, returning to his New York birthplace to join the flourishing Jazz scene.
He found success as a performer, but in 2009 he discovered his calling when he began rearranging Pop hits as Jazz numbers and then conceived “Hello My Ragtime ’80s,” which reimagined ’80s songs as Scott Joplin-era rags. Videos Bradlee and his friends shot for the project went viral (assisted by a tweet from renowned author Neil Gaiman).
Bradlee's first album in this vein, 2012's Mashups by Candlight, was quickly followed by A Motown Tribute to Nickelback, which was exactly as advertised. The Nickelback-as-R&B collective was the foundation for what ultimately became Postmodern Jukebox, Bradlee's rotating cast of vocalists and musicians that performs his flawless Jazz arrangements of songs by everyone from Miley Cyrus, Drake and Lorde to The White Stripes and Radiohead.
Over the past five years, Bradlee and PMJ’s numerous albums and songs have hovered around the upper echelon of the charts. PMJ’s YouTube channel generates millions of views, helping to draw thousands of slavish fans to its concerts across the globe.
During its rise, PMJ has featured an incredible roll call of talent, many of whom, like Robyn Adele Anderson and Haley Reinhart, have used the band as a springboard to success outside the project. But as newcomer Dani Armstrong explains, when you're in Postmodern Jukebox, you're in for life.
"The special thing about PMJ is that no one ever really leaves," Armstrong says as she prepares for the group's sixth tour in the past year. "It's such a family-based performance company that everyone is always coming back. We just did a PBS special that will be shown to millions around the world (beginning in November) and a lot of (past PMJ singers) came in for that. We played Radio City Music Hall last year and a lot of people came in for that.
“I was contemplating doing this other job for awhile and our manager, Jaron Lowenstein, said, 'We just want PMJ to be part of your story on your way to the most success you could possibly have.' I thought that was so cool. People do their own albums and tours, but it's a family environment and you're never really out of the family." (The PBS special, filmed at a show in Las Vegas, will also be released as a DVD and an album — the group's first live one — titled The New Classics, which releases Nov. 17.)
Armstrong joined PMJ last July with an impressive résumé in hand. A Detroit native with a musician father and an opera singer/music education mother, Armstrong was recruited in high school by the Young Americans, a California-based performance group that travels extensively to promote music education and the re-funding of local school districts. Armstrong had already applied at the University of Michigan and New York University, but withdrew her applications to join the Young Americans.
"They've got the top professors and instructors, so it's kind of like going to college for four years but at the same time doing an outreach program," Armstrong says. "It was a high-level industry education, but also giving back. My parents were like typical parents. They said, 'Go ahead, Dani, run off to join the circus for one year.' I've been out here for like 18 years."
After the Young Americans, Armstrong joined the Perfect Angels, a performance group that entertained overseas troops; she wound up doing six tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, performing in forward-operating bases where they often worked on makeshift plywood stages in dangerous situations. Armstrong then worked in a variety of Las Vegas stage productions and formed a ’90s AltRock cover band called Jack Dani. Two years ago, Armstrong was singing in a production called Top Rock when a rehearsal video of her version of "Natural Woman" went viral.
"It was 10 in the morning when our choreographer filmed that — of course it's when you're in your pajamas with your hair in a bun that 30 million people see you," she says with a laugh. "I'm just the girl in the skull pajamas now."
Through a musician who became a friend because of the Top Rock video, Armstrong was invited to sing a song at a popular restaurant/lounge in Beverly Hills. PMJ manager Lowenstein happened to catch Armstrong's contribution that evening, then went to great lengths to contact her.
"He had to call the restaurant owner who called the venue owner who called the venue manager who called the bandleader who called the bass player who knew me," Armstrong says. "Somehow by 9 a.m. the next morning he found my email address to ask me if I wanted to be in Postmodern Jukebox."
For the last 15 months, Armstrong has been a PMJ fixture singing other vocalists' songs, such as her operatic Latin Tango version of Sia's "Chandelier,” borrowed from PMJ stalwart clown Puddles Pity Party. She finally did a YouTube video for Bradlee's stunning slow-burn arrangement of Weezer's "Say It Ain't So," which is right in Armstrong and PMJ’s '90s AltRock wheelhouse and will be part of the fall tour's set list.
"I've sort of become the Jessica Rabbit/torch ballad/lounge singer/I'm-not-bad-I'm-just-drawn-that-way girl. I have fluorescent red hair, and I think that's where it comes from," Armstrong says. "Scott kind of did things backward with me. He had me doing shows with PMJ before I even did a YouTube video, which I take as high praise and him having some faith in me. I said in an Instagram post yesterday, 'I have no idea how I got so lucky to be in the group, but Scott, I know exactly why you're a superstar.' He is just infinitely talented."
Bradlee builds some flexibility into the Postmodern Jukebox set list in case someone from the group's past stops in for a surprise cameo, which can happen anywhere. For Armstrong, the best part of being in PMJ is the live experience.
"There is nothing pre-recorded, nothing fake or phony. It's 100 percent real music," she says. "Our lighting designers are doing lights live. It's an authentic live music experience, which if you look at the industry today is not the norm. Every single night, everything happens in that moment live. Scott has raised the standard for performers. He's said, 'We can do this, so let's do this.' We get this extraordinary talent on stage every night and create an authentically live show."
POSTMODERN JUKEBOX comes to the Taft Theatre for a Halloween night concert on Tuesday, Oct.31. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.