Blogarrhea: Exclusive Interview With Svetlana of Svetlana & The Delancey Five
Right off Delancey Street on the Lower East Side Of New York City stands a bar called The Back Room that used to host such notorious criminals as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. It was during prohibition and the room served illegal booze. It's still there. Svetlana & The Delancey Five have been holding court Mondays for the last four years. Their Night At The Speakeasy (Origin/OA2 Records) is one of the best jazz CDs of the year.
Blogarrhea: Who thought of this kind of sound for you? It's hot jazz from the 1920s! Boardwalk Empire music!
Svetlana: Yes, on into the swing era of the 1930s too. Both coasts now seem to be experiencing a revival. [Bandleader] Vince Giordano has a lot to do with that. I understand it went through a similar revival in the '90s and now we're taking it and adding our own thing. We are riding this wave of hot jazz and swing.
Blogarrhea: I love the "Lady Be Good" video in the subway.
Svetlana: That's a nostalgia swing dance party train that some dancer friends of ours invited us to. They've been doing this for over three years. It's crazy! It always happens around Christmas when the MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] gets its vintage trains up and running. The swing dancers pick a day. There's no cover. You just have to have a subway token to get on the train. Or a Metro card. There's bands playing in the station from morning to dinner time. Several select bands-and we were lucky to be part of it-get invited on the subway cars that run straight to the MTA museum.
Blogarrhea: It's all too cool, as is the venue you've been packing the people in just off Delancey Street, The Back Room, which used to be, during prohibition, a real speakeasy where gangsters went.
Svetlana: It's been four years since we started those shows there. Like a lot of things that happen in this town, I got the gig by just walking down the street. I had a gig with my band at this other place but they said, "sorry. We're closed tonight. We forgot to tell you." So I was walking down the street, peeking my head into venues, and saying, "hey, I have a band, I have 20 people coming. You want us?" That's how I met the manager and the bartender of the Back Room who happened to be looking for a band to start a vintage Monday night series and we've been playing there ever since. In the '80s, they refurbished it and called it the Lansky Lounge. Then it was bought again and renamed The Back Room in the '90s.
Blogarrhea: Tell me about Russia.
Svetlana: I was born and raised in Moscow, having caught the tail end of the Soviet time where access to Western music was still regulated by the government, but leaked in anyway. I remember I did have a bunch of records by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday which I played on the family record player. Plus, I was able to discover Nina Simone at our local library. Then I fell in love with syncopated rhythms which are not exactly part of Russian culture. I must say, though, that traditional Russian music has beautiful melodies and orchestrations but it certainly wasn't jazz! And I got carried away with jazz at a young age. I was so enchanted with Duke Ellington and "Porgy & Bess" that it stayed with me my whole life, not unlike American jazz musicians of today who will basically tell you the same thing.
Growing up in a family of engineers, I was forced into picking a practical education. I started studying mathematics but continued my real education in jazz, especially when I was a foreign exchange student in New York. I was so young, and I was happy where I was to be honest, but when the chance to study at The New School in New York fell in my lap, I realized how lucky I was.
Blogarrhea: How was it when you first arrived on our shores?
Svetlana: I remember it like it was yesterday. I don't want to be overly dramatic but it's the scene in Brooklyn where she's stepping through a door, and there's this light. You see her silhouette. That was me. I had this one old leather suitcase and my guitar. I had a frying pan in my bag that my mother insisted I take. It was August in New York, the most beautiful time of year. Some of the autumnal coolness was setting in. That's when it hit me: "oh my god, I'm in New York." Everybody was friendly and wonderful and I was listening to all kinds of music for the first time every day. I landed in the East Village and was having such a ball. It took while but I finally got the courage up to pursue it for myself.
Blogarrhea: So you worked hard, met the right people, but, still, if you didn't have the kind of raw talent you possess, things might have turned out differently.
Svetlana: It's very kind of you to say but a lot of it is also how bad you want it. Growing up where I did, how I did, then coming here, I had a hunger to just not give up and not to take no for an answer. I was and still am, so enchanted with this music, so in love with it, that my passion for it comes through. It's like a drug. I can't get enough.