Swing is alive and kicking in the 21st century. For proof, check out The Swingaroos – a sizzling sextet, comprising some of New York City’s finest swing players. It’s the brainchild of lyricist and lead vocalist, Kimberly Hawkey and pianist and composer, Assaf Gleizner. Their band has been a sure-fire crowd-pleaser in a long string of Florida Studio Theatre Cabaret productions, including Hollywood Serenade and The Music of the Night. Their latest revue is The Uptown Lowdown. Hawkey and Gleizner were cooking it up – when quarantine stopped the music. Thanks to a call from FST, they started cooking again, as part of The Playwrights Project. Here’s a glimpse inside their musical kitchen:
When you’re building a show, how do you two work together? I imagine it’s a musical conversation with occasional shouting matches.
Assaf: No, there’s no shouting. Our collaborative process is pretty easy. We’ve reached the point where we complete each other’s musical sentences. We’ll brainstorm an idea… If one of us goes off the path, the other person gently brings them back. We focus on the music itself, not somebody’s ego. And we don’t go for lazy shtick. If a song goes into a revue, there has to be a good reason. “Oooh this song is so nice” is not a good reason. Throughout the process, we constantly have to stop and ask ourselves: “Does this song really belong in the revue? Why?”
Kimberly: Assaf has such a theatrical mind as a musician. It’s rare to find a pianist and composer with such a good grasp of storytelling. As an accompanist, he’s my favorite pianist to sing with. He anticipates my phrasing – the feeling I’m trying to create. Other pianists wouldn’t know in advance if I’m going to hold my breath here, or draw out a note on a certain word. He always knows.
Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
Kimberly: I don’t even know! Songwriting is such a strange art form. It’s different for everyone — and it’s even different for us every time. Sometimes, Assaf will create a musical phrase, and then I’ll write to it. Or I’ll give him the lyrics, and the tune will follow. The process is never exactly the same.
How do you find the right balance between your original songs, and selections from the Great American Songbook?
Kimberly: We go back and forth a lot. When we started The Swingaroos, we mostly did our original music – with a few covers of forgotten songs that we thought were pretty cool. We started performing more standards, after finding out how deeply people loved them. We love them, too! There’s a magic to these old songs. The classics leave a ghost behind – a thread of humanity that people can share in. We try to express that magic, but still create some magic of our own.
Assaf: Even when we are performing these “old songs,” it doesn’t mean we do it the same old way. Our arrangements are never lazy covers. We always try to take an original approach – and put a Swingaroos’ spin on the classics. Or take a contemporary tune and arrange it in a Swing style.
How do you choose your instrumentalists?
Kimberly: I have an entire list of musicians to call. I’ll start at the top and work my way down to see who’s available. (Please don’t ask me who’s at the top.)
Let’s talk about The Uptown Lowdown. What’s the concept?
Kimberly: We’re exploring the legacy of the American supper club. There’s so much musical history there. It ranges from early saloons, where people listened to Ragtime, to nightclubs like Sardi’s and the Copacabana, which blossomed in the Big Band and Swing eras, and faded away in the 1960s.
What’s the source of the title?
Kimberly: It comes from a tune by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel – who wrote it for a movie called Broadway Through a Keyhole.
I thought Irving Berlin wrote that.
Assaf: No, but it sounds like he did. That’s no accident! As an arranger, I know exactly what’s going on. It’s a sound-alike. A knock-off of “Putting on the Ritz.” The movie producer probably said, “We can’t afford the rights. Write me a tune that sounds just like it, but make sure we don’t get sued.”
How’d you get involved with The Playwrights Project?
Kimberly: Catherine Randazzo, an Associate Artist at FST, reached out to us. Assaf and I had been talking about this idea before the pandemic. When she told us about this opportunity, and we jumped on it.
You guys always look amazing in your 1940s finery. Who designs your wardrobe?
Kimberly: The Internet! I have a few secret online retailers. It probably takes me 40 hours of research to find the perfect vintage outfits at a low cost. I always stick with knock-offs. Authentic pieces cost a fortune – and you’d ruin them over the run of a show.
Assaf – You’re an Israeli immigrant who’s fallen in love with American music. I also understand that you’ve created a support system for other immigrant artists – a website called Arts for Immigrants. What’s the genesis?
Assaf: It all started when I heard an interview on NPR. Ken Cuccinelli, the director of USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), mangled the words to The New Colossus — the poem by Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statue of Liberty. He said something like, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and not become a public charge.” I knew Irving Berlin had set the real words to music, and also wrote “God Bless America.” I wrote an arrangement combining the two. But then I decided to do more – and created the website in order to build a community of immigrant artists throughout America.
How can our FST community support that community?
You can donate on Patreon, sponsor an immigrant, or ask for a commission. These artists are hungry to create – and they will deliver the goods.
Kimberly Hawkey is a vocalist, lyricist, bandleader, and the co-founder of The Swingaroos Territory Band. She’s inspired by the musical legacy of the 20th century. Hawkey shares the source of her inspiration with fresh arrangements of Jazz, Folk, and Swing classics.
Assaf Gleizner collaborates with Hawkey as The Swingaroos’ pianist, composer, and arranger. He’s written songs for a long string of improbable musical adaptations of hit TV shows, including Friends, The Office, and Beverly Hills, 90210. He’s also the founder of Arts for Immigrants. To support this organization, visit Patreon Donations.