Jazz Fest Preview: The Rhythm Rockets Bring Old School Music to New School Crowds
Dave Downer talks about holding together a big band in the shrinking world of retro rock.
Dave Downer doesn't mind if you call The Rhythm Rockets a dictatorship. If you ask him, that's just what it takes to preserve the old-school stylings of big band and swing in one group for 14 years running.
Downer, the band leader and guitarist, organized The Rhythm Rockets back in 1996 with a specific mission in mind. In its current form, the band features Nicole Kestler as the sultry lead vocalist; Mark Fornek on drums; Jeff Snyder, Mike Bielecki and Ron Dulin rounding out the horn section with their saxophones and Michael Quiroz on bass. Keeping seven musicians all on the same page can be tough, but having a vision is helpful.
"From day one, I had a path I wanted to take with the band and kept on that path," Downer said. When the band considers a new song or cover, "the final say is usually me."
Along with vision comes image. Downer picks up cool vintage ties at thrift stores and makes sure all the musicians have the rights shoes to go with their snazzy suits. The result is a dazzling showcase for the band's tight musical chops.
"There's an image, and from day one, I always embraced that," Downer said. "We try to dress the part. We try to show people, or give them an experience of what it would have been like 60 years ago. Back then, they all dressed to the nines."
Though Downer had been playing retro tunes before forming The Rhythm Rockets, there was always something missing.
"There's something about oldies bands that are just bizarre. They're middle-aged people who are trying to relive their childhood and play songs and be rock stars at the corner bar. It wasn't very fulfilling," Downer said.
When he found a way to meld his love of the blues with the early days of rock and roll, he got that satisfaction he was seeking.
Back in the '90s, The Rhythm Rockets benefited from a popular resurgence in swing music. Unfortunately for them, the nostalgia has become somewhat myopic, with a fetish for tape recordings taking over the love of vinyl among the younger crowd.
"I just happened to put a band together and within six months my phone was ringing off the hook and we were playing five nights a week at every swing event in the area. People were throwing money at you. It was crazy! And then about five, six years ago, it wasn't crazy anymore," Downer said. "Green Dolphin closed. We used to play at Frankie's in Naperville every Wednesday for nine years. Now their swing night has 20 people and a DJ. It just isn't there anymore."
But just because things aren't "crazy" anymore doesn't mean you can't catch The Rhythm Rockets doing their thing. Along with being one of the three headliners at the first annual Jazz and Blues festival in La Grange Park on July 24, the band plays in the area on a fairly regular basis.
"We play next door, in Brookfield... every other month," Downer noted of their gigs at the jazz club known as the Salt Creek Wine Bar. "It's a small place. The band is really too big to play there, but we squeeze in and everyone seems to enjoy it. And it's right next to La Grange."
And, The Rhythm Rockets are playing a whole slew of outdoor festivals this summer. Downer likes the exposure they bring to the band.
"It's about being in front of a new audience so that people see you. [The festivals] are always well-attended because they're free," he said. "We try to bring what we do at the nightclub out."
Getting out of the dark clubs and into the sunshine means more than a change in the price of admission. Downer said the festivals give him the opportunity to demonstrate to kids the rockin' range of classic musical instruments.
"When I was in band in high school, if I knew that this was what you could do with a saxophone, I would have picked up the sax. A lot of kids, if they just see a guy standing behind a music stand tooting a horn, they don't care. But when they see a sax player out there on his knees, blazing away like Eddie Van Halen, then they're like, 'Wow, that's a cool instrument.' Or the guy with the stand-up base. He's slapping it, and he's standing on it or spinning it and people say, 'Oh, that's much better than doing it with a bow.' So it's something the kids will enjoy too," Downer said.
Downer, a father of six children ranging in age from one-and-a-half years old to 28 years old, knows that the capacity for loving music comes early.
His youngest boy has been playing the drums since age eight, and he's just signed up for sax lessons.
"He's got music in him," Downer said with a smile. "And we found out that my daughter, who's one and a half, she's got it in her too. Because when she comes out and sees us at some of the outdoor things, she's screaming and dancing. And she sees her dad up there playing and she just loves music."