Svetlana, the interview.

From East to West, the path of a jazz singer

Before getting to the delightful conversation with Jazz singer Svetlana: she comes to us with a gift – her newest track and the video released just TODAY from her new record – a swinging song “CHEEK TO CHEEK” from a movie Top Hat, featuring the star Wycliffe Gordon – where a couple of swing dance lovers dance their way through New York City! Enjoy!

If you want to get this track for yourself and include it in your swing dance playlist – get it here on your favorite digital platform! 

..and now onto the interview!

Svetlana Shmulyian Talks to JP from the LindyLobster. In this delightful conversation, we will get to know more about her and her career as a jazz singer, how she came to play for dancers, what made her move from Russia to the US and how that influenced her life as an artist. Finally we will have a look at her upcoming projects!

The Lindy Lobster:  Hello Svetlana! We are so excited to have you answer a few questions for us. So first, thank you very much for taking this time out of your schedule!   

Svetlana Shmulyian:  Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you!    

“I have listened to Jazz since I was a child – growing up in Soviet Russia it provided a welcome escape from often regimented reality”

Svetlana Shmulyian

TLL:  For the one that are not familiar with you, could you present yourself with a few words?

Svetlana:  A friend, a writer from New York based blog Lucid Culture / NY Daily has called me “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” meets “Some Like It Hot”  – and I think it describes the music I play pretty well!  We try to stay classy and timeless and present world class jazz experience linked to authentic jazz roots and traditions – while adding sizzle, spice, and youthful energy coming from hot jazz and swing tradition!  We want the music to affect your heart, your mind – and your feet!  

Svetlana and the Delancey Five – “Lady Be Good” (Official Music Video)

TLL:  We are of course very much into Swing here, eventually leading to quite a Jazzy crowd. You are, from my perspective as a Lindy Lobster, a confirmed Jazz singer. Our question will be in two parts, what got you into Jazz, and secondly, how does one come to play/sing for dancing crowds?

Svetlana:  Good to be confirmed – and I did not even have to pay $50,000 tuition, like I did when I got my Jazz School diploma!   But seriously – thank you!  It’s great to be part of the Lindy Lobster family! I have listened to Jazz since I was a child – growing up in Soviet Russia it provided a welcome escape from often regimented reality, with it’s freedom of expression, exciting vocalizing and scatting, beautiful melodies and engaging grooves that made you want to dance and move!   The songs also told stories that were both familiar and exotic – it drew my imagination into the lands I thought I would never have a chance to visit!   

When I moved to New York I started playing as a guest vocalist with various jazz groups until I finally stumbled upon the swing dance scene, first as casual attendee of swing dance events, where I got to dance with 70-80 year old gentlemen who embodied the traditions of Swing from Harlem Ballrooms – and then as featured vocalist of a couple of swing bands – and finally as a band leader.

My first exposure to the swing dance scene of the late 90s was when I just moved to New York and witnessed these incredible old-timers dancing swing at Irving Plaza to a big band – it was like being transported to a different time, the one I imagined while listening to old jazz records in my Moscow apartment, I was hooked!  When the movie Great Gatsby came out in 2013, the old-timers were still around, but the craze spilled over into the general population and a younger crowd emerged—dressing the part, looking ever so stylish!

What made a huge difference in my playing for swing dancers more consistently was stumbling upon my weekly show at the Back Room Speakeasy – an authentic secret Prohibition era speakeasy on New York’s Lower East side –  where the alcohol is still consumed from tea cups, as they did during Prohibition era and there is a secret hidden entrance and a password is required to enter!  The venue is a former hidden speakeasy behind the restaurant established in the beginning of the 19th century on Delancey Street – and this is where the band got its name from, Svetlana & The Delancey Five!

I am really grateful to the New York Swing Dance scene that stormed in to support the night – these were the people of today, of the ‘here and now,’ who were attracted by the beauty, dancing, and, to a degree, the escapism of it all. They were the first consistent supporters of the band, and I have learned so much from them about playing specifically for dancers. Being a band leader of this show for the last seven years, I have also met many jazz musicians who play for dancers. Once the band was established at the Back Room Speakeasy other gigs followed and we started to play for swing dancers all over the United States and abroad.  It’s always a blast!

TLL: Is it different to play for a dancing crowd than it is for others?

Svetlana: Yes and no!

Swing is one of the core elements of jazz – it is the basic rhythmic attitude of jazz. When a whole band is swinging, everyone is listening to and balancing with one another while still expressing their unique personalities – and the audience can’t help but to move to the music (whether they are dancing or grooving in their seats).

This means that we have to be excellent musicians, first and foremost, in any situation: listening to each other, listening to and feeding from the audience’s energy and creating a high quality, exciting musical experience.

However there are some differences. When playing in a concert hall auditorium, you main goal is to be a story-teller, you focus on the form and arch of the song to express the feeling and the story behind it (while playing the music with skill of course!).

But when playing for dancers, the story-telling aspect is not as prominent and a bit more theatrical and superficial – while we focus more on groove and danceability! This means that when playing for dancers, we have to make sure that we mix in appropriate tempos (depending on the group level and preference), that we mind the length of the songs, that we play songs of different genres (swing, jump blues), focus on styles that are more danceable (than, say, a torch jazz ballad) – and so on!

From the band’s point of view, it is really an exhilarating experience to play for dancers who listen to the music ‘actively’ with their bodies and their feet! In a way they become part of the music-making experience, they are performers just as the band is – we ‘erase’ this superficial ‘third wall’ between the stage and the audience, and, in the best case, truly become one.

One thing is the same though whether playing for dancers or for listener-oriented performances – we always dress sharp and wear shiny glittery objects! 🙂

TLL: You grew up in Russia and later developed as an artist in the US. That must have been a challenging path. Would you say this has helped you as an artist? And could you tell us about what this brings to your work? For example your latest project, Night at the Movies.

Svetlana: Jazz is an uniquely American genre, with its roots in both African and European culture and music – and is deeply rooted in the African-American experience, a feeling of struggle and a desire for freedom. Listening to the music when I was a child was both exotic but also expressed the kind of yearning for better times, something that folks growing up behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union could relate to, albeit in their own unique way.

Svetlana as a child.

Coming to the US as an immigrant had its difficulties and struggles – but a huge reward was being closer to the source of the music I loved so much.  So when an opportunity presented itself to take part in this music scene as a band leader and musician, I took it on with intensity and drive that, in part, came from not taking it for granted.  I suppose this is the story and the attitude of every immigrant, every outsider, every person who had to struggle to achieve anything, is not it?

My first album, Night at the Speakeasy, is a tribute to hot jazz and swing which grew out of playing the Speakeasy night at the Back Room – I turned more retrospective (and introspective) on my second record, Night at the Movies. I’ve carried love for the movies and their music, which have accompanied me throughout my life, and wanted to make a record that would bridge the visual and sonic expressions of the genre. I searched for songs that span over the last 100 years (early classics, animated flicks, French New Wave, Soviet cinema, a 2018 Oscar winner, the essential 80s movie — songs by Legrand, Berlin, Newman, the Bergmans), yet remain relevant and speak to me personally.

The listener will find songs to dance to – but also to chill to on a cold autumn afternoon – and the songs I’ve chosen are quite dissimilar, yet fit impeccably on the same record, because just like in the movies, each one tells its own story, albeit in a more symbolic way, elevating it beyond specific characters and plots. I discovered that songs I love carried one common theme — dreaming — both expressing my love for the night and its mysteries, as well as reflecting the yearning for something more, escaping from unwanted realities through imagination and optimism, and persevering despite all odds. Film and music both express a fleeting beauty; they are the art forms that exist and affect us in the moment. There is a mystery to the silver light coming out of a movie projector, splitting the dark room in two, and taking you on a journey — the way music and the movies overcame me inside Moscow’s movie theaters as a child. The same way I am moved by them today.

TLL: Duke Ellington once said: “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” I’ll bounce off that and ask you: Have you got any spicy story to tell us about those late jazzy nights in sultry New York City?

Svetlana: O-la-la! This girl never kisses and tells! You will have to visit me at my “office” in the Back Room prohibition era speakeasy where I play on Monday nights and see for yourself! When you visit, try to access the super secret place behind the book shelf…

TLL: While we might not be as naughty as an American crowd, we would still be a pleasant crowd to play for! You are busy touring this summer with Svetlana & The Delancey Five, but is there any chance you will come to Europe afterwards? I’m sure many here would love to dance on your music!

Svetlana: It is very disappointing to hear about the lack of naughtiness from a man with the name Jean-Pierre – seen here from New York, we think of French people as naughty! Seriously, I would love to visit Europe to play for dancers! I played for dancers in Israel and Italy – and I found European audiences to be eager to hear authentic New York City swing! Members of my band come from all boroughs of our exciting city – Harlem where a lot of Swing Music was born and played in 1920s, Brooklyn which is now home to a great number of Jazz musicians, and more!

I would love to bring this authentic grooving swinging exploding energy to swing dance floors of Europe, and far beyond – and experience the energy of the European swing dance community for myself!

The audiences I play for here in New York (especially the Back Room Speakeasy show!)  come from all over the world, including some dancers from Europe – every Monday it’s a party here! And you see, while the entry to the venue is free, when adding an airplane ticket, it becomes a costly adventure for a Parisian fan to hear Svetlana play! I just want to make it easy for the people to get what they want, you know? So yes, I’d love to to to Europe play! 
Seriously though, my favorite thing in the world is to travel, explore new places, while playing music!  It would be a dream come true to play more for European dancers and listeners!

TLL: For the ones eager to know more about you and your music, are there any websites, videos or playlists to recommend?  

Svetlana: I think your dancers would enjoy seeing videos of some outdoor flashmob performances that we were part of!
This one is a Times Square Swing dance flashmob which I organized for several years where dozens of dancers descended on Times Square and enjoyed music and dancing in the heart of New York City:

This one is a volunteer-based event on NYC subway/Metro – when we play on the trains and platforms when Vintage Trains from 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s are used for a limited time in New York subway during Christmas. It’s quite a spectacle – and always a super fun event! Lady Be Good (Official Music Video):

Here is a cute video, my tribute to Ella and Louis and their Verve Records recordings – featuring the amazing Wycliffe Gordon on vocals and trombone!  Under a Blanket of Blue (ft. Wycliffe Gordon)

This web site will tell you more about the band: http://svetlanajazz.com/delanceyfive

And my instagram page is a place to get more up to date snapshot of what I am up to! www.instagram.com/svetlanajazz

TLL: Perfect! A huge thank you, Svetlana, for taking the time, and giving us a sneak peek into your world! I have to say, I am a big fan of those childhood pictures of yours, it really felt like we sat down by the fireside and we got taken through the family’s photo album!

Svetlana’s new record – Night at the movies is coming out on the 20th of Septembre 2019, Stay tuned!

If you have questions for Svetlana or would like to get more swing music for your playlists, email her svetlanajazz@gmail.com !

If you have an idea of interview or article that you would like to publish here on LindyLobster.com, get in touch now!

Interview of Svetlana Shmulyian led by JP for the LindyLobster.com – All right reserved © 2019

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