Review: Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox at The Birchmere

My regular readers know that I had to take a break from blogging for a few weeks, both due to changing jobs and the holidays. So it seems fitting that I return to regular writing with a piece about a band that embodies one of the key virtues of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog: that somewhat hard-to-define Italian quality known as “sprezzatura”, which Castiglione writes of so glowingly in his “Book of the Courtier”. For as I discovered last evening at The Birchmere, musician and arranger Scott Bradlee has that quality in spades, as indeed do his friends who make up the members of Postmodern Jukebox.

For those unfamiliar with Bradlee and his band, PMJ takes modern pop songs and arranges them into different musical styles – whether Prohibition-Era or ’50’s Jazz, Classic Country or Motown. The right performer is selected for the right arrangement of the song, and a video of the result is then released on YouTube for us to enjoy. It is smart, it is sometimes infinitely better than the original, e.g. the entire auto-tuned Miley Cyrus catalogue, and it is FUN.

Last evening’s performance at The Birchmere in Alexandria was fun from the start. The show included elements like silly jokes combining contemporary life and nostalgia, such as Facebook Messenger in the style of a 1940’s radio show ad, and when Bradlee himself came out on stage for the first time, he sat down at the piano and began playing the theme music to Super Mario Brothers. It was also a pleasure to see not only the performers themselves dressed stylishly for an evening performance – no torn jeans or tats in sight – but to see many members of the audience dressed up themselves, in suits and ties, evening dresses, and even a few tuxedos here and there in the crowd.

The energy in the room did not lag one moment during the entire evening, something very rare indeed at any concert, particularly for one that was almost three hours long and standing room only. We were informed that the sold-out show that evening was the largest PMJ has played so far on their current tour. One could easily believe that the audiences will grow even larger, and the sold-out shows more frequent, the more this band becomes known.

Returning to where we started, “sprezzatura” can be understood as the art of making things look effortless. Castiglione advocated that the gentlemen and ladies who read his book study hard, and learn as much as possible, but then make their work seem easy. Given the extraordinary range of talent on display last evening, there were no doubt countless hours of lessons, practice sessions, rehearsals, and so forth which lead each of the performers to the point where they could entertain a large audience for several hours. Yet what struck me was the quiet, effortless confidence of those on stage. They know they are good at what they do, but are never pretentious about it: they are having a great time, and they want you to have a great time as well.

In particular, Scott Bradlee himself was something of a revelation. I already admired Bradlee’s inventiveness as well as his skills as a pianist. There are some piano phrases in the PMJ recordings of “Call Me Maybe” and “All About That Bass” that I would go back and watch repeatedly to try to get a sense of what he was doing with his fingering and phrasing. As a classically trained pianist who gave up on the instrument at 18 after my last recital, I could appreciate the technical skill on display, even if I could not reproduce it myself.

What surprised me a great deal last evening was that Bradlee was not the bandleader insisting on hogging the limelight fr himself. In fact not only did he not emcee, as I had expected he would, but he did not say one word until about 2/3 of the way through the concert. He was there to play, and to make his fellow musicians look good, but he was clearly not interested in having the spotlight for himself for any longer than was necessary, no matter how much he clearly deserved it given his genius. And that characterization is backed up by moments such as when, probably to no notice at all from most, Bradlee unexpectedly slipped in a quote of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as a background bridge in the middle of a song, or took suggestions from the audience and on the spot created a jazz mash-up of songs from Queen, Frank Sinatra, Beyonce, and George Michael, combining them into a song of his own invention.

PMJ are beginning the European tour shortly, and those of my readers on the other side of the pond would do well to avail themselves of the opportunity to see these incredible musicians. You will come away not only impressed, but you will also have a great deal of fun. And you will have an excuse, should you choose to take advantage of it, to dress up and go out to a concert for an evening, maybe do a little dancing with the one you love – like adults used to do, before the culture decided that being an adult was something bad. It’s terrific to see musicians and indeed an audience with a greater appreciation for the music, style, and fun that our grandparents’ generation had, while not abandoning the music of today.

Frankly, I can’t WAIT to see PMJ again in concert, next time they return to DC.


Postmodern Jukebox last evening at The Birchmere


The Winning Entry: A Gracious Mentor

Tomorrow being the official 3rd birthday of this blog, today I am publishing the winning entry from this year’s Blog of the Courtier Birthday Contest.  My regular readers will know that I asked entrants to submit examples of people who exemplify the ideal of “sprezzatura”, that effortless graciousness that the patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, extolled in his “Book of the Courtier”.  I received numerous entries, too many to acknowledge individually, but want to thank all of you for taking the time to sit down and write.  Not only were all the entries I received good examples of living individuals who embody some aspect of sprezzatura, but I am also pleased to see that this virtue is not yet entirely dead in our society.

The winning entry came from Jake P., whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person but have met through Twitter, where he tweets under the moniker of UCCowboy.  If you are a fellow blogger, gentle reader, or if you have an interest in some topic and would like to meet more people with whom to discuss your ideas, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity Twitter provides.  Through sharing my blog posts and engaging in discussions on Twitter, I have met a number of very interesting people who have not only provided helpful information and discussion on topics that interest me, but in many cases have become patrons of this and my other blogs.  And it is to the subject of patronage that we turn, with Jake’s entry to the Birthday Contest about his former boss, Jerome, whom he met at university.

Of all the entries that I received, that regarding Jake’s mentor Jerome I think best exemplified the virtue of effortless grace that Castiglione was trying to encourage in his writing.  For remember that sprezzatura is not just about how one looks, which is what some commentators focus on, as if sprezzatura is merely some sort of fashion statement.  Rather, it is really about how one behaves in the society of others.  A true courtier who knows his worth, as Castiglione reminds us, is someone who has reached a level of accomplishment in his career whereby not only are others drawn to him and his example, but he in turn is generous with his time and encouragement.  He does not make a show of being, as it were, the smartest one in the room, but makes himself available to those who need his counsel and leadership, without having to call a press conference about it every time he decides to take an action or express an opinion.

And now to Jake’s entry:

My old boss/mentor Jerome is, in my eyes, the epitome of a gentleman. There is nothing grand or eye-catching in the way he holds himself, but rather he has an accumulation of pure decency and a respect for others. He took a basic interest in me as a Freshman at University, took me on as his assistant, and molded me into the person I am today. He routinely gave me career advice, helped me develop social/analytical skills, and served as the one person who would vouch for me in any circumstance.

I’m sure everybody has a mentor like this, but Jerome sticks his neck out for everybody. My best friends/roommates in college were always free to go into his office and chat about school or work. Jerome led a faculty/student class and served as a source of stability whom first years could go to, when University got crazy. And he helped my younger sister get the job with the athletic department she so seriously desired.

Jerome tells me he lives by the belief that he had a lot of help in his path and that, as a way of acknowledging this, he has spread the love around as an adult. Looking out for others, showing mutual respect, and treating others as being on the same plane are the characteristics of a gentleman. Jerome has shown me how to act that way.

Mentors like Jerome, who take the time to give a hand up to those who are getting started in life, make what is often a selfish and self-centered world a more agreeable and civilized place to live in. Rather than being threatened by those on the way up, he responds to the needs of others with wisdom and generosity. That example of good patronage is a trait which Castiglione believes is essential to the gentleman or lady who is worthy of that title.

As the Count himself writes in his “Book of the Courtier”, all of us are given certain gifts, but these must be perfected by training:

Wherefore good masters teach children not only letters, but also good and seemly manners in eating, drinking, speaking and walking, with certain appropriate gestures. Therefore as in the other arts, so too in virtue it is necessary to have a master, who by instruction and good reminders shall arouse and awake in us those moral virtues whereof we have the seed enclosed and buried in our soul, and like a good husbandman shall cultivate them and open the way for them by freeing us from the thorns and tares of appetite, which often so overshadow and choke our minds as not to let them blossom or bring forth those happy fruits which alone we should desire to have spring up in the human heart.

None of us emerges into the world completely capable of caring for ourselves. We are all dependent upon the care and example of others in order to grow into adulthood. By giving an example of generosity of spirit to others, people like Jerome show young people like Jake that when their turn comes, when they are the ones in a position to be a mentor or patron to someone else, they must take advantage of the opportunity, rather than retreat into selfishness. One may call it Christian charity, noblesse oblige, mentoring, or the like, but without it, we descend into the bestial, self-centered tendencies of our fallen nature.

As Castiglione recognized, the encouragement of this nurturing attitude towards others ensures the continuity not only of society, but also of civilization.  I want to thank Jake for his entry, as well as all of those who entered, for showing that there are still gentlemen and ladies of good will who seek to bring a kind of effortless grace to the way in which they themselves behave and treat others.  Let us try to encourage others to follow this example, by first, of course, following it ourselves.

Contest winner Jake P. and his prize,
a scholarly edition of Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier”

Sprezzatura Friday: Now It’s Your Turn

This week we have been looking at some examples of Castiglione’s concept of Sprezzatura, as part of the Blog of the Courtier’s 3rd birthday celebrations.  Castiglione praised that ideal of seemingly effortless nonchalance which he believed a lady or gentleman ought to employ in all that they do: being competent or skilled at something, or many things, but not making a big fuss about themselves for so being.  Now it is your turn to submit your ideas about the person or persons you believe embody this virtue in the present day, whether people of your own acquaintance or those whom you admire from afar. Birthday contest entries are due before the clock strikes midnight on the East Coast of the United States this Sunday, July 31st.

I have already received a number of entries that are very interesting candidates for this label of a modern-day practitioner of spezzatura, including a few nominations of candidates whom I actually know. To date, no one has nominated themselves, though of course that would not be sprezzatura at all.  If we are to celebrate the fact that there are still people about, in our increasingly repulsive society, who try to behave graciously, have a curiosity about the world, and are seeking to better themselves at all times, without crying “Look at me!” all over the place, then such persons could hardly nominate themselves.

And this is the point, of course, because Castiglione’s ideal is not a dead, unobtainable thing. We can all think on cases throughout human history of people who tried to always do their best, and hold themselves up to a higher standard without trying to put others down in the process.  Unfortunately the example of these people in the present age is lost not only because of a general celebration of the loud and the perverse, which holds sway at present, but also because by definition the courtiers whom Castiglione would seek out would never be quick to praise themselves in the first place.  Their quiet competence and accomplishments get drowned out in a din of mediocrity, showiness, and immodesty.

It is this last which has done such a great deal of damage, despite in some cases having the best of intentions in aiding those who suffer from serious emotional or psychological difficulties.  With the adoption of the ideal of “self esteem” to replace that of “self effacement” by the Baby Boom generation, and their indoctrination of that ideal into us, their children, Western society has been done a tremendous amount of harm.  The worship of the ego, instead of God, and the command to “do what feels right for you”, instead of “do unto others”, has created a cacophony of selfishness that has led us to the rather muddled point in history where we now are.

This is why the higher standard, as advocated by Castiglione, is so important to a world which is seemingly intent on destroying itself not through wars, famine, and plagues, but by a kind of exaggerated narcissism coupled with celebrity worship.  There are still people out men and women of good will can admire for their talent, their charity, their intellect, and their style, without descending into the depths of ridiculousness, as did Castiglione’s contemporary Machiavelli, who held out the moral reprobate Caesare Borgia as his ideal in “The Prince”.  The worship of fame, wealth, and excess in oneself or in others has replaced the appreciation of dignity and common sense.

The world still needs Castiglione, not as someone who teaches us specifically how to live, but rather as someone who provides a different measuring stick by which to look at history.  For centuries after his death, Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier” was considered required reading by anyone hoping to live life well – not only for the titled wealthy, but for those in business, politics, the law, diplomacy, the arts, and so on. It is no surprise that now, Machiavelli is more widely read than his contemporary, because his avocation of selfishness and love of “whatever means necessary” over the quiet confidence of Castiglione seems more in keeping with out times.

The correct response, it would seem, is to reject that selfishness as not being the inevitable result of society. It is all very well for the pathologist to diagnose the cancer, but unless someone comes along and shows us how to get rid of that cancer, then all that is served is a recognition that evil exists in the world. Evil must be combated, not embraced, and this is why Castiglione should be embraced today.

My very best wishes of good luck to all of you who enter the Birthday Contest, and I will be announcing the winner on Monday.

Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly chatting on Oscar Night, 1956