Main Street in Columbia may not be the most likely place to find people dancing on the sidewalk to the high energy beat of live music. But for anyone walking downtown on First Thursdays, that’s exactly what they will see: swing dancing, that is, along with music in the style of gypsy jazz played by the local band Les Flat Out Strangers.
The band is a frequent participant of First Thursdays on Main, often playing in front of Lula Drake Wine Parlour. The dancers are part of the Palmetto Swing Dancers, who pair their energy and unique dance style with the band’s “gypsy jazz” music.
At first glance for someone happening by a performance by Les Flat Out Strangers, the band may appear to be a throw back jazz group. They are dressed conservatively in white collared shirts and black vests. They sit behind traditional looking orchestra stands. But for anyone who stops to listen a few minutes, the band is anything but buttoned-up. Their electric energy is generated by a style of music called gypsy jazz.
According to Michael Dregni, writing in Guitar Aficionado magazine in 2012, this style of music originated from the work of a musician named Django Reinhardt. Django was born in 1910 in Belgium to traveling musician parents, who played instruments around gypsy campfires and at country markets. As a child, he picked up playing the banjo and learned guitar from two stars of the gypsy jazz movement, whom he followed to Paris at 14 to play dance halls. Although he died young at 43, Django’s music legacy is far-reaching, and his distinct style of gypsy jazz is now alive and well in Columbia.
George Fulton, stand-up bass player and vocalist with Les Flat Out Strangers, describes gypsy jazz as having a rhythm like nothing else. “It’s driving and relentless using a rhythm style called la pompe, or the pump. You hear these acoustic instruments pumping and driving as the backbone of the whole genre,” says George.
The music is a mixture of influences: French, a little Belgian, and some Western European. “Django played with three fingers after he was injured in a fire and had to relearn how to play the guitar. It gave him a distinct style and made him a virtuoso,” he says.
George’s love of gypsy jazz came from his musical roots growing up in Boston, Massachusetts. “When I was a teenager, a friend and I would stay up listening to Django Reinhardt’s 78s.” Later in Columbia, George’s early love of music led him to start a rockabilly band called The Losers in the 1990s.
“Rockabilly is hepped up country in its best form,” says George, who is a nationally recognized advertising photographer. “It’s a merger of R&B and country sensibilities. In the beginning, artists like Elvis Presley would take R&B songs and try to popularize them by merging them with country.”
One of George’s bandmates in The Losers was Robbie Grice, who shared his passion for Django Reinhardt’s music. “Every guitar player worth his salt knows who Django is and would love to be able to play like him,” says Robbie. “But I never envisioned myself playing gypsy jazz or even jazz.”
Robbie, a high school English teacher at Spring Valley by day, also plays in an Americana band called Parker’s Back as well as its offspring, Parker’s Back Trio, a vocal jazz band. He was well-known in Columbia for many years as host of the SCETV public radio show about Americana music “Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music.”
While playing with The Losers, Robbie and George went through various incarnations from rockabilly to gospel to bluegrass to hillbilly to country to swing. “I think we just naturally gravitated toward gypsy jazz since we started doing a little Western swing,” Robbie says. “George was really instrumental in the shift.”
George points out that they can only do so much with the three chords of rockabilly style, with maybe an occasional fourth. “It’s got a great catchy energy that’s strong. But gypsy jazz has energy that’s even stronger.”
Robbie says it took him a while to learn the style, and he had to buy an actual gypsy jazz guitar. “I bought a base model and quickly outgrew it, so I managed to get a vintage luthier-made Dupont gypsy jazz guitar.”
Jerry Sims, guitarist, joined Les Flat Out Strangers two years ago after hearing the band play. “I knew they were playing something coming from a rockabilly style along with a little gypsy jazz. I went out to hear them once and thought it would be great to play with them. They asked if I’d like to play.” He has been with them ever since.
Like Robbie and George, Jerry’s musical background is diverse and distinct. It includes a degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston in addition to playing guitar with the Swinging Medallions. He is immersed daily in music as the owner of Sims Music in Columbia, and he plays frequently with the Ross Holmes Band and the Dick Goodwin Band.
“The crowd reaction to Les Flat Out Strangers is like nothing I’ve ever seen in all of my years of playing with bands,” says Jerry. The band’s audiences range from children to senior citizens, musical novices to jazz aficionados.
Len Henderson, owner of Tombo Grille in Forest Acres, features Les Flat Out Strangers frequently in the restaurant’s Monday night music series. “I think people don’t necessarily know the type of music they are listening to, but they love it. Maybe it kind of reminds them of older music, but still a little different. They always draw a really good crowd.”
Robbie says, “Our audience is very diverse. Everyone seems to enjoy our songs. Older folks like me know the songs, and younger ones have heard them in movies or commercials. It’s cool though because we, like all purveyors of gypsy jazz, put a French/European/Romani twist on the music, which makes it more exotic and unique.”
George is quick to point out the band’s music may be especially appealing to young listeners because of a curiosity about bygone days. “I really tire of people ragging on millennials. They love vinyl. They are great entrepreneurs and are opening great businesses using the tools of the past. They are educated and love the historical, like vintage clothes. I love that too … the vinyl, the 78s. I think of our music as almost a time capsule. We open it up and share it.”
And while most of the band members’ ages tend to skew toward the baby boomer generation, two younger musicians reinforce the appeal to younger audiences.
Kristen Harris plays the violin in the band and sings. She was drawn to the music of Les Flat Out Strangers after she moved to Columbia to pursue a master’s degree in music at the University of South Carolina. “In college, I played with a string band that focused on old-time Appalachian music, but our guitarist was really into swing and Django Reinhardt’s sound, so we played a lot of gypsy jazz.”
When she discovered Les Flat Out Strangers playing the gypsy jazz style music in Columbia, she knew she had found a musical home. Plus, Kristen says the band has given her the chance to expand her musical repertoire as well as learn from her seasoned bandmates.
“I think I have really gotten better at playing chord changes and have learned a great repertoire of gypsy and swing tunes from playing alongside them,” Kristen says. “Jerry Sims does great arrangements, and I learn a lot from playing with him; hearing his licks and improvising style helps me to craft my own solos.”
Another younger member of the band is Justin Sims, Jerry’s son and the band’s drummer. After graduating from Clemson, Justin toured the Southeast playing drums before returning to Columbia eight years ago to join his father in the family business. He agrees that young people like their music because it takes them to a time they never knew. “The older generation remembers a simpler time. What we’re playing, the younger generation has only heard and seen in movies.”
While traditional gypsy jazz music does not include drums, some of today’s performers like Grammy winning jazz guitarist John Jorgenson bring in a drummer using a simple setup. “That’s who I try to imitate,” says Justin. “My goal is to be a rhythm guitarist. Robbie and my dad push the rhythm the whole time on the guitar. My goal is to be that as well, so that rhythm can continue when the guitar solo sections come in. I’ve always believed that as a drummer, you should never know I’m there, but you should always feel me.”
Justin does not use a complete drum set when he performs with Les Flat Out Strangers. “I don’t want to bring in a bunch of drums and throw in a part that never existed in this music. I’m there to add a little flare and a little cool factor to it.”
The clarinet adds yet one more dimension to the group. Doug Graham, a retired clarinet professor and South Carolina Philharmonic principal clarinet emeritus, has shared the stage with greats such as Sammy Davis, Jr., and Ray Charles. Today he maintains a busy schedule of performing with Les Flat Out Strangers and the Dick Goodwin Band. Jerry says, “Doug’s tone on his clarinet is fantastic.”
But it’s not just the music that makes the experience of listening to Les Flat Out Strangers so appealing. The band’s staging and subtle showmanship are key. In addition to the white shirts and black vests, several sit behind old-style music stands, and the vocalists use vintage microphones. “The orchestral music stands are intended to hearken back to big bands of the old days,” George says.
Band members say that is all intentional. Their experience in other bands gave them an understanding of the importance of staging and showmanship. “We all know, as musicians, to always overdress compared to the audience. When we take a break, people should know we are in the band,” Jerry says, explaining that Django Reinhardt wore a white tuxedo when he performed.
The swing dancing that happens around the band provides another piece of the showmanship in a Les Flat Out Strangers performance. “The dancers are great,” says George. “My personal feeling about music is you’re transferring energy. It’s kind of intimate and really transcends words. The dancers add to that energy.”
The Palmetto Swing Dancers have become regulars at Les Flat Out Strangers’ performances. “The dancers have that flash mob effect,” George says.
Mary Ellen Haile saw the band and the dancers at last fall’s Gervais Street Bridge Dinner. “When I first noticed the dancers around the band, I was mesmerized,” says Mary Ellen. “At first I didn’t realize they were part of the show. I thought they were just people at the event who were really good dancers. Once I realized what they were doing, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.”
The connection between swing dance and Les Flat Out Strangers’ gypsy jazz is a natural one. “When the Flat Out Strangers started playing, it didn’t take long for dancers to start coming out and dancing,” says Nathan Clinebelle of the Palmetto Swing Dancers Association. “The band loved it and began actively encouraging us to dance at their gigs, even getting private events to allow us to dance as part of the entertainment.”
Swing dancing, apparently, has always been tied to the music. “No one sat down and wrote up the steps for swing dancing and then taught it,” Nathan says. “They listened to the music that was popular and danced the way the music made them want to move.”
That natural movement from the old swing era reflects what happens when the dancers and Les Flat Out Strangers get together. “The dancers drew inspiration from the music and the musicians would draw inspiration from watching the dancers. This connection between dancers and musicians still exists,” Nathan says. “We often dance to recorded music now, but it’s much more enjoyable to dance to live music, and musicians love playing for people who are dancing.”
Jerry says, “The dancers are like part of the band as far as we’re concerned. We want the dancers every time we play.”
The dancers help create an atmosphere of energy, excitement, and fun. “They really make us play better and entertain our fans as much, if not more, than we do,” Robbie says. “This music, being an offshoot of swing, was created for dancers.”