Sue Palmer & Her Motel Swing Orchestra
What: La Jolla Concerts by the Sea
When: 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6
Where: Ellen Browning Scripps Park
Boogie-woogie pianist Sue Palmer and band wrap up La Jolla Cove concert series
As the La Jolla Concerts by the Sea summer music series winds to a close, organizers have surely saved their most energetic act for last — San Diego’s own boogie-woogie piano legends, Sue Palmer & Her Motel Swing Orchestra, which are celebrating 15 years together.
The band’s resilience and solid musicianship has paid off, as their performances are packed with generations of music fans and a core of dedicated swing dancers who follow them around, just looking for an excuse to cut loose.
“They kept me in business through the recession,” Palmer confided of her dancing devotees. “When you get a couple of the ringleaders, then all 20 or 30 of them will come — and that’s enough for a club to really think something’s happening. My band is just fabulous. In some ways, I think my band stays together because I continue to get work.”
Palmer’s longtime guitarist, Steve Wilcox, credits the band’s longevity to Palmer’s business acumen and the musicians’ longstanding friendship.
Most of the Motel Swing Orchestra — including Wilcox, drummer Sharon Shufelt, trombonist April West, bassist Pete Harrison and Saxophone player Jonny Viau — have played with Palmer since the 1980s, when she banged out hot jazz and swing with Tobacco Road, or later, while traveling the world performing with award-winning San Diego Blues singer Candye Kane.
“When we get together, it’s not like going to work, it’s like going to a party,” said Wilcox, who was mentored early on by the likes of Paul Cowie of King Biscuit Blues Band and the late, legendary blues guitarist, Hollywood Fats. “I am like the luckiest man ever to be standing on Sue’s left side most of the time. I get to watch her play piano and just groove to this great boogie-woogie styling. For me there’s just nothing better. … I’ve got the best seat in the house and I really enjoy making music with my friends.”
Wilcox, whose own parents were big boogie-woogie piano enthusiasts, said from the first time he riffed with Palmer in the early 1990s, they’ve had great creative chemistry. Add to the mix the sultry vocals of lead singer Deejha Marie Pope (and, more recently, her daughter of equally powerful pipes, Sharifah Muhammad) and the lineup is complete.
“Everybody in town wants to play with April,” Wilcox enthused of West, who can also be heard honkin’ and slidin’ with San Diego’s Euphoria Brass Band. “Not only can she play the trombone with her foot, but she’s a great singer and can just basically write out parts.”
Palmer, whose new CD, “Bricktop,” pays homage to New Orleans’ early jazz scene and the music of the Harlem Renaissance and Café Society Paris, said she enjoys her annual gig at Scripps Park (before or after which she said she usually finds time to take a dip in the Cove). “It’s really fun and it’s life affirming — and it’s the only time I can get a parking place down there,” she said, with a laugh, noting organizers always reserve a space for her.
A recipient of numerous San Diego Music Awards, not only has Palmer kept her band employed but she’s long sang the praises of other musicians — most notably, for the past three years as DJ and host of San Diego Sessions, 5 p.m. Sundays on Jazz 88.3 FM.
“It’s perfect for me; I play all my friends (in the local blues and jazz scene),” Palmer said, noting that her current focus is the blues and jazz scene of Tijuana, past and present.
Palmer brushes aside the oft-repeated lament that jazz and blues may be dying as art forms.
“Improvisation is not going to die,” she chimed. “It’s just circular. … Everybody loves real super-progressive jazz. My friend Jeannie Cheatham was saying how it’s just like Bach (but with a different beat). (Jazz and blues) just needs to get out to the people maybe more now, so it’s not so esoteric. People love live music and they love to get all worked into a frenzy. … That’s why they love to come see me because I play just enough of it that they think they’re listening to jazz.”
“Bricktop,” which features a cover of “Down Among the Sheltering Palms,” popularized by the Boswell Sisters and included on the soundtrack to the 1959 film “Some Like It Hot” (filmed at the Hotel Del Coronado), is a nod to the “swingin’ mamas” in her band, who’ve all “evolved” toward red hair — including Palmer, originally a blonde. It’s also an homage to (brace yourself) Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith (1894-1984), more commonly known as “Bricktop,” an American dancer, singer, vaudevillian and saloon-keeper who owned nightclubs in Paris, Mexico City and Rome.
“I’m sort of a Francophile and (devotee) of the whole café society era,” Palmer said. “I’m always interested in scenes and who was involved and how friends collaborated and worked off each other. … It’s just a fascinating period in time with so much going on.”
To transport listeners to café society-era Paris, Bricktop fuses trumpet by Phil Shopoff and clarinet by Jean Paul Balmat.
Although Palmer said one of her more remarkable experiences in France was playing for 20,000 people with Candye Kane’s band at a festival in La Mans, she also relishes visiting a little-known museum dedicated to French cabaret singer and actress Edith Piaf (located in two rooms of a longtime fan’s fourth-story flat in northeast Paris), as well as performing Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” with Kane at the New Morning Club stage that previously hosted everyone from Stan Getz and Chet Baker to Bob Dylan (the song is also included on “Bricktop”).
“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful! I’m playing this here in Paris. … Of course, they didn’t think it was so hot,” Palmer said, with a laugh. More at suepalmer.com