Remembrance of Swing's Past
An Interview with Dean Mora
By Joya Balfour
comes a time in every swing dancer’s life when you feel like you’ve
heard every song, memorized every break. And then someone introduces
you to Mora’s Modern Rhythmists, and you fall in love with the
music all over again. Why? Because this is the original stuff,
the '20s hot jazz and early '30s swing that made the movement
so popular in the war years. And bandleader Dean Mora swings it
like no other.
was introduced to the era at a very early age. “When I was about
eleven or twelve I went to go see The Sting,” he explains,“and
I was so enthralled by the clothes and the cars and the music—even
though the music wasn’t correct for the time period the film was
set in, I didn’t care. After that, I thought ‘This is great. I have
to learn this music.’” Mora was hooked. During his college years
he dabbled in other eras, playing harpsichord at Renaissance Faires
and forming an eight-piece brass band to play at Civil War reenactments.
Following his graduation in piano performance from Cal State Northridge
in 1985, he met Galen Wilkes, who was forming his own ragtime orchestra.
also had a radio show on KCSN in Northridge, and he invited me
to the radio station so I could hear all the recordings that he
had put together, and I just became even more engrossed. I guess
from there I was interested in further exploring that era, going
from ragtime to the '20s and then the '30s.”
played for several years in Wilkes’ ragtime orchestra. And then
one day, a colleague suggested he form a 1920s band. The Modernistic
Jazz Orchestra was born.
was strictly 1920s material,” says Mora. “Then an associate of
mine said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great name for your band. Why don’t
you call it—because the name now sounds so academic and prosaic—Mora’s
Modern Rhythmists?’ I asked him why, and he said that apparently
there was a band in Los Angeles named McGregor’s Modern Rhythmists,
and they weren’t using the name anymore. And I said ok, it flows—although
everyone’s going to have a heck of a time spelling ‘Rhythmists’.
Our first gig was in November ‘94, and we changed the name in
‘95. Then I was starting to get more into 1930s material, and
eventually building it to where we are today.”
success within the Los Angeles-area swing scene has come precisely
because he focuses solely on pre-World War II jazz and big band music.
knew at a certain point of style range I’d have to stop. 'Cause
everyone else does your Artie Shaw, your Glenn Miller. At first
I had a 1936 cut-off. Then some guys in the band were saying,
‘Oh, you gotta do this tune’ and I said, ‘But that’s 1937’ and
they said, ‘We don’t care—it sounds great!’ So that’s it. 1937
will definitely be as far as we go. I think the earliest piece
we have is ‘The Sheik of Araby’ from 1921, but usually we stick
more to the mid- to late '20s, cause at that time it starts getting
a little more interesting, as far as orchestrations are concerned.
Before then it’s really collective improvisation, like Dixieland-style
with corny effects.”
remembers one dance where an older crowd had asked to hear “In
The Mood.” “We were trying to fight it off,” he muses, “but finally
I caved in. I said ‘OK, we’re going to do this once, and we’ll
never do it again.’ And we played it once, and the older crowd
thought it was great, and our regular dancers were yelling in
the back, ‘Sellout! Sellout!’ But it was kind of a fresh approach
to ‘In The Mood’.”
agrees that the swing revival has definitely turned his band into
a marketable ensemble, rather than one of pure historical interest.
It was when Swingers came out that Mora’s Modern Rhythmists
played their first club gig at The Rhino Room, and they began
a long-running Monday night stint at The Derby in February 1997.
thought it would be great to present to them a different side
of swing. My take on everything was that because this is getting
so popular and the media’s jumping on it, there would be a whole
bunch of swing bands that have no clue what they’re doing, which
was the case. A lot of bands that used to be punk bands or ska
bands put on zoot suits and threw in a couple of horns and all
of a sudden they’re a swing band! You can only do ‘Caldonia’ so
many times before you start dousing yourself in gasoline.”
Favorite Band, was released in 1998, followed by Mr. Rhythmist
Goes To Town in '99 and their latest effort, Call of The
Freaks, this past summer.
definitely wanted Call of the Freaks to be different from
the previous one. We went for a darker tone. Our next project
is a Spuds Murphy CD. It’s going to take a bit of time cause I’m
still trying to recoup money from the last CD, but I have to do
soon, because Spuds—although he’s in good health—is 92.
Another one of our future projects will be an all-1920s CD,” Mora
not leading his big band, Mora spends his Saturday nights on the
organ at The Silent Movie Theatre in L.A. He has been an accompanist
there since the early '90s, and was able to learn on the job from
a true master of the art form, 95-year-old Bob Mitchell.
people have this image of silent film being that of jerky, speeded-up
images featuring overly dramatic actors and mindless slapstick,”
Mora explains. “This is not the case for the films of the 1920s,
especially those made right before the advent of sound.
Many of those films have retained their freshness, and seem quite
contemporary in their acting style and film direction.”
band also joins Mora every summer for The Last Remaining Seats
Festival, presented at old theatres in the historic Broadway district
of downtown L.A. It is not often once can watch a silent film
with a live orchestral accompaniment, especially one with the
careful attention to detail and joy of performance that the Modern
believes that his job lies not only performing for an audience,
but also to introduce a new generation of fans to these forgotten
know a lot of people won’t go out of their way to get the entire
Benny Carter [discography] or something like that, unless they’re
a huge Benny Carter fan, so it’s our job to bring it forth. I
want to give people a sense of history, as well as making it entertaining.
So that’s why I talk, to give the guys a bit of a rest, to give
a bit of education to the folk, and be charming at the same time.”
Modern Rhythmists can be heard on Friday, Oct. 27, at
in Los Angeles, and on alternate Thursdays at The Derby.
Dean Mora, solo, plays the organ every Saturday at The
Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood and will be accompanying
the 1920s-inspired show “Jazz Babies” at the Orpheum on
November 2. For more information on Mora’s Modern Rhythmists
or any of the aforementioned events, visit www.morasmodern.com.