You're walking down Gay Street late at night, and you walk by the Bijou and the antebellum saloon space on Gay Street which most people think of as a restaurant, but this night you hear music inside. You go in, and it's just like the Bistro except there's a bearded guy in a turban playing stand-up bass; seated, a suave looking character with a neat beard like a noir hepcat playing rhythm; a well-dressed, serious-looking fellow who could pass for the principal cellist for the KSO playing cello; and, right in front, a very young dark-eyed Peruvian woman playing guitar in an irregular speed-up-and-stop gypsy style like old Django Reinhardt. Depending on the night, there might be a balding Russian playing fiddle.
Having seen them, you feel like you need a drink, and of course you've come to the right place for that. If you describe the scene to your psychoanalyst, though, it might throw her way off. The Johnson Swingtet is real. They play regular gigs at the Bistro, and will be playing there again this Friday.
It's safe to say there's nobody else doing this sort of thing in town. Gypsy jazz, as some call it, is a flexible form that welcomes classical and blues styles, but demands a certain emotional range; it's at turns sentimental and jarring. It bridges Old World melancholy and New World jump. Some people can listen to it all night long.
Eugene Johnson, the noir guy, more or less started this unlikely band. Originally from Gallatin, Tenn., the 32-year-old Johnson learned classical guitar as a teenager, but was more drawn to jazz styles. He admired jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery and Herb Ellis, and remembers when Mercer Ellington played a show at the high-school gym. He eventually became a great fan of jazz innovators Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. But then ran across the recordings of Django Reinhardt.
The elusive French gypsy guitarist died in 1953, but his spirit keeps knocking around in our cultural attic like a jazz ghost. His work's been co-opted, out of context, for use in setting a mood for TV commercials maybe because, even now, it can add a layer of hipness that the client may not deserve. The melodies he wrote for guitar and violin, could be melancholic or ecstatic, or sometimes turn on the song, like a chthonic threat beneath Stéphane Grappelli's lilting melodies. As a kid, Reinhardt lost the use of a couple of fingers in a fire, and whether because of that or in spite of it, he learned a unique style of playing that's hard to channel. Though many musicians claim him as an influence, and every now and then one star or another names a kid after him, few presume to imitate his style.
Johnson was still a teenager when he advertised to form a band and met an unexpected applicant named Brandon Beavers. He's the guy in a turban, who plays both mandolin and double bass. A generation older than Johnson, Beavers is a Tennessee Sikh, but won't bring it up unless you do. Probably the most familiar figure in the band, at least to those who've hung around nightclubs for the last quarter century, Beavers has experience spanning punk and Indian and jazz improvisation, and sometimes still he crosses all those genres in a single night. His more recent bands have included Selective Memory and, most recently, an art-song duo with songwriter John Tilson called the Vacationist League.
Some musicians regard Beavers among the most accomplished and versatile players in town and, with less competition, also the nicest, happy to play a supporting role in a project he enjoys. With a beatific smile, he sidesteps questions about himself. He doesn't think it's unusual that a guy who's spent most of his life in Knoxville should be an expert in Indian, Persian, and Eastern music. "Music's music, as far as I'm concerned," he says, as if that's all you need to know, and maybe it is.
Beavers and Eugene Johnson may not have seemed to have much in common except for a first name—some still know Johnson as Brandon Johnson, but he seems to be going by the name Eugene more of late, perhaps because it may seem unwise for a small band to have a surplus of Brandons. Also, they shared a particular interest in Eastern music. "Persian, North-Indian classic's been our meat and potatoes for a lot of years," says Johnson.
The duo constitutes the core of the Knoxville Persian Music Ensemble, which has played North African and Afghan folk music at some recent Vestivals, where, of course, they're also known as the South Knoxville Persian Music Ensemble. With the exception of Bryenton, who lives in Parkridge, the band members live within shouting distance of each other, in the steep-sloped Davenport/ High Street neighborhood, south of the river.
They've been playing together for most of that time; a few years ago, they played a nightclub band called Swingbooty, which employed Andy Bryenton. Originally of Hartford, Connecticut, Bryenton joined the KSO in 1986, but also plays at other classical events around the country, and makes some solo records. "I was looking for something to do to complement my classical music," says Bryenton, who had previously favored Bach suites. ("I just did a whole cycle of them," he says. "That's the Old Testament of cello.")
Careful listeners recognize droll quotes in Bryenton's work; in the Johnson Swingtet's version of Reinhardt's classic "Daphne" is a bit of Bach's double-violin concerto.
Still, in the Johnson band he's also the one with popular-music credentials; he's played with Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis, and Burt Bacharach, through his offices at the symphony. "I've played with a lot of pop artists, and learned a lot from them."
Swingbooty broke up after its organizer, Ryan Flaherty, left to join other national bands—he's now in Ameranouche, a New England-based trio for which the Johnson Swingtet opened at a World Grotto show recently. "They're our good friends, our sister band," says Johnson, who had been percussionist for Swingbooty; he picked up rhythm guitar for the Swingtet.
Later, they connected with Kukuly Uriarte, an energetic young musician who had learned Peruvian folk songs in her native country by the age of 9. She moved to Knoxville with her mother, a makeup artist, at the age of 15. "Not speaking much English, it took me a while to discover Knoxville," she says.
Perhaps because nobody else would presume to, she takes the Django role. She says she knew of Reinhardt in South America, but learned to play in that eccentric style through her friendship with the other members of the band.
It was Uriarte, who was working as a waitress at the Bistro, who brought them that gig.
"Playing at the Bistro has been the coolest move," says Johnson. "I used to work there. I was a horrible server. But it's been a great spot for us." He likes the ancient brick-lined space, and the audiences: they tend to be older, early in the evening, and younger, later. He says he'd like to see us dance a little more. "We dare you to cut a rug," he says. "You can't beat these tunes."
And thanks to the location, down the sidewalk from Knoxville's two historic theaters, the people who wander in off the sidewalk tend to be interesting. Widely known swing revivalists the Squirrel Nut Zippers were in one night, the Red Stick Ramblers another. Another night, a couple of Beatles—John and George, if memory serves—ambled in after a Beatlemania show at the Tennessee, and were impressed with the band.
"It's summer stock," says Bryenton. Occasionally, some of his KSO colleagues drop in after a concert; Russian violinist Ilia Steinschneider is a semi-regular, often playing softly on the fringe. Other pros, like clarinetist John Snyder, sometime sit in.
"Where else are you gonna play where you find these world-class musicians?" Johnson asks.
"And they have the best soups!" says Uriarte.
"And the best fried chicken," Johnson answers. There is, on that matter, general assent.
Next door at the Bijou, Anoushka Shankar played recently; to hear him talk about it, Johnson was pretty tickled to be asked to play various Indian instruments with the London-born sitar player who's the daughter of the most famous sitar player of all time, Ravi Shankar, who became famous in the West when he collaborated with the Beatles in the 1960s.
Serendipity is a quality Johnson has learned to depend on. Anoushka was actually the second Shankar he's happened upon in downtown Knoxville.
"I met Ravi Shankar on Market Square," Johnson says. It was in the '90s, when Shankar was in town for a show at UT. "I bought him lunch at the Soup Kitchen when I was working there, slopping soup."
The connection between Ravi and Django may seem obscure to non-Johnsons. But music's music, and it's Reinhardt who seems to have possessed these versatile musicians of late. Though they're no tribute band, and every song sounds a little different from the last time they played it, most of what they play on a typical night at the Bistro was once recorded by Reinhardt, who also composed many of them.
They seem to be drawn to it for different reason. "It's kind of like jazz with strings," says Beavers. "It goes a little over the edge, and then comes back."
"It has the drive of rock 'n' roll, with darker hues to it," says Johnson. "Some are straight tunes of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but that playing-on-the-edge style is a slightly twisted French interpretation of American jazz.
"It's unpredictable, just like his life," says Uriarte.
"You can't talk about Django without Grappelli," says cellist Bryenton, referring to Reinhardt's near-constant partner, Stéphane Grappelli, whose violin often carried the tunes. "He's my influence, maybe even more than Django."
There follows a discussion of long-dead jazz violinists, which tends to be an esoteric subject even to many jazzhounds, but it's a subject that all four of these musicians, even the youngest one, seem to know something about. Uriarte brings up Eddie Lang. In this rare company, it's perfectly normal to know about a Paul Whiteman Orchestra violinist who died in 1933.
"I would like to see this band be an example for people to get away from the loud music," Bryenton says. There's nodding all around, until he adds the phrase "like punk rock," when Beavers and Johnson protest bitterly. They're occasional collaborators in punk projects. They do seem to agree that live music soft enough for patrons to hear their own conversation is a neglected value. They feel some kinship to a few other contrary, and usually hyper-retro, bands, like torchy revivalists Christabel and the Jons, in that regard.
The Johnsons admit they don't practice much, at least in private. Johnson works as a music teacher, a piano tuner, and an orderly at Baptist Hospital. Beavers is sometimes spotted selling oriental rugs in Bearden. Uriarte works at the Bistro, and Bryenton has the symphony, plus a family to raise. It's hard to get everybody together. But when you play almost weekly to a no-cover-charge room, the performances are practice.
"The improvisation that we do is like going off the high dive," says Johnson. "Every once in a while, we belly flop. And then, the next time, we improve on it." That inspired unpredictability is, more or less, the definition of jazz.