Local band a huge hit on Korean swing

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Bet you didn't know the hottest swing band in South Korea shops at the Giant Eagle and roots for the Pirates.

Yeah. The Boilermaker Jazz Band is now a Seoul group. It just rocked the Jeju Swing Camp on a resort island that's a puddle jump from Seoul in the Korea Strait. The Boilermakers were the first American band to play a swing festival in a country where the genre is huge but deejays are the rule.

The Internet has changed the music world like it's changed everything else, and this Pittsburgh band, now almost a quarter-century old, managed to surf the 'net all the way across the Pacific. None of this likely would have happened had not the Boilermakers' live performances been all over YouTube or their music downloadable from their online distributor, CD Baby.

Paul Cosentino, 45, the clarinetist and bandleader, explained this long strange trip as I sat at his kitchen table in Friendship on Tuesday, just a couple of days after the band's flight back from Asia.

For years now, during the six-member band's annual performances at the International Lindy Hop Championships in Washington, D.C., Korean dancers have "come up to us like we're the Beatles.''

Mind you, this is a band that generally makes its gigs via a 15-passenger van that Mr. Cosentino has driven 260,000 miles in the past seven years. The Boilermakers perform up and down the East Coast and then back to their Pittsburgh lives they go. So this Korean trip was quite a departure at the same time that it's a seamless piece of the swing revival that has kept this band alive.

Let's go back in time: When the Boilermaker Jazz Band formed in 1988, Mr. Cosentino was a Carnegie Mellon University business management major and the music was for grins. They played jazz festivals where the core audience was a half-century older than he, and he wasn't confident his act could outlive its audience.

He believes that the best music ever written was composed between 1925 and 1945, and he swears on his vintage Albert clarinet that "Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter are every bit as good as Beethoven and Mozart.'' But the Boilermakers couldn't survive if the only people listening were the old jazz fanatics who'd pull them aside at the breaks to complain the band wasn't playing an old standard the way Louie, Benny or The Count would.

Eleven years ago, the Boilermakers played at the first PittStop Lindy Hop, and Mr. Cosentino saw the future. "All of a sudden, I was one of the oldest people." The dancers were as passionate, and as willing to improvise, as the band. This was jazz.

Thus, modern swing culture spawned the trans-oceanic trip. Korean swing contacts made in Washington ultimately led to a promoter making the considerable investment of getting a band to Asia -- and making it worth its while. Mr. Cosentino isn't sure if the promoter broke even, but the band was treated like royalty. There'd never been a "jam circle" of dancers in front of an American swing band in that country before.

"I keep thinking it's a dream,'' one dancer told them.

As always, Mr. Cosentino was on the clarinet, Jennifer McNulty was lead vocalist, Ernest McCarty was on string bass and Mark Kotishion was on the piano. Drummer Kevin Dorn of New York and trombonist Clint Baker of San Francisco rounded out the band this trip.

In a few weeks, Mr. Cosentino can check his monthly spreadsheet of iTunes to see how many Boilermaker songs have been downloaded in South Korea since. Three years ago, when the band's rendition of the Duke Ellington floor-stomper, "I've Got To Be a Rug Cutter,'' provided a couple of minutes of sizzle on "So You Think You Can Dance,'' the downloads picked up.

As in the early days of jazz, more than 90 percent of the band's income comes from live performances, so while the downloads are nice, they're a means to more shows. The band will be in the Mobtown Ballroom in Baltimore on Friday, at the Ballroom on High in Pottstown on Saturday, and at the James Street Speakeasy on the North Side next Thursday.

Mr. Cosentino believes the country peaked culturally more than a half-century ago, but he doesn't know how he'd survive without today's technology bouncing the band's music around the globe.

"The stuff is up on YouTube before I go to bed.''


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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