Blending a bouncy bob cut with vintage fashion sense and a large band that plays an eclectic array of instruments ranging from violin and accordion to clarinet and vibraphone on tunes from the 1920s and ’30s, Janet Klein has made a substantial impression on the Los Angeles music scene for more than two decades.
Backed by a coterie ranging from three to 10 other musicians in her group Her Parlor Boys, Klein transcends the shallow limitations of hipster cover bands by spotlighting music that would otherwise be lost in today’s music world.
But her biggest asset is her charmingly original voice. Plus, the way she plays her ukulele with such passion and flair makes listeners regard it as a unique and under-used musical instrument rather than as a prop or gimmick. Klein and Her Parlor Boys will be putting all their magic on display with an evening of music covering everything from Tin Pan Alley, hot jazz and ragtime gems to Hawaiian and Yiddish novelty tunes, as well as French and Italian knock-out ballads.
“I really find it so rich and endlessly interesting,” explains Klein. “I just celebrated my 20th anniversary of my first CD and about then I started to form my band and at that time I was really all alone with my love of this music. There were a couple of bands — Zoot Suit Serenaders in Northern California, and a Dutch band called the Bohunks. But other than that I didn’t know anybody.
“I found these old recordings and decided to take up the ukulele, which at the time was a rare and weird thing to do,” she continues. “I like sharing the music that I’ve been collecting and recording over the years. It’s just not the kind of music you hear anywhere. There are so many sounds that were a melding of the immigrants coming from outside the country, so many different sounds from vaudeville, early film musicals, nightclub music, vibraphone. I just find it very rich and never tired of it for a minute in 20 years of playing it and even more years of researching and collecting things.”
Raised in San Bernardino during the 1970s, Klein’s early musical education came from her father Stephen Klein, a teacher and avant-garde animator whose taste ran primarily to Frank Zappa and classical. Even more importantly, Klein’s grandparents regaled her with tales of New York of the 1930s (where her grandfather Marty Klein had worked as a stage magician), instilling in her a lifelong fascination with pre-World War II American popular culture.
By the time Klein had moved to Los Angeles to start college in the early 1980s, this had translated into an interest in both early jazz recordings and the graphic design styles of the era. Through the former, Klein discovered early female jazz singers and musicians including Lil Hardin Armstrong (Louis’ wife and early manager) and Blanche Calloway (sister of Cab). The latter hobby led Klein to start collecting sheet music from the 1800s to the Jazz Age, at first purely for the pictures and artwork, then increasingly out of love for the songs themselves.
Klein recorded her debut album “Come Into My Parlor” in 1998 as almost a solo record, with her vocals and ukulele occasionally backed by John Reynolds’ guitar and producer Robert Loveless’ accordion, mandolin, harmonica and triangle. She then started recruiting for members of the Parlor Boys. They have spent the past two decades recording seven more albums and playing all over Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Japan, and had a long-running monthly residency at the now-shuttered Steve Allen Theatre.
“I think the audience is growing,” notes Klein. “People are coming around who are attracted to me, there are more bands in this style of music and people are learning dances from this period.
“I started all this without the benefit of finding things online and now there’s so much access,” she adds. “With a little curiosity you can find all sorts of films, type in sheet music and hear the recording of it and people coming up are interested in it. It’ll hang in there, maybe not as the mainstream but there’s people finding it now and enjoying it. Every time I do get a chance to travel, I scratch the surface of this time and era and I always find that fantastic material, no matter where I go looking.”
Janet Klein and The Parlor Boys perform at 7 p.m. Sat. at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena. Tickets are $20. Call (626) 798-6236 or visit coffeegallery.com.