Jazz and the Art of the Striptease

A sexy, sultry and surprisingly deep alliance

Trixie Minx
Medianoche performing in Manhattan
Candy Shop Boys with vocalist Sophia Urista and musical director/pianist Jesse Elder (2nd from right)
Johnny Vidacovich

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Over the course of two sets, each female dancer makes an impression in a different way. While in the crowd, Medianoche, a short, buxom brunette, undoes the buttons on a man’s dress shirt, licks her hand, and sticks it down his undershirt. The Maine Attraction, a voluptuous African-American woman, kneels onstage with her back to the room and jiggles one buttock at a time. Peekaboo Pointe, a smiley blond who is heavily tattooed, straddles a man in the audience and pretends to ride him. And vocalist Lady Scoutington, tall and thin, removes her clothes during her performance, ending her segment like the other entertainers in pasties and a G-string.

But on this Friday night in May, the women at the East Village burlesque club Duane Park have something else in common: They’re all dancing to the sounds of a live jazz quartet. Medianoche performs to the Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol classic “Caravan”; Pointe makes her moves while Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” plays. The trumpeter, pianist, drummer and bassist don’t stick entirely to jazz-Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” makes an appearance-but, for all intents and purposes, this is an evening of women dancing and disrobing to America’s classical music, a combo that largely went away in the second half of the 20th century but once provided regular work for players born prior to 1950.

Beginning with the ragtime pianists who backed dancers at Bourbon Street joints around the turn of the 20th century, it was common for jazz musicians to work this job-Herb Geller did it in Los Angeles and elsewhere; Zoot Sims did it in Boston; Joe Pass did it in New Orleans; and Von Freeman did it in Calumet City, Ill., to name just a few. It could pay more than a regular jazz gig, and was hardly dreaded by musicians. “It’s just a gig,” says the veteran New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich. “Just a normal gig. Very normal.” Playing for dancers was something you did on your way up to a fulltime career in jazz, or when that career wasn’t quite paying the bills.

Musicians generally do not have this opportunity today, as the average gentlemen’s club opts for hip-hop and hard rock played from a DJ booth. But jazz and exotic dance have reunited often over the past couple decades, inside a thriving revivalist burlesque scene that relishes prewar nostalgia and strives to project striptease as a classy, artful form of adult entertainment.

“Play this one dirty”

Before a note could be played or a hip could be shook, the dancers and musicians needed to talk. Vidacovich, 65, who is one-fourth of Astral Project and has played with everyone from John Scofield to Professor Longhair, worked frequently in Big Easy strip clubs from 1966 to 1970, and has played the occasional exotic-dance gig since then.

“Prior to anything you would have a conversation with her,” Vidacovich explains at his New Orleans home in May. “And she would often say, ‘Catch this and catch that. I’ma do this little thing, but don’t build it up too fast.’ And of course if you overplayed, she would quickly tell you, ‘Hey, man, don’t be playin’ all of that stuff. Sounds like a drum solo.’ You would often communicate with the dancer. If she didn’t have anything to tell you, you were probably doing a good job.”

Alto saxophonist Phil Woods, 82, had a similar experience. For about two years in the early ’50s, Woods played with a quartet led by drummer Nick Stabulas at the Nut Club in New York. The personnel also included trumpeter Jon Eardley, and players like Zoot Sims and Gil Evans would sit in. Upon entering the Nut Club, you were given a wooden hammer in order to “beat the crap out of a table for your favorite dancer,” according to Woods.

“You didn’t have to rehearse too much, although some of the girls had their own music,” he recalls. “Not really written out, but they’d tell you, ‘I want eight bars of this or 10 bars of that.’ Other times, they’d just say, ‘Oh, play something about this tempo and then play this tempo.’ You had to be able to improvise on the spot.”

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