In the world of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, jazz and swing never went out of style, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley never picked up an instrument and rock ’n’ roll is still dominated by upright basses and brass sections.
“We’re connected to an alternative history of music that got thrown aside when the electric guitar decided it was going to be the only important thing in music,” said Steve Perry, the band’s primary songwriter and frontman. “We follow a tradition that’s more horn-based, that goes all the way back to Louis Armstrong. We basically skip the guitar years, as if Elvis never existed.”
The Oregon-based band, which performs Saturday as part of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, was at the forefront of a swing and big band revival in the late ’90s, and its single “Zoot Suit Riot” was a surprise radio hit. A jazz festival might seem an odd venue for a well-known rock band, but Perry says the Daddies have been playing more jazz festivals in recent years.
“We can play jazz standards, but we can also rock out,” Perry said from his home in Eugene. “When you go to a jazz festival, when there’s a lot of high school bands and stuff like that, they want to see both things. They want to see your chops, but they also like it when you’re pushing the limits of your instrument and rocking out and having fun.”
The Daddies formed in Oregon in 1989, and the band, which stood in sharp contrast to the rising grunge culture, quickly became a staple of the college and underground music circuits. Although the group’s sound was heavily influenced by jazz and swing, it also had a punk swagger about it.
“The idea was to merge punk rock sensibilities with this swing thing,” Perry explained. “We wanted to be a hybrid. We didn’t just want to play traditional swing music; we wanted to be more rocking. … We wanted to show off some of our influences when we first started out, because it’d give people an appreciation of where we were coming from.”
After some major label successes and a number of personnel changes over the years, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies have comfortably settled into an eight-person lineup – along with Perry, bassist Dan Schmid and trumpet player Dana Heitman are founding members. The band hasn’t put out an album on a major label since 2000’s “Soul Caddy,” and Perry likens the task of releasing music independently to bailing water out of a partially submerged boat.
“Our entire business is essentially free, and that kind of sucks,” Perry said. “Until people decide to pay for stuff that costs tens of thousands of dollars to produce, it’s going to be a losing battle for all musicians. … It makes it hard to have a family and put food in their mouths. We rely on our fans to buy our records. All we’re trying is to make enough money to fund the next one.”
But the Daddies keep producing new material – they’ve released four studio LPs since returning from a brief hiatus in the early 2000s, during which Perry studied molecular biology at the University of Oregon. The band’s newest albums have consisted mostly of jazz and swing covers: 2014’s “Please Return the Evening” was a tribute to the Rat Pack, and “The Boop-a-Doo,” released in January, features reverential covers of standards from the ’20s and ’30s.
“We wrote our own arrangements using a lot of different sources,” Perry said. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys that picked a bunch of weird songs you’ve never heard of before,” Perry said. “I wanted to reach back into the American songbook and do versions of those tunes, stuff people had heard and do our own versions of them.”
And those songs are best heard in a live setting, because the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies throw everything into their concerts.
“We’re extremely high energy, but not at the expense of the musicianship,” Perry said. “In essence, we’re a rocking dance band with horns. We do mostly that – stuff that’s very high energy and has great horn charts. On top of that, we can play a ballad like nobody’s business.”
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