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Swing With the Devil

Lee Press-On and the Nails
Terrence McCarthy

Satan's Swing: Lee Press-On and the Nails play "demonized" jazz standards.

Local swing outfit Lee Press-On and the Nails draws from music that was once deemed a threat to the moral standards of youth

By Giancarlo Davis

Broadway Studios is comfortably nestled in the lap of the seedy Broadway strip of North Beach, and although it's an area of general ill repute, it's an ideal locale for a jazz venue, evoking a likeness to the Savoy in Harlem, where, back in the '30s and '40s, hundreds succumbed to the seamy corruptions of jazz music.

And for bandleader Lee Press-On of the local swing outfit Lee Press-On and the Nails, places such as Broadway Studios and the HiBall Lounge are ideal spots to play their "demonized" renditions of old jazz and swing standards.

"Remember that jazz music wasn't about respectability," Lee Press-On says. "Parents considered jazz to be the music of coke fiends, opium dens and fallen women. We're just trying to make that more obvious."

One night last month Lee Press-On and the Nails played a set at the Broadway Studios. Clad in a full-piece zoot suit, Lee Press-On conducted renditions of old swing standards. Swing dancers succumbed to the band's polished fury, performing acrobatic stunts that would make a nervous blush creep across the faces of their grandparents.

This was no sequined-shirt-clad Tony Bennett crooning sentimental lullabies, or Spyro Gyra fusing jazz with catalepsy. Lee Press-On's own versions combine the smoother appeal of Cab Calloway with the hyperkinetics of Louis Prima. With this hyped-up swing, jazz looks back to its evil hour, when jazz dancers and musicians were deemed to be minions of the devil, swinging under the midnight sun of a golden age, undulating as if infected by voodoo.

Lee Press-On draws from a wide array of musical malefactors, all once thought to be threats to the fragile moral standards of youth. Their sound further includes the rigor of punk. "Well, there's the holy trinity of Louies, a little Fishbone, a little Metallica, a bit of GWAR and the Joker from Batman," Lee Press-On explains. "Oh, and Groucho Marx.

"I like being spooky," he adds. "My initial intentions were to bring together goth and swing in a single sound. But swing just took over."

Swing possessed a generation of supposedly dispossessed youth, and its renewal within the last four or five years has been influenced by punk. With sax players and the horn section moshing to syncopated rhythms, Lee Press-On and the Nails demonstrate this trend. At one point during an especially energetic performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing," Lee catapulted himself onto the dance floor and landed in a split that would have shattered any mortal's tailbone.

"I have no idea what I'm doing and take no responsibility for my actions," he continues. "And as for the band, it's probably the only swing band that will suddenly get into a fight onstage. I tell the guys they can do whatever they want as long as they continue playing."


Lee Press-On and the Nails plays Sundays at Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market St; 415/861-5016.

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From the October 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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