Last year, New Orleans gypsy-jazz ensemble Bon Bon Vivant did what a lot of other bands do these days: record a video for NPR’s Tiny Desk contest. The video shows off the group’s mix of seductive old-timey cabaret jazz and modern, dark-tinged songwriting style. But it’s also visually stimulating to watch the group in their natural habitat, performing on the street in the French Quarter. For added measure, they have a snappy dressed guy tap dancing on a small end table with them.
The tap-dancer, Bobby Bonsey, is not an official member of the band, but he does join them from time to time, adding a little extra rhythm and showmanship to the performance by way of his tap-dancing shoes.
“It’s fun to give him solos—especially when we’re outside, because he has total geographical freedom. He ends up on light poles and doing back flips in the street,” says saxophonist Jeremy Kelley.
Bonsey is one of a handful of non-band members that joins Bon Bon Vivant on stage—or in the street—when they are playing hometown shows. There’s also a whole network of swing dancers and burlesque dancers that might join the band.
“It’s neat that we live in a city that is so small creatively that you can call in a number of people to collaborate with you,” says singer/guitarist Abigail Cosio.
It wasn’t always like this for the group. In fact, when the group started some years back, they felt like it was an uphill battle for them to be accepted as part of the local New Orleans scene. Kelley, Cosio and Glori Cosio (backup singer, and Abigail’s sister) moved from L.A. around 2009. The rest of the band that they’d later meet were also transplants, coming from everywhere from Boston to Fresno.
The band got serious around 2014, and recorded its debut EP, which they were able to get played on WWOZ, an important step in gaining local acceptance.
“That’s the culture maker in the city. Unlike any other city I’ve ever seen, they respond to their public radio. WWOZ is kind of the voice of the city in a really neat way,” says Cosio.
It was a big deal to the band members, since they moved to New Orleans to be a part of its rich music scene. In New Orleans, jazz is treated unlike anywhere else in the world; certainly not as a museum exhibit or a high-end background music, as has become commonplace in other parts of the country.
“This music can be played very traditionally, and sometimes it’s portrayed as stuffy. In New Orleans it’s so alive, it’s rowdy. It’s a music that generationally you can kind of misunderstand if you’re not seeing it performed the way that it was first performed. I really felt passion for this music, and it was being played by young people with tattoos and piercings and counterculture lifestyles,” Cosio says.
The songs are primarily written by Cosio, who has a background in Americana. However, most of the musicians in the band are trained in jazz, so they all collaborate together to create music that has a foot in tradition, but also is approached from out of left field in terms of the germs of the songs.
“She lets us put our weird smell on it,” Kelley says. “As she comes to us with the song, maybe the piano player comes up with something that he’s been working on that has a gypsy jazz feel or klezmer feel added to a minor melody that she’s created. Even though Abbie writes all the material, she allows that jazz influence.”
It was just a year and a half ago that the band really connected to the larger local scene that includes its dancers and burlesque performers.
The group started throwing a weekly Sunday brunch at the Ace Hotel, located in the business district, which drew the dancers out.
“We would come in there hungover, and play the best we could from the late-night prior,” Kelley says. “We ended up meeting all these wonderful people in the community. Our friend group tripled. We met an army of fun people and we see them a lot more often.”
If there was any question about whether the group was really part of the city’s jazz scene, having groups of local swing dancers voluntarily performing at the shows pretty much set the record straight. There is occasionally a local that will drill them on what high school they went to to see if they are truly local, but mostly with the support of WWOZ and the local arts scene, they feel like they fit right in, and are happy to deliver that culture in and outside of New Orleans.
“We have hoped to earn that so far. It takes a long time,” Kelley says. “We do a lot for and with that city because we really love it.”
Bon Bon Vivant perform at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, May 30, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $8. 429-6994. They will also perform on Thursday, May 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Michaels on Main, 2591 S Main St., Soquel. $7/adv, $10/door. 479-9777.