Very few Canadian bands can sell out a prestigious venue like Carnegie Hall in days, nine months before their concert date.
This year, the Hot Sardines – fronted by Elizabeth Bougerol, their half-French, half-Canadian vocalist – did.
Her eight-piece band, specializing in jazz of the 1920s to the 1950s, grew at first in popularity playing for demanding New York City audiences, then globally, starting to tour the world in 2014. They play Koerner Hall in Toronto Feb. 14, their only Canadian appearance.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Bougerol, whose latest album, 2019′s Welcome Home, Bon Voyage – her eighth – was recorded live there and at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.
Born in France, she was raised “between St. Germain-en-Laye, France, Toronto and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.” She attended Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., studying film theory and popular culture.
She moved to New York in 1990, where she worked for years as a writer, but always longed to sing and immerse herself in the classics of early jazz.
As a self-taught vocalist, she launched the group in 2007 with Evan Palazzo, a fellow fan of the genre she met while answering a Craigslist ad. Meeting Palazzo, she has said, was “an instant musical connection. We started trading stories of songs and singers we loved while growing up, naming our biggest influences and trying out tunes together.”
She cites her university education as a keystone in her musical development, as it prompted her to ask deeper questions about pop culture.
“Who was making music in the early 1900s?” she wondered. “Who paid for that music to exist, who got to hear it, what impact did it have? I dug into how women and people of colour worked to get their voice heard through music and how it changed the conversation. Sophie Tucker, proving that a woman could talk about having [and enjoying] sex. Ella Fitzgerald, a few years out of being homeless, full-on running Chick Webb’s [all-male] band at 23, after he died. Connecting those dots was huge to me.”
Growing an audience in New York, a city of short attention spans and enormous competition, took time, she says. “It was definitely years of hard work and growing visibility.”
A turning point for the Hot Sardines came in 2010 when they performed for the first time at the prestigious Shanghai Mermaid, a 6,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn recreating the decadent atmosphere of a 1930s cabaret behind an unmarked door.
But their biggest breakthrough came thanks to a last-minute 2011 gig to play Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing, sitting in at the last minute for a band that wasn’t available. They had never before drawn an audience larger than 200 people – and played that night to an appreciative crowd of 7,000 swing dancers.
Today, while thousands flock to their shows from Phoenix to Tokyo, loyal local fans are clearly still eager to attend their concerts. This fact allows her to spend much less time on the road, and more in New York, with her husband and two sons, eight and 18 months.
“I toured until week 36 of my first pregnancy, mostly sleeping on a tour bus, in a berth, with seven other musicians, a driver, and a road manager, all male. I can’t imagine anything that would’ve prepared me better for becoming the mother of boys.”
“Kids make everything better because they ground you. You just played for 1,000 people and brought the house down? Good for you, because your son ate too much cake and now it’s 2 a.m. and he’s projectile-vomiting onto everything, including the baby. Keeps everything in the right balance, I think.”
Today, “trad bands” (traditional jazz bands) like hers are ever more popular, and she easily names seven others she admires working in the genre, including fellow New York-musician-mom-on-tour, trumpeter Bria Skonberg, from Chilliwack, B.C. She met Bougerol when both were double-billed at the Mermaid.
“It was a wild adventure,” Skonberg recalls. “We were trading sets, and it was a chance to bond from the get-go.”
“Elizabeth is inspiring. She’s an extremely charismatic, cool performer and one of the best I’ve ever seen. We love to connect with audiences.” The Hot Sardines have also retained members in a city and industry where many move on, she adds. “It’s a cohesive band. I greatly admire how Evan and Elizabeth have kept their partnership and band together.”
The Scottish actor Alan Cumming, owner of Club Cumming, an East Village boîte, is a long-time fan. Years ago, Bougerol extended an invitation for him to add his voice to their 2016 sophomore album, French Fries and Champagne, and he was thrilled to accept. “It was exciting,” he recalls of laying down his vocals “in the Soho studio where David Bowie recorded his last album.”
“They’re a very honourable and traditional jazz band with a cheeky twist,” Cumming says. “When you see them live you can tell they’re having fun. Elizabeth is just so warm and open and lovely.”
Seventeen years later, the band continues to evolve, she says.
“Lots of stuff is in the works for 2024, including Asia and the U.K.,” says Bougerol. “We return to Birdland [in New York] for a week in November, 2024. That month I’m doing six shows with my new solo project there with musical director and four-time Emmy winner J. Walter Hawkes. On piano is Matt Ray, who works with Taylor Mac, Bridget Everett, Justin Vivian Bond and more.” She’s also planning on collaborating with Cumming again, this time on a Weimar-themed show.
Much as New York City is home, Bougerol enjoys returning to Canada. She has deep Canadian musical roots in her maternal grandfather, the equally self-taught bandleader and composer Bobby Gimby – whose 1967 Centennial year anthem was sung across the country.
“He’s the first person I heard play jazz – I remember sitting at his feet at three or four while he practised, and sometimes he’d be writing music and he’d ask me about melodies,” she recalls. “He was a largely self-taught trumpet player, composer and arranger who built a touring orchestra from the ground up, and having now done something similar, I just wish I could pick his brain. About the music, sure, but also about everything that goes into the business of building and sustaining a music career and balancing it with family life.”
“He believed music drives home our shared humanity and brings people together – that was the entire impetus for the Canada song. He imprinted me with that idea,” she says. “I didn’t realize it was radical at the time.”