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In the Swing of Things: An Interview with Back Room Speakeasy host Svetlana Shmulyian

Svetlana Shmulyia photographed by Shervin Lainez

Swing music might have its leather soles firmly planted on American soil, but its impact extends far beyond the hardwood floors of New York’s finest jazz clubs.

“Jazz is uniquely American,” explains Russian-born, American “musically” bred singer Svetlana Shmulyian, who is the musical director of The Back Room’s weekly live swing night. “[With its roots] brought over with the slaves from Africa, jazz essentially grew from a feeling of struggle and a desire for freedom; something we grapple with daily in my home country.”

Delving back in history, when the borders around the Soviet Union closed in and the citizens were forced to do “a certain kind of thing in a certain kind of way,” music like jazz was cast away because of its expression of this desire for freedom.

“People were ridiculed for listening to this kind of music,” she shares, recounting a vintage flyer she’s held onto from the 20s, reading: “Today he’s playing jazz; Tomorrow he’ll sell his Motherland.”

Jazz truly made its mark on the Soviet Union during WWII when it was used as a cultural weapon; bands were hired to travel around entertaining the troops in an attempt to cheer them up. In the decades following the war, a revival of the genre encouraged such visitors as Duke Ellington.

“My parents—who were young in the sixties—had exposure to this revival,” Shmulyian says. As a result, the curious young listener had access to a collection of jazz records reissued by the Soviet record label Melodiya.

Svetlana Shmulyian photographed by Lauren Deseberg

“I would listen to those records—mostly vocal music—and emulate them. So, when I talk about my path into this genre with New Yorkers, our stories are actually quite similar,” she smiles.

Adhering to her parents’ wishes to study “something practical,” Shmulyian chose mathematics. She nonetheless carried on her love for music and continued to study privately and participate in bands and musical theater to stay engaged with the music.

Then something magical happened. At age 23, she received a scholarship to study in the U.S. “I still remember that moment leaving JFK as if it was yesterday. As cliché as it sounds, it was the first day of the rest of my life.”

Shmulyian immediately fell in love with New York and how “weird and wonderful it was in its last breaths before gentrification. I caught the anarchists and the artists living in illegal lofts, the dilapidated Bushwick and the untouched Williamsburg. It was tapped into the core of who I always was, but never allowed myself to be.”

Persistence is key in Gotham and it didn’t take long for the strong-willed singer to squeeze her way into the swing scene in her new homeland. In her first few years, she did her homework and surrounded herself with a high caliber of musicians at a time when traditional jazz and swing were making a resurgence, flurrying again in the 2000s thanks to the release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

She shares, “When I first got here, I witnessed these incredible old-timers dancing swing to older bands at Irving Plaza. It was like being transported. When Gatsby came out, the old-timers were still around, but the craze spilled over into the general population and a younger crowd emerged—dressing the part, looking ever so stylish.”

According to Shmulyian, 90% of New York’s swing dancing scene is under the age of 30. “These are the people of today, of the ‘here and now,’ who are attracted by the beauty and escapism of it all… a lot of people meet on the scene, too. It’s a great group activity on any given night, even a Monday!”

Shmulyian has been performing her swing set with her band, The Delancey Five, every Monday at the Back Room for seven years now. Ironically, she stumbled upon the gig by chance.

“I was supposed to play this gig at a little spot in the East Village when the owner texted me that he had bumped us for a private event,” she sighs. “I was livid! I was there, my band was there, I had a lot of friends excited to come. I don’t know what possessed me, but I started walking down the street going into bars and asking them to give us the space.”

Svetlana Shmulyian performs with The Delancey Five

Eventually one venue bit, but the bigger takeaway was an invitation by the Back Room’s sister bar to call up the Back Room, explaining that they were looking for a regular band.

“I figured it was never going to happen, but I called… and called again… and called again… nobody responded. Then, a few weeks later they called up and gave us a Monday spot.”

This was a huge win for Shmulyian and her band since the venue rarely committed to a band of this nature in the past. In fact, they used to be closed for industry nights. With the help of the swing dancers who rallied to promote the night, the Back Room set continues to thrive today: “On any given night, we have a wonderful mix of dancers and listeners, tourists and people who are just curious about speakeasy culture.

“New York will always be here by the virtue of strange people gravitating towards it. Hopefully our country can one day come to protect that bohemian spirit and recognize that it is an important part of who we are. Until then, we’re not going anywhere.”

Svetlana & The Delancey Five perform every Monday at the Back Room (102 Norfolk St., New York, NY)

Stay tuned for the release of her album “Night at the Movies,” which includes interpretations of movie songs that span over the last 100 years, on Sept 21 at Joe’s Pub. For more information: svetlanajazz.com

Jennifer Greenberg is a jazz junkie and music journalist based in New York. She is currently the Music and Nightlife Editor for Honeysuckle Magazine. Follow her around town or on Twitter at @jm_greenberg. Also check out her website jennifergreenbergwrites.com.

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