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Songstress takes musical journey to early jazz era

In Janet Klein’s world, everything old is new again—from her perfectly coifed 1920s-era bob to her musical repertoire of historic ballads from the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s.

The historical preservationist and seasoned songstress of Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys is happily at home in a bygone era reclaimed as her own. She invites the Claremont community to join her on the journey at this year’s Claremont Folk Festival, to be held at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden on Saturday, June 15.

“Nowadays [artists] don’t spend much time setting up the story. They just get to the hook of the song and are too busy with fancy instrumental sections and showing off musical prowess. It’s no longer about clever lyrics or the band working together as a musical unit,” she said.

The lineup of this year’s Claremont Folk Festival runs the gamut from the globally flavored folk tunes of Round Mountain to the soulful tunes of Peter Harper and his four-string tenor guitar. Spoken word artist Henry Rollins is also among the long and varied list of performers.

Ms. Klein’s music takes the audience on a nostalgic musical trip through the syncopated melodies of ragtime to the spirited tunes of the early jazz era. It’s all with the help of her trademark ukulele (jazzed up to glow-in-the dark for her Folk Festival performance) and her 8-man Parlor Boys band, who juggle accordion, guitar, banjo, bass, coronet, mandolin, piano, trumpet and trombone, just to name a few.

She looks forward to taking the time to appreciate the past with her friends at the Folk Music Center, where Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys are known to make a yearly February appearance.

The sights and sounds of Ms. Klein’s childhood in the Inland Empire awoke her curiosity in yesteryear. Family outings to historic spaces like the Mission Inn in Riverside, the Sycamore Inn in Rancho Cucamonga and downtown Redlands’ historic district provided her a welcome glimpse into the past of her favorite regional haunts.

“All the things that were most beautiful and interesting to me were old,” Ms. Klein acknowledged.  

Her curiosities were further inspired by tales of the past told by her grandparents. A former magician and magician’s assistant, her grandfather and grandmother took their act across the country, during the jazz age. Ms. Klein remembers her grandmother’s closet as a treasure trove of things past, filled with glamorous gowns and bedazzled objects.

“I fell in love with the fashion sense of that time, the art deco and design in general,” she said. “I was completely swept away.”

Eager to add to the memories of her grandparents’ stories, Ms. Klein began collecting her own treasure trove of historic objects, with a particular affinity for music sheets, old photographs and other unique paper goods of the early 20th century found on leisurely afternoons at antique paper fairs. Ms. Klein’s favorite keepsake—found buried among the delicate paper piled high at one such fair—is an old booklet titled Paris S’Amuse, a souvenir item that Ms. Klein believes would have been available for purchase at a grand theater in Paris in the 1890s. The booklet contains engraved vignettes of all the artists featured at the theater.

“It’s like seeing through a window into that time period,” Ms. Klein reflected.

Instead of letting her collections gather dust, Ms. Klein employed her treasures to inspire her innate artistic inclinations. She began by recapturing the likeness of the images found in her photographs and catalogues in paint. However, sitting behind canvas wasn’t enough to quench her desire for creativity and showmanship.  

“Painting was kind of a quiet thing to do and I had a certain amount of spirit about me,” Ms. Klein said.

She turned to the written word instead, writing and reciting poetry inspired by old Cole Porter tunes and the like. Little by little she began incorporating musical elements into her poetry readings—sometimes singing herself or playing the triangle, other times employing other musicians to provide some accompaniment.

When time allowed between work and performances, Ms. Klein would wander into McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica for inspiration. It was during one such outing she stumbled upon a collection of ukuleles that caught her attention.

“And then it was all over,” she teased.

Ms. Klein bought a ukulele, now a trademark element of her set, and began what would become 4 years of once-a-week lessons at McCabe’s, mastering the ukulele.

“I’d bring in a ghetto blaster and record my favorite tunes collected throughout the years or given to me by correspondents,” Ms. Klein shared. “At the end of 4 years I had a huge log of all my favorite songs.”

With uke in hand, Ms. Klein took to performing. It was the first time she found others who appreciated the early 20th century as much as she did.

“It was utterly satisfying in every way for me because I was able to just express things that I loved with other people who shared the same interest, and allowed me to comment on contemporary society without complaining,” she quipped.

Ms. Klein now spends her time not only crafting her own songs inspired by the past, but reliving days gone by as she performs in some of LA’s most notable historic venues. Her favorite is the Cicada Club at the Oviatt, with all its original design elements dating back to the late 1930s still intact.

“It’s perfect. For me, there is nothing better,” she maintains. “It takes me there.”

While she is often performing in Los Angeles or on tour in locales as far away as Japan, Ms. Klein still finds time to return to her artwork. She recently melded her studio artist and musician sides to produce her very own novelty instrument, the Kleinette Firefly Flapper Banjolele. The ukulele extraordinaire will be offering a tutorial and sharing her expertise at a ukulele workshop to take place at the Folk Festival. The class time is currently being determined.

Ms. Klein looks forward to helping her audience get in tune with their own appreciation of the past. “You never know what you’re going to find,” she said.

The Claremont Folk Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 15. For tickets and information, visit www.folkmusiccenter.com/folk-festival.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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