Blue Blazers in a Paisley World

By William Bunch / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
Glistening in sweat, his shirt nearly half unbuttoned, Gabi Marquez sways his solid frame out toward a small sea of col lege women, emoting on Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." His hoop earring catches the dim light of the sorority lounge, which reveals a cluster of young MIT women sitting cross-legged about the room.

Welcome to the Jabberwock world - sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, a cappella style. This vocal group may date back to a time when Mick Jagger was still in diapers, but thanks to undergraduates like Marquez '01, the Jabberwocks hope to be around long after Mick can no longer move. And why not? This is a musical group that sprang up from post-World War II youthful spunk, that elders labeled a "musically minor organization" made up of "mad dogs," that bent lyrics to protest the Vietnam War in the 1960s, that saw Led Zeppelinesque breakups and splits in the 1970s and 1980s, and that reinvented itself in the MTV age with visual verve, humor, and even choreography. If the times they are a changin', the Jabberwocks are keeping up with the change.

This Saturday-night Cambridge gig is before a sorority-like outfit called the MIT Women's Independent Living Group, whose members are prone to passing out slices of sugar-laced cheesecake spiked with gooey blueberries. The "a cappella guys," as one Independent Living woman calls them, are changing from summery flip-flops and polo shirts into traditional Jabberwock garb, including heavy blue blazers. One Jabberwock, Peter Kim '02, is putting on a tie - borrowed just seconds earlier from a men's dorm on campus nearby - over the bare chest of his unbuttoned shirt.

"I don't know why you're going to wear your jackets and ties," one upperclasswoman tells the group.

"Don't worry," replies Tom Balamaci '00, his blue shirt pressed and tightly buttoned. "We take our clothes off in the middle of the show. It's kind of a Full Monty thing.'"

The woman giggles and leaves, but with the mercury still hovering around ninety, a serious debate ensues. "I think we should wear our polo shirts for summer gigs," Balamaci says, but he is stared down by the others, especially by musical director Joe Kleinman, who is something of a taskmaster. A drill sergeant with a pitch pipe, Kleinman '00 has kept his long sleeves buttoned for the past two humid hours.

There are two things you need to know about the Jabberwocks: The first is the amazing way the group has managed to surf atop the last fifty years of American youth culture, writing its own history of modern pop music as filtered through the blue-blazer-and-khakis set. The group's recent anthology CD - entitled, simply, The Jabberwocks - traces its progress from the innocent barbershop days of "Halls of Ivy" through the soft pop of the Association's "Never My Love"and on into the 1990s. Their MIT performance shows how far the Jabberwocks have come: particularly revealing is their sensual rendition of "Sexual Healing," a tune and subject matter unimaginable when the group was harmonizing on "Mood Indigo" back during the later days of the Truman Administration.

But even more telling about the Jabberwocks and their fiftieth-anniversary year is how the verities of life as a college guy really haven't changed at all. Close your eyes and listen to any member of the Jabberwocks tell you his stories about cars breaking down on the road or sliding into snow banks, about singing in bars late at night for a free gin and tonic, about the hours of rehearsal to create what the current Jabberwocks call "a fraternity of song." Listening to all that, you can't tell whether the person telling the story is from the class of '61 or '01.

The Jabberwocks, after all, are about keeping tradition fresh. Under the heavy wool of their sport coats, the Jabberwocks can feel the weight of those fifty years. It's why they will perform below chemistry textbooks and a Star Trek poster in this hothouse of a sorority library for the next hour, while other guys are out on a breezy patio scoping out girls and chowing down on ribs, and while some other students are in a nearby lot bashing a car with sledgehammers - for charity, they claim. It's why they keep such 1950s doo-wop standards as "Oh Joe" and "Come and Go With Me" frontloaded in their set, despite some serious backstage bickering.

"So, Joe," Balamaci says sarcastically as Kleinman runs down the song order, "basically our strategy is to lose them early in the performance, right?"

In 1949 Patti Page ruled the pop charts, Truman had just defeated Dewey, and Casey Stengel was in his first year as manager of the New York Yankees. College enrollment was starting to swell, thanks to the G.I. bill, but just about the only outlet for Brown students who wanted to sing was the yearly fraternity contest on the steps of the John Carter Brown library. The lucky ones made the University Glee Club, which held a Microsoft-like monopoly on formal singing performances, but it was inevitable that some students would look longingly toward Yale's famous Wiffenpoofs, created in 1909 by students who gathered to sing at a New Haven pub. In the 1940s, groups like Harvard's Krockodiloes popped up as rivals.

Blackboard Jungle was still six years away, but the subtle breezes of young rebellion were already in the air when Bill Kissell Jr. was one of several undergrads getting a little bored with the formality of the glee clubs. Kissell '52 and his friends wanted a little less structure - which may be a kind way of saying that he wanted to serenade Pembroke girls and maybe even crack open a cold Narragansett during a rehearsal. With classmate Skip Danforth and a couple of other men, Kissell formed the singing group that, after Kissell heard a fraternity brother stand up at dinner one night and recite Lewis Carroll's "The Jabberwocky," was christened with its name. In those first few years, the group had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Glee Club, but soon student organizations started booking the Jabberwocks more often than they booked the officially sanctioned club.

That was what prompted the historic, or maybe histrionic, 1956 outburst by then-Music Department chair Arlan Coolidge, who in a letter to a dean accused the group of "self-interest" and urged they be placed under control of his department, which, as it happened, also ran the Glee Club. Coolidge called the Jabberwocks "a misguided small group of students whose product is a type of vaudeville." For the record, it should be noted that while the Jabberwocks still thrive, the Glee Club died in 1971.

Though the Jabberwocks may have provoked a response not unlike the one greeting Elvis in 1956, the group wasn't exactly wailing "Heartbreak Hotel." The song mix was heavy on barbershop harmonies, show tunes, and such campy collegiate songs as "Never Throw a Lighted Lamp at Mother." But by playing regularly at fraternity semiformals, the Biltmore Hotel and, of course, women's colleges, the Jabberwocks were definitely Big Men On Campus during the 1950s.

"We never had any trouble getting dates, either on the road or at home - that was the nice part about it," boasts Ted Martin '60, who adds that one of the Pembroke girls that he serenaded back then is still his wife today. Martin recalls that most of the early Jabberwocks had honed their vocal skills at such Northeastern prep schools as Choate, his own alma mater, and that on campus most had strong ties to such fraternities as Sigma Nu, where the Jabberwocks rehearsed every day.

The group added some calypso numbers after playing spring break in Bermuda one year, but most of the performances were in the style of the popular, white-bread Four Freshmen. "You'd smile and pick out a girl in the audience," recalls Martin, "and stand there with your hands in your pockets." Of course, there were also misadventures that never made the official archives. Once, when Martin and the other Jabberwocks performed at a vocal group competition at Columbia in the late 1950s, the band's man-ager, who was from a wealthy Manhattan family, announced that a friend who was managing Har-lem's famed Cotton Club had invited them to perform that night for free drinks. The Jabberwocks were more than a little surprised, though, to find that this incarnation of the Cotton Club was as a strip joint. "The guys were introduced, and they made the stripper leave the stage," Martin recalled. "Nobody was too excited to see us."

The 1960s brought pressure on several fronts. On campus, competition sprang up from an offshoot of the still-vengeful Glee Club, the Bruinaires, which was suddenly stealing

some of the Jabberwocks' best singers. In the world beyond the Van Wickle gates, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and others were rapidly changing the types of music that students listened to. Blue blazers suddenly seemed awfully drab in a paisley world.

Tom Momberg, the band's musical director in the late 1960s, recalls the fateful day when he showed up at a rehearsal for arrangements that would include acoustic guitar and string bass. "It was what was popular at the time,'' shrugs Momberg '70, now an Episcopal minister in Lawrence, Kansas. While Iron Butterfly ruled the album charts, the Jabberwocks played the softer greatest hits of the Association and Jimmy "MacArthur Park" Webb, with an occasional bow to the Beatles and to "Civil War," a folkie tune altered to become an anti-Vietnam protest number. The only thing that seemed to stay the same about these Jabberwocks was that, in the parlance of the times, chicks still dug them.

In the 1970s things started to happen very fast. Fraternities were dying, as were many other traditional campus activities, and the University got a jolt in 1971, when Pembroke was abolished and Brown went coed. The women had had their own proud vocal tradition - the Chattertocks, a 1950s creation of some Jabberwock girlfriends were particularly popular - and so the merger of 1971 had an important choral side effect: the Jabberwocks began singing such songs as Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets," and their performances now featured flowing dresses beside those blue blazers.

Unfortunately, the new look coincided with a period of waning popularity. To be fair, by 1975 the whole world of music was in disarray. The Beatles were gone; the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart were about to cut disco records; Bob Dylan was about to find God; and Elvis was about to meet Him personally. When the Jabberwocks vanished from the scene that fall, few people noticed.

By 1980, things were changing quickly once again. College students were getting a little more conservative - some Brown students were said to have voted for Ronald Reagan that year. After the individualistic 1960s and 1970s, group activities started to rebound in popularity. No student on campus in the late 1970s had ever seen the Jabberwocks perform, but when alumni visited Providence they sometimes recounted the legends of the now-vanished octet. Some of these alumni were old enough to send their own children to Brown. One was John Dorer '55, whose two sons, Jack '81 and Tom '84, are credited with resurrecting the Jabberwocks. Depending on which version of the story you believe, the boys accomplished this either in response to their dad's inspiring stories or after being faced with the threat of nonpayment of tuition.

The first auditions for the reconstituted Jabberwocks were held in the Sigma Chi lounge, and even the Dorer brothers were surprised when twenty men - the coed years were now ancient history - showed up to try out for six spots. The new a cappella guys didn't know many songs - many of the old Jabberwock arrangements were long lost - and so they only performed a couple of times that first year. But the group quickly caught on, so much so that in the mid-1980s one leader tried to take the Jabberwocks professional, sparking several years of balkanized infighting so complex that the specifics will have to be sorted out by the group's official historian, known in Jabberwockese as the Slithy Toth.

In any event, a cappella singing was suddenly way cool. Disco was dead, and heavy metal was a joke to be lampooned in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. Now, smooth operators like Sade and the Culture Club's Boy George ruled the pop charts, and groups like the Nylons and Boyz II Men even had a cappella hits. And while initially the new Jabberwocks sang mostly 1950s-style doo-wop, in time the repertoire grew to include more up-tempo contemporary and Motown-style fare.

"We were always trying to find songs that our audience wanted to hear," recalls Jared Poppel '91. The Jabberwocks performed arrangements of songs such as "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" by Crosby Stills & Nash, or even numbers by Prince. The group moved away from four-part harmony and into more solo-and-background-singing numbers, sometimes adding the technique known as vocal percussion. "We recorded 'Stairway to Heaven,' with Andrew Chaikin ['91] singing a drum track," Poppel says, "and afterward people said to us, 'If you're an a cappella group, why did you use a drum machine?'"

The Jabberwocks became such a campus fixture that the University gave the group its own rehearsal room in North Wayland, in the old Lambda Chi Alpha Bar. Above the door, the fraternity brothers had painted a motto that applied equally to the new tenants: "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, sermons and soda water the day after." Like the Jabberwocks of old, these guys just wanted to have fun. "College listeners don't care if it's hard to sing, they want it to be entertaining," says Thano Chaltas '87, one of the group's past leaders. In auditions, raw singing talent was good but on-stage charisma was even better. Song introductions soon became comedy skits. In the early 1990s, the group that once serenaded sororities was now singing Madonna's "Vogue," complete with choreography. The Jabberwocks had found their way in the age of MTV. No longer just a vocal group, they were now something to see.

Three of the nine Jabberwocks have broken from the group's normal U formation and are now planted like frogs on the carpet of the MIT sorority lounge. They croak "jab," "wok," and "err" faster and faster until it blurs into the band's name - "Jab." "Errr." "Wock." - a sound reminiscent of a swampy commercial for a certain beer out of St. Louis that until recently was broadcast on television sporting events every six minutes or so.

There is method in this amphibian madness, however. As the croaking Jabberwocks spring from their crouches, the group segues into its version of "Rainbow Connection," a song etched on every kid's brain since Kermit the Frog sang it on Sesame Street in the 1970s. As James Rich '01 sings in his best Jim Henson-like warble, the remaining octet sways and harmonizes, holding up a crudely drawn, bright-hued sun, some clouds, and eventually an arching rainbow - all of which draws giggles and knowing nudges from the MIT sisters, who were raised on PBS reruns. The first half of the set, which includes the doo-wop tune "Come and Go With Me" and the barber-shop classic "Oh Joe," is met with modest smiles and polite applause - a reminder of the backstage feuding over the set's pacing. The show's turning point is something called "Scooby" - not a song at all but a four minute skit lampooning the cartoon classic Scooby Doo and its predictable weekly plots.

The group rolls right into a contemporary pop classic, the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back," with group members mimicking the song's familiar, funky guitar-and-piano intro before moving into the gospel-tinged call-and-response chorus. Many of the songs in the set feature solo performances that allow the members' individual personalities to emerge. One quickly senses that Kleinman is the serious one, Kim the comic one, Marquez the sensual one, and so on. As the Jabberwocks get deeper into their forty-five-minute set, the act veers heavily into post-Baby Boomer pop culture, and the nine singers soon have the Women's Independent Living Group and its blueberry cheesecake right in the palm of their hands.

The Jabberwocks believe that stage presence is key to their ability to remain atop Brown's fiercely competitive a cappella scene. Today's ever-shifting array of about a dozen or so a cappella groups is comprised variously of men, women, men and women, international students, Catholics, Jews, and various other affinities and groupings. Perhaps the most serious competition comes from the Brown Derbies, which was formed in 1982; but the Bear Necessities, the Higher Keys, Harmonic Motion, the Ursa Minors, and the still-thriving Chattertocks all have their fans.

The struggle to stay on top may have inspired last year's spring concert in Sayles Hall: taking on what is arguably the greatest pop album of the group's fifty-year existence, the Jabberwocks performed the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety, complete with a psychedelic light show. This May, the group followed this up by gathering almost 100 of the 200 living Jabberwock alumni at Sayles Hall to sing in a special fiftieth-anniversary concert that featured performances from six distinct eras, all of them leading up to a mass rendition of the group's traditional finale, "The Farewell Song."

Such traditions still echo in the jewelry-studded ears of the newest crop of Jabberwocks. When a soloing Kleinman, with his eight tie-clad mates plodding right behind, steps over plates of cheesecake crumbs to serenade a red-faced blond pledge with "You Send Me," it's almost possible to imagine that you are back at a 1957 Smith College mixer. Indeed, minutes after the show ends with Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," the vocalists slowly divide into small clusters of chat made up mostly of admiring MIT women, and a married-with-children visitor takes this as his cue to exit, stage right, back to the mundane world of sermons and soda water.

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November / December 1999