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  • Jonathan Widran

Q&A with Rolland Jacks and Emilio Palame About Their New Film KNIGHTS OF SWING

Ignited by the powerful post WWI memories of veteran musician, composer and songwriter Rolland Jacks, the new independent feature length film “Knights of Swing” takes us back to the late 40s Los Angeles, tracing the highs, lows, challenges and disappointments and ultimate triumphs of a high school swing band determined to realize their dreams. Taking place between WWII and the Civil Rights era, the group of young talented musicians must navigate a world still very much entrenched in prejudices and antiquated world views. Starring veteran actor Richard Neil as Mr. Miller, the film was co-written by Jacks, veteran composer, arranger and actor Emilio Palame (who also co-stars) and David Gutel, co-directed by Palame and Gutel, produced by Donald Nguyen and features 17 original original jazz/big band numbers co-composed by Jacks and Palame and arranged by Palame, plus a fresh twist on the Peggy Lee classic “Things Are Swingin’”.

Beginning Friday, March 25, the film, available in 1080p and 4K, will be available for $4.99 for a 48-hour streaming rental via Vimeo on Demand

The following is a Q&A with Rolland Jacks and Emilio Palame about “Knights of Swing.”

Before we talk about your incredible collaboration on “Knights of Swing,” I would like for each of you to share a bit about your extensive musical and creative backgrounds and especially your previous work together.

Rolland: I grew up in a very musical family where my dad played many instruments and I was exposed to many different kinds of music. I played in bands and then a swing band in high school, all without formal training. I played saxophone in a band called Knights of Swing and the school I graduated high school from (Compton Community College) won the first California Battle of the Bands in 1950. This is the real life basis of the film. Over the years, I have written many songs and composed everything from musicals to operettas. I met Emilio about 22 years ago through a mutual friend and he began orchestrating my music and polishing my little jams and bringing them to life. I tell everyone there is a huge difference between writing a tune on a lead sheet and having a genius like Emilio bring it to life, beauty and fullness, orchestrating it so people love what they’re hearing.

Emilio: I started singing in a rock group called The Magical Staircase in 6th grade. We played at dances and the YMCA. I started studying piano around seven or eight, and learned to play by ear until I began studying formally with a classical teacher. By my senior year in high school, I had learned enough songs to audition for music school, and joined and then ran the jazz ensemble when I attended Fredonia State University. I continued with a big band in Buffalo with members from that group and we performed all around upstate New York and Southern Canada. When I moved to Southern California, I played nightclubs and other gigs until I finally got the piano chair with Peggy Lee, which changed my whole career. I played, arranged and orchestrated for her from 1984-95. I also did the same with Paul Williams, Connie Stevens and Lainie Kazan. When my friend Grant Geissman wasn’t available for a tour with Chuck Mangione, he recommended me and Chuck switched out guitar for my piano. Playing with him for several years was a big thrill. In the mid-2000s, my son and I composed music for Nickelodeon’s Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, and the residual checks allowed me in 2010 to finally pursue my dream of becoming an actor. After joining Groundlings and taking four acting classes a week, my career took off and I’ve been in 100 films and 16 web series since.

Rolland, what inspired you to create “Knights of Swing”?

Rolland: Emilio and I had been working on a project called “47 Days” about the last 47 days of Christ’s life on earth when I got the idea that I should write a musical about my experiences as a kid at Castle Junior High in Lynwood. I dredged up a song I had written some years later (1956) when I was a 7th grade teacher called “Schoolroom Blues” which all the kids loved. I sent it to Emilio and he said, ‘Gee this is a nice change from the sacred music we’ve been working on.’ He created a new arrangement and it sounded fantastic. We thought maybe we could something with it. Then I wrote another song and while I was out driving, I started thinking there was a potential musical here. If we did it, it would have to have a romantic song like the kind they played at the end of high school dances. Johnny Mercer’s ‘Dream’ came to mind and I set out to write a song with a similar mood. Once I wrote “Love is Ours Tonight,” the fantasy world of 1947 slowly started coming together. I started writing dialogue in my head, and finally began writing the script about a small combo of boys that went to their teacher to help them form a big band. That concept led to ‘You’ve Gotta Have a Dream.’ Emilio and I got so involved that at some point we decided to put ’47 Days’ on hold and dedicate our time to ‘Knights of Swing.’

I know you grew up in Lynwood and won a Battle of the Bands in 1950. How much of the film is autobiographical?

Rolland: Most of the story is fiction, but it is a fact that I was in the band that won Battle of the Bands, and of course I figured the kids who formed the band would have problems to overcome on the way to achieving their goals of competing and winning.

Emilio, when did you enter the picture, so to speak?

Emilio: It was pretty easy. Rolland’s songs that form the basis of the movie are so good. They were not written as big band tunes but because of my background in big band music, they were easy to adapt. It was a natural fit turning the songs into big band arrangements. Big band scores and charts had always been my passion so I was immediately excited about the whole project. Rolland was aware how dedicated I was to my acting career and he wanted me to play “King Arthur,” jazz pianist and principal of the school. So many elements came together serendipitously that we couldn’t have planned, it felt like the universe somehow wanted “Knights of Swing” to happen. That includes our vocal arranger Darlene Koldenhoven finding us the three female singers to play “The 3 B’s” and me having worked on a Netflix show called “Prodigy” with Richard Neil, who Rolland felt would be perfect for Mr. Miller. Shooting some of this film during the pandemic added many challenges and a lot of extra money to the budget, but everyone involved was truly invested in making this passion project a success. There was also a real chemistry that developed between the six guys who had the original combo that were later the foundation of the big band.

Rolland: When I started giving these songs to Emilio to develop and arrange, I realized that the 40’s big band style I had envisioned – the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown vibe – was different from what Emilio came up with. His arrangements of “Schoolroom Blues” and “Love Is Ours Tonight” were so good that I didn’t realize that his first experiences with big band were 20 years after the time in the film, and sounded a bit different. But I don’t think anyone would notice that unless we pointed it out.

Emilio: Point well taken. In reality, though, my passion for big band emerged from my love of Count Basie, who had been playing in a different style than Miller’s, even though they were contemporaries. Basie had a different kind of swing, a more soulful sound that I gravitated to, and I gravitated towards that when I was working on Rolland’s songs.

Rolland, when did you finish your first draft of the script and how close is it to what we now see onscreen? Were Emilio and David Gutel involved in writing from the start or did they come in after the first draft?

Rolland: I wrote many drafts actually. I knew we had a musical but I wondered if it would translate best to a film or a ten episode series. I started writing the script as ten 24 minute episodes, and in the course of that, I wrote songs to fit each one. We filmed two episodes and screened them as a 45 minute film for test audiences at several locations in L.A. Then COVID hit and we realized we were never going to be able to shoot ten episodes. We went through my drafts of those two and eight other potential episodes, which would total approximately 240 minutes. I told Emilio and David Gutel, who were already working on revisions, that we had to make it into a feature film, we had to connect those storylines into the 45 minutes we had already shot. Since it was my baby, I thought I would have a hard time figuring out what to cut, so I backed out of the script editing and gave them to project to develop into a viable film script. I kept the right to veto anything I disagreed with, but letting them take over made it way easier for me.

Emilio: Rolland put it to me this way. “Emilio, let’s say you wrote a 20 minute piece of music and those who were going to use the composition said it needs to be only 10 minutes but you’re not going to edit it, they are.” He knew how difficult it was to let me and David do it but he trusted us to make good decisions. David was actually the First Assistant Director on the pilot, and he contributed so much to the process I decided to make him co-director.

Rolland: Some things I wrote they used verbatim, and there were quite a few ideas I created that had to be cut. But Emilio and David came up with incredible ideas that I would never have thought of, and the end result was great because of their changes. At the end, I wasn’t sure how to get the trumpet player character who quits the band and joins their rival to come back and reconcile with his old mates. When they figured it out so perfectly, I knew I had made the right decision to back out.

When it came to writing and arranging, what was your collaborative process like?

Rolland: For each piece, I would write out a lead sheet with basic chords. Emilio wouldn’t change the melody. The way he arranged them made them much richer harmonically. In the case of “The Victory Stomp,” I wrote that out and called it “T Bone Raw” featuring the trombone. Emilio wasn’t sure about that approach, so he changed it to reflect the connection to this being the postwar period, where each band would be required to play something to reflect the free world’s victory.

Emilio: When Rolland would send me a lead sheet, the first thing I would do is reharmonize the chords to be jazzier than how he wrote it. “Guessin’ Game” was a country song he wrote that I turned into a jazz swing tune. Because of COVID, we recorded everything remotely. I used high quality MIDI instruments and was proficient at computer orchestration, so using those tools I would create a mock-up of me playing all the instruments. I wrote out all the parts for the sax, trumpet and trombone players to record their parts, and Darlene arranged and recorded the vocal parts in her studio. So, including Bob Leatherbarrow’s drums, there were four satellite studios total funneling into mine, which was the hub. Several musicians, including lead sax player Brian Scanlon and trumpeter Mike Rocha, are from Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. Gordon is a longtime friend who also plays the judge Mr. Hughes in the film.

What did you enjoy most about the experience of creating “Knights of Swing”?

Emilio: Having led my own big band and so many ensembles over the years, I have always been in positions of leadership and have a natural way of communicating and bringing people together. It was natural for me to wear many different hats, from finding actors to doing the orchestration and arranging and setting up shots, to help Rolland realize his vision. More importantly, we became a family. The symmetry and unity was amazing. Talk to any of the actors, and they’ll tell you it was one of their most magical on set experiences ever.

Rolland: Wearing all those hats, Emilio sometimes worked 16-18 hour days and frankly I was worried about this breaking him. But he was so excited to finish the film and so determined to do it at such a high quality level. We give credit to God for answering our prayers and feel the whole project was blessed. I attribute much of the great on set mood to Emilio’s leadership. He made sure this would be a good experience where everyone worked their butts off to make things happen.

Emilio: It sounds like a minor point, but one of the contributing factors was also Rolland’s generosity as far as having the best two catering companies in Los Angeles to feed us organic food. So on those long hot days in Pomona, we were well nourished!

For more information:

Drawing on the spirited high school big band memories of its co-creator Rolland Jacks, the new independent film Knights of Swing is an joyful and exuberant yet poignant and socially conscious look at America's post WWII years, driven by fantastic performances (especially by actors Richard Neil and Emilio Palame) and a killer original slate of classic-styled big band songs written and arranged by Jacks and Palame. It's a true labor of love that captures the spirit of a unique era of American history while celebrating one of its greatest musical art forms - Jonathan Widran
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