On the Money

Money Plays Eight was a gamble from the start--but it's paying off.

Just because the word "swing" frequently accompanies descriptions of Money Plays Eight's music doesn't mean the members of the group are happy about it.

"We wouldn't even describe ourselves as swing," insists singer James Leo, one of two imposing frontmen for the nine-piece ensemble, a nominee for this week's Westword Music Awards Showcase. "Actually, I don't think a lot of people would describe us as swing, either. I think swing is one of the biggest misnomers. And we can be kind of tricky for the swingers, because sometimes we change beats and tempos in the middle of a song."

"We're pretty fast-paced," notes guitarist Don "Martini" Jerome, "and some dancers can't do all their lindy hop moves."

If the group's music doesn't necessarily cater to choreographed dance steps, it's unashamedly enamored of many of the retro movement's totems, icons and accoutrements. Several tracks on the band's debut CD, Yeah, Charlie!, exhort listeners to grab a partner in order to jump and jive--and the musicians are heavily into the concept of fashion as a statement. Trombone and harmonica whiz Dave Flomberg doesn't even flinch when defending Money Plays Eight's clothing sense.

"Fashion and music go hand in hand," he points out. "Are the zoot suits, spats and fedoras really that different from ripped jeans and T-shirts?"

Not for these guys. Even on a night off, the Money men (Leo, Jerome, Flomberg, singer Craig "Bushmills" Mills, pianist Chris Alaimo, guitarist Mike Taveira, drummer Nick White, saxophonist Paul Dubbs and trumpeter Jason Dowe) look as dapper as can be, and packs of smokes and clinking tumblers of bourbon and ice are rarely out of reach. Fedoras are optional at home, but as Leo confirms, the look and feel of this late-night crowd come by choice, not chance. "From my perspective, attitude-wise, we're a cross between the Rat Pack, the Stones and the Beastie Boys."

Leo traces part of the group's focus on women, gambling and glamour to his frequent childhood exposure to the neon and action of casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In fact, he confesses with a laugh, Circus Circus is one of his favorite vacation spots. "My family was a bunch of gamblers," he says. "We'd go to Vegas every year for Christmas. The biggest thing that sticks in my mind is the first time I went out there with my folks. I was ten years old, it was in 1976, and that's when Lefty Rosenthal--remember the movie Casino?--was running the Stardust." During subsequent trips, young Leo picked up on the jargon associated with gambling and discovered one phrase in particular that rolled off his tongue with ease. "If you're playing with money instead of chips and you put money on the table, they say, 'Money plays.' If you're playing craps and you put money on number eight, they say, 'Money plays eight.'"

Back in Denver, where he works as a firefighter, Leo had the urge to turn these influences into a musical project, but he didn't know where to start. He found his first clue in the fashion market.

"Me and Craig met at a hair-modeling show," he says. "They were scouting for guys with rockabilly-type pompadours dressed a certain way, and we were. We had the clothes, the hair, all that. We showed up to this thing, and I was like, 'Who the fuck's this guy?' So we went to a bar and started drinking and talking about music. He was thinking about going back to L.A. and trying to start a band, because he knew some guys from the Royal Crown Revue and the New Morty Show. I said, 'Well, let's do it here. You could be a little fish in a big pond, or you can sit here and swim around our pond a little bit and grow to be a big fish.'"

The strategy turned out to be a wise one. Over the course of the past eighteen months, Money Plays Eight has become a red-hot commodity in Denver's burgeoning swing/dance/big-band scene. Its success is due in part to the group's irresistible knack for calling patrons to the dance floor and for the interlocking grooves and jazz flashiness shown off by most of the Players. But their threads deserve a lot of the credit, too.

"When we were out scouting around to fill positions, we kept getting the wrong kind of people responding to the ad in the newspaper," Leo says. "So we just went out to bars, hit the scene and asked people. It took us a while, because we usually ended up just getting loaded."

One of the first recruits was the aptly nicknamed Martini, who has become Money Plays Eight's de facto hospitality administrator.

"I wanted Donnie in the band," Leo remembers. "I met him at a party and asked him to join, and he was standoffish at first--like, 'Who's this drunken asshole?'"

Martini shakes his head and chuckles at the thought. "He was hammered!"
Today, Leo insists that alcohol isn't required to appreciate Money Plays Eight. "I see people pimping out the martinis and the cigars and things like that. But the people who are really into dancing don't even drink."

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