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September 19, 2014

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In Strip’s newest casino, swing act Jennifer Keith Quintet keeps spirit of Old Vegas alive

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The Jennifer Keith Quintet performs at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan.

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The Jennifer Keith Quintet performs at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan.

It’s approaching midnight on a Saturday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and while anxious clubgoers wait nearly an hour to get into Marquee, patrons of Chandelier are already dancing.

For the past three hours, singer Jennifer Keith has twirled, vamped and belted her way across the bar’s stage in a red pencil dress; meanwhile, her jazz-swing band, The Jennifer Keith Quintet, works the crowd into a frenzy, inspiring passers-by to turn the first floor of the three-level bar into an impromptu dance floor.

Once a month, the L.A.-based quintet transforms the chic, trendy venue into an oasis of a bygone Vegas era, where tube dresses and vodka Red Bulls are swapped for silk skirts and gin martinis.

The crowds have been commonplace since the group began its residency in May. The band continues to stop casino foot traffic, drawing onlookers to the edge of the bar’s banquettes well after their seats have been filled.

“People love the visual. They walk by and say, ‘Oh we love your dress,’ or ‘Oh, wow, a saxophone!’” says Keith, a dark-haired paradigm of a 1950s pinup. “It’s not a DJ making all this noise. It’s five people coming together at the same time, all making music. I think people appreciate that and appreciate the fact that we do it old school; they can wrap their head around it.”

Not to be confused with a cover band, the quintet has a sound all its own, reclaiming and reinterpreting the standards of the ’30s through ’60s with contemporary sass and bravado. In contrast to the rotating cast of indie acts and DJs that also play at the bar, the quintet makes a point of putting on a show rather than playing a concert.

“For us it’s not just a gig where we do one song after another,” says Keith, who founded the band with acclaimed swing saxophonist Mando Dorame in 2006. “We’re careful to pick the songs and transitions like the classic Vegas lounge acts, where there’s that element of surprise. Every moment should be exciting and keep your blood flowing.”

Keith has a penchant for songs made famous by male vocalists, and her sets are rife with tunes by Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. She wraps her voluptuous contralto around tired and oft-cheesy casino floor staples such as “Viva Las Vegas,” reminding listeners why such tunes put Las Vegas entertainment on the map.

“I like singing songs about people winning money and having a good time to help instill that bliss and joy that they should have in Vegas, and doing it in a classic way,” she says.

The golden age of lounge entertainment is in Keith’s blood: She hails from a long line of entertainers, beginning with her great-great-grandfather B.F. Keith, a co-founder of one of the “Big Five” classic Hollywood studios, RKO Pictures.

In today’s era of nightclubs, however, Keith and the band admit to being surprised by the crowds they draw. Keith says it only further compels her to embrace the opportunity to keep the torch of Las Vegas lounge acts alight.

“The No. 1 thing people say to us is that they never think they would find this music here,” she says. “To see their reaction and the crowds makes me feel like what I’m doing is right. It makes me confident to get up there for the next set and keep more memories alive.”

The Jennifer Keith Quintet plays Chandelier at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas at 9 p.m. today and at 8 p.m. Sunday; the band returns March 21-24. All shows are free.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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