Preparing Part Two of this three part blog post on JazzAge Monterey (formerly Dixieland Monterey), I thought I’d count the names of bands and guest artists I found a list of, only to discover that over its thirty-four year history the number of bands that performed at the event came to 160, and the number of guest artists adds up to 58, not including “youth bands” that made appearances from 1987 on.
There’s no way I can do justice to such a substantial cast of musicians, so I am going to get personal (out of necessity) and “play favorites.” I’ll focus on the years from 1987 on, for my wife Betty and I were attending all three days and nights of the event by then, in the good company of our friends Dick and Sarah Maxwell (the latter the artist who graced the first post on Dixieland Monterey with her sketches, and will do the same for Part Two), and, together, we acquired definite favorites over the years. We did reduce attendance to two days and nights as we “aged,” and then Betty and I attended sporadically after our best friends died (Sarah in 1997, Dick in 2001), and we ceased to attend the event for a time when the same fate (or Alzheimer’s) befell new friends we’d made and a few favorite musical artists.
That’s a “tough love” fact (or story) for which I do not feel a need to apologize, and I will offer some thoughts at the end of this post on how such loses (and the “aging” process itself) may effect the nature of long-standing events–and occasion a change in more than just “name,” such as that which came about in the year 2014 for this one.
For now, let me focus on what I feel I might be justified in calling a “Golden Age” of musical offerings at Dixieland Monterey—or the event’s “middle years.” One of our favorite groups from the start was the Fulton Street Band from Sacramento—made up of Bob Newman (clarinet), Dean Nelson (trumpet), Mike Starr (trombone—who turned out to be a relative, by marriage), Bob Hirsch (piano), Roger Krum (bass), and Vince Bartels (drums).
Here’s a drawing that Sarah Maxwell made on the spot, showing the band’s front line in action –Mike Starr, Dean Nelson, Bob Newman–with a glimpse of the rhythm section (drummer Bartels, bassist Krum, and pianist Hirsch) behind them:
Part of the fun of this weekend party—as I wrote in an article I did for The Herald Weekend Magazine—was locating the bands or band you wished to see and hear, charting your course on a complex “Schedule of Musical Sets,” making your way through a feast of folks with the same intent, people with their preferences or value systems vividly displayed on T-shirts (genuine contemporary folklore) or instrument cases: one lady wearing buttons from every band she could fit to person and purse; one gentleman sauntering by in a “God is a tuba player and her boyfriend is a vocalist” T-shirt, another woman strutting her stuff in a “flapper” era outfit that looked as if it were made of pasta (the ample flesh of her arms quivering like unused dough); another woman in a red-fringed dress, headband, black stockings and some sort of hopefully deceased animal slung over her shoulders. We make our way through this parade and find the two Bobbies (Newman and Hirsch) standing just outside the venue in which they’ll play, conversing like ministers (this happens to be Sunday noon, but they’re more than likely simply discussing chord changes or substitute chords).
Once we’re all–fans and band–settled inside, Fulton Street eases into “Sleepy Time Down South,” a slow easeful appropriate selection, although the audience seems surprisingly alert, active. “Anybody sober?” “Yes!” “Anybody hungover?” “Yes!” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” comes next, appropriate also: Hirsch’s ever-thinking fingers ever-agile; a sleepy boyish smirk on Mike Starr’s face; Newman taking a courtly bow after his solo; Dean Nelson, a large man, squaring his shoulders like a shy wrestler (is there such a thing as a “shy” wrestler–or trumpet player?); Roger Krum with his mustached grin; Bartels tapping out “Blue Turning Gray Over You” next (“Just to see if Dean can go it this early in the morning” – and he does), the band up for some good, light fun on this day: fine, straight ahead fellowship.
Sacramento radioman Jim Baxter is on hand to lend color. “Want to say hello to your many fans?” he asks Nelson. “Not yet” is the reply. “Let me tell you something about Mike Starr,” Baxter says next (Mike protesting, “No, no, no,” in the background), “He sells Peter-Built trucks for a living and his slogan is ‘Old truckers never die; they just get a Peter-Built.’” Then, appropriately once more: “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” Baxter adding, “Let’s see if we can get the other half of Dean’s face to sweat” (the trumpeter on the edge of apoplexy even this early in the day when he solos). The fans applaud each tune as announced : “Rosetta,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Mike Starr plays mellow on this Duke Ellington piece; he admires Tommy Dorsey, he will tell me later–his “smooth thing”), and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Bassist Krum gets fully into the groove on each offering, prompting a fan to comment, “Two speeds for Roger: off and on.”
The fine musicianship is laced with humor, or attempts at it. Bob Newman dismantles his clarinet to clean it, setting the bell of the horn atop his head: “My dad said you could get clarinet on the brain if you weren’t careful.” Another number features drummer Vince Bartels, the youngest member at 29: “The driving force behind the band; he drives motor homes and motorcycles, anything to get us here,”
The Fulton Street·Jazz Band got started when former pianist Bob Ringwald set up a “musically good, no shlocky musicians” group; and while personnel has changed over the years, all involved “have kept the level up.” Starr says that the band’s goals are to maintain “etiquette” (“Don’t drown out soloists”) and “not to hurt the music too badly.” Clarinetist Newman, a retired aerospace engineer, played Dixieland in small groups that were part of a Big Band setting (in Seattle and Tacoma), but says he didn’t know “traditional numbers” until he joined Fulton Street some fifteen years ago. His influences are many: Benny Goodman, Peanuts Hucko, Bob Wilbur, Jerry Fuller, Johnny Mince, and Abe Most. Nelson owns a construction company currently building a new hospital in Sacramento (“Can tell by the way he’s acting that it’s going all right,” Starr says), played in Army bands, and spent time on the road.
Bob Hirsch is the newest member of the group, a Midwest transplant rumored to have once been dean of a college, now working for the state in the medical field, a man who “loves tangerine martinis … and plays it right, all the time,” echoes of Ralph Sutton in his fine stride (and Earl Hines, Waller, even Mel Powell and James P. Johnson to this ear, all the great ones). Vince Bartels is New Orleans-born, his father a former bass player with Pete Fountain and the Dukes of Dixieland, Vince’s own “rhythm impeccable, getting stronger and stronger,” I’m told, and Bartels has to be “to hold back the strong piano of Bob Hirsch.”
Roger Krum works for the California Rehabilitation Department and “flies all over the state.” He is the band’s manager, setting up rooms and equipment (“Hauling around amps is almost as bad as being a drummer, but everything runs smoothly, thanks to Roger”). He also handles the money. “Nobody is getting rich,” Starr says. “I wonder if he’s giving us all we have coming.” Roger sports bandages on his fingers, for he always plays hard. Dean Nelson shouts, after another rollicking Hirsch solo, “Here we go!”—Mike Starr sings, suitably irreverent, “Ain’t Gonna Give Anybody None of My Jelly Roll” (“You get that on tape?” he asks his wife, Linelle. “No,” she replies. ”Good,” says Mike.). The Fulton Street Band then offered a breakneck version of Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special.”
Here are Sarah Maxwell’s individual “portraits” of Fulton Street members: Bob Newman, Vince Bartels, Mike Starr, Bob Hirsch, Dean Nelson, and Roger Krum prodding the whole gang on:
Renard Perry, from Custer’s Last Band, sat in on “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home” (“How come his trumpet’s cleaner than yours, Dean?” “He makes more money than I do!”), and the set ended with a rousing “Original Dixieland One Step” (“What key, Dean?” “Whis-key!”), with solos by everyone. Roger Krum’s son, who had been assisting him setting up all weekend, walked by while the bass reverberated on stage, pointing, saying, “That’s my dad.” Then it was over, the silence filled with salutations from parting friends and musicians.
The totally unique trio Bo Grumpus became a favorite the first time we heard Craig Ventresco, a man who’s been called a “guitar genius,” and rightly so. That appellation may, in fact, consist of understatement, for the orchestra-large sounds that emerged from his acoustic guitar seemed to have been produced by more than just one person. As a trio, the group (washboard-percussionist Pete Devine and bassist Marty Eggers) developed its highly individual “voice” or sound busking on the streets of San Francisco, where they daily met and enchanted a tough, demanding audience and went on to play at numerous ragtime festivals and would issue five much appreciated (I have ‘em all!) CDs.
San Francisco Examiner critic Phil Elwood cited Bo Grumpus in 1997 with a fine opening line: “To see the future, you only need to go back in time,” praising Ventresco as a musical historian as well as virtuoso performer—showing how he acquired material by digging deep into the roots of American popular music: all the way back to the turn-of-the-century recording era that featured the work of Fred Van Eps, Arthur Collins, Ada Jones and other “big record sellers,” at a time when Irving Berlin had yet to write “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
At Dixieland Monterey, the Bo Grumpus repertoire ranged from snappy numbers from the pre-World War I popular ragtime era to vintage classic ragtime and mainstream trad jazz, with some of Django Reinhardt (my man Django!) tossed in for good measure—all this, as I have suggested, a rich seamless blend or marriage that seemed to come about spontaneously. In an essay called “Dance and The Soul,” French poet Paul Valery describes a symposium setting that includes Socrates and his friends observing “a winged choir of famous dancers,’ one of whom begins to monopolize their attention—Socrates exclaiming, “She is wholly in her shut eyes, alone with her soul … She is feeling herself become an event.” Watching and hearing Bo Grumpus in action, and Craig Ventresco in particular, produced the same effect.
The guitarist/historian says he “grew up listening to old records at Bill Bryant’s big old home in Portland, Maine,” that musical artist having toured the backwoods of old New England and assembling “the biggest collection of antique-era records, cylinders, catalogues and stuff probably in the world.” Ventresco spent hours as a teenager learning about and absorbing “pre-jazz music”—and arrived in California with percussionist Pete Devine around 1987, when they hooked up with Berkeley bassist Marty Eggers.
“In Bo Grumpus, we’re not trying to prove anything, nor are we just screwing around,” Craig told Phil Elwood, “but we are discovering that the current ‘roots music’ trend in popular music is generating interest in our music among old and young listeners—and that’s all to the good.” I found myself attracted to Craig Ventresco’s music because of its solid roots in the past, but more so perhaps because, as someone who has flirted with playing tenor guitar (tuned like a mandolin) much of his life, I was in awe of the love that went into and was returned in the sound Craig elicits from an unadorned guitar: flatpicking, fingerpicking, engaging his fingers in a miraculous manner that has both intelligence and raw musical passion as its source: smiling-soft pianissimo mixed with puissant pride, front porch ease and grace linked to bedroom swing. And it’s a joy to watch Marty Eggers remove a ceiling panel so that he’ll have suitable, comfortable space for the neck and head of his standup bass; and it’s a delight to see Pete Devine “attack” all of the percussive items that surround him–from small splash cymbal to honking horn, as if he were a Hindu god with an abundance of arms, not just the customary two.
We never missed a single performance by Bo Grumpus. Whereas Craig Ventresco may not have possessed what you’d call a “trained” or “polished” voice, what he had was totally of a piece with his other considerable gifts, and he sang a song that became a favorite of ours–a song discounting the conventional love lyric (what folks commonly write about one another) and converting it to “I Love Me”: “I love me, I love me,/I love myself to death;/I love me, I love me/Till I’m all out of breath … I take myself straight home at night/And I sleep with me till broad daylight … I love me, I love me,/I’m wild about myself; I love me and only me;/My picture’s on my shelf … Day by day I love me more and more … I take me to a quiet place/And put my arms around my waist;/If he gets fresh,/I slap his face,” et cetera.
Another group we thoroughly enjoyed and admired because of their musicianship allied with a unique “collective” personality was the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra, based (where else?) in Santa Cruz, California—an unusual ensemble made up of six different saxophones ranging from the “miniscule” Eb sopranino to the “monstrous” contrabass (203 centimetres tall with a 43-centimetre-diameter bell), the former tended by an attractive young woman, the latter by leader Don Stevens, an adroit athlete who danced and charged about the stage effortlessly (it seemed) carting this behemoth as if it were a piccolo. “In between,” a normal range of saxes–soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone—fleshed out the troupe, whose choreography was intricate, impeccable, exact (and they never stood still!), humor intact and tasty, and their repertoire outrageous: everything from a “Stars and Stripes Forever Also Spach Zarathustra Medley” to “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Darktown Strutters Ball,” “Autumn in New York,” and “Alabamy Bound.”
Another musician we came to not just appreciate but revere was Jackie Coon. When I first arrived in Monterey in 1971 (to teach at the local college), I discovered that Jackie’s status as a musician (cornet, flugelhorn, vocals) was nearly legendary. “Next to genius,” Ray Frabrlzio, one of my colleagues and an excellent musician (flute, alto sax) himself said. When I asked Bill Jackson, a fine drummer, about the best local musicians, the first person he mentioned was Jackie, and added, “Top notch.”
”The Bear from Big Sur.” That’s the way a press release on “one of the premiere flugelhornists in jazz” begins. When I began to hear Jackie play at Dixieland Monterey and other local venues, people said he’d had plenty of opportunities to perform elsewhere, but “this is the only place be wants to be.” When I got to know Jackie, he admitted the truth of it. “I can’t say enough about Big Sur. I’ve got a nice place to live, three dogs, two cats and a lot of marvelous friends.”
He loved to tell the tale of how those friends put a new roof on his house (“It took 212 cans of Hamms beer”), and did so in exchange for the pleasure he provided them with his music. He also told the story of how someone once “swung with my horn” (stole it); yet, through the intricate, admirable social control that operates in Big Sur, that person returned the horn in its “gig bag” – anonymously of course.
Jackie Coon was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, the second of three sons (brother Gene was one of the original creators of the “Star Trek” TV series; brother Skip is a novelist). Jackie grew up in L.A. and recalled a day in 1941 when he attended a live theater performance by Louis Armstrong’s Big Band. “I cut my teeth on the Hot Five and Hot Seven.” He was amazed by Armstrong’s double-time licks. “We were friends on the basis of he never did need another trumpet player,” Jackie says, yet he did work with Armstrong alumni Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Barney Bigard, making his first record with the latter In Los Angeles.
In both his instrumental and vocal style, Jackie Coon shared some traits with Teagarden: warmth, intimacy and downhome ease–a deceptive style because both were technical masters but didn’t flaunt it. Teagarden, Jackie said, was “the nicest man.” Before a performance be never warmed up. “He just did a little lick–zzupphh!–said, ‘Look out!’, and that meant it would be a good night … If you could play with that band, he’d just stand there and beam at you. Of course, you could never outplay him.”
Here’s a photo of Jackie Coon at work—and another taken on the single occasion in my life I had a chance to play with him and “Fast Eddie” Erickson:
The flugelhornist worked with everyone from Dave McKenna, Pete Fountain, Red Nichols and Bob Crosby to Jack Sheldon, Stan Kenton and Bill Watrous, and he cited saxophonist Al Cohn as an influence. “I got to know Al through Buddy Jones [another local hero, a bassist who once roomed with Charlie Parker in NYC]. I got to play with Al twice out here. His is one of my favorite ideas of how to play–his way of playing a jazz chorus. It’s the placement, the melodic content of notes (Zoot Sims was like that, too); he tells a story. It’s not the note you hit, but the one afterwards. You continue the phrase.”
Jackie spent ten years playing at Disneyland before George Malone, who ran the River Inn in Big Sur, enticed him to come to this area. Jackie switched from cornet to flugethorn six years later. “I kept searching for that sound: the sound I ended up with. I kept looking. It’s easier to play, for me. It’s a soft instrument. Takes all the competition out of trying to play loud. That brassy sound–I swear I just don’t like it anymore.”
Jackie Coon’s presence on stage–playing with anybody–was a gentle, enhancing, positive one. I’ve heard him play “pretty” on “I Got It Bad,” making something solely his own out of the classic Ellington tune; and I’ve heard him in the slightly riotous context of the “Jack and Ed Show,” working with “Fast Eddie” Erickson (Monterey Bay Club manager Teri Waros gave the team that name). They’re just about the only duo I know that would risk playing Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin” as an opening number, but they could get any joint bouncin’ right from the start—and Eddie provided ample humor. “Here’s another old Fats Waller tune,” he’d say. “Unfortunately he doesn’t write many new ones anymore.”
Jackie Coon was best known for his ten years of work with Papa Jake Stock’s Abalone Stompers, a band he considered “family”–and he extended the metaphor with another tale about five weeks he spent touring in Europe with Ralph Sutton (an exceptional pianist), the best part of which, he claimed, was the homecoming: ”I walked into Monterey Airport and there were all the guys with their horns, and my wife. Jackson Stock waved a big sign that read, ‘The Coon Is Back.’”
Writing of Jackie’s 1986 Sea Breeze album Jazzin’ Around, noted L.A. Times writer Leonard Feather said, “Coon displays a fluency that manages to produce an effect at once traditional and contemporary.” That fluency, plus the gentle and confidential tone (nothing frantic, no panic) yet sustained drive, is everywhere in evidence on the record–one of the delights of which is Jackie’s singing: a natural annex of self, unpretentious, whether it’s a revamping of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” or the cold-turkey love pledge of “Keepln’ Out of Mischief Now.” About his singing, Jackie said, “I like it, now that I’ve got it down on record. It’s easier for me to do now. It’s published! And if a guy gets up in the band and sings bad, it’s okay. And women like it. It’s more fun now than it’s ever been.” It was the good fortune of Dixieland Monterey and local jazz fans in general that Jackie Coon found a home in Big Sur and never strayed too far from his local family, friends, and many fans. Thank you, Jackie Coon—and thank you Dixieland Monterey!
It was an everlasting treat to hear Jackie and Eddie Erickson collaborate on “It’s a Wonderful World,” Jackie sweetly providing the song’s source at the start (“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), and Eddie, after a heartfelt rendering of the words, adopting the voice of Louis Armstrong at the close. “Fast Eddie’s” contributions to Dixieland Monterey are substantial, and he is truly another “local hero” or local treasure, having arrived here from San Jose in 1969 and playing at Capone’s Warehouse on Cannery Row—a place to which Betty and I took our children, Tim and Steve, for pizza, jazz, and short Buster Keaton films. Like Jackie Coon, Eddie played at Disneyland (where he was featured with the Banjo Kings, and led the Riverboat Rascals show band on Disney’s Empress Lilly Showboat). He returned to town to team up with Big Mama Sue at Dixieland Monterey, and, at present, with Rebecca Kilgore and Dan Barrett in a group called Bed.
An accomplished wit as a well as a superb instrumentalist (banjo and guitar) and vocalist, his stuttered mic-that-won’t-work-properly shtick is a work of art. Eddie has also allied himself with one more local treasure, local hero: pianist and saxophonist Bob Phillips, a man on whom the word “genius” fits like a tailor-made glove. Bob is one of the most comprehensive, inclusive pianists I’ve ever known, totally at home with a wide range of styles and genres (from trad jazz to bebop, free jazz and beyond); a subtle accompanist who enhances jazz vocalists, show tune enthusiasts, and opera singers with equal ease—and a solo pianist (from Bach or Beethoven sonatas to Cole Porter tunes) of distinction. Whatever Bob Phillips plays, it’s first-rate—filled with immediate appeal. He can make himself comfortable in any setting—and stand out!
New Jersey-born Bob Phillips began “his love affair with the piano at age seven, and had gone professional by age seventeen,” his bio reads—playing nights in Greenwich Village in 1955 while working his way through the Manhattan School of Music by day: obtaining gigs at every venue from Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Birdland, the Village Gate, to the Village Vanguard before–disenchanted with New York City winters–he headed south to Orlando, Florida, playing at Disney World for a year and a half before heading West and—to our delight—settling in Carmel, California.
Not long after I arrived here, my MPC colleague Ray Fabrizio took me to what is now the Best Western Beach Resort on Hiway 1, so that I might hear a pianist he felt was “another Oscar Peterson.” That pianist was Bob Phillips. I had the pleasure of “working” with Bob at Dixieland Monterey when, in 2002, honored as Musician of the Year, he put together a clinic for aspiring young musicians—a clinic that featured the abundant talents of friends who’d come from near and far to assist him, such as flutist Ali Ryerson and clarinetist/whistler Brad Terry. Bob asked me to present a condensed history of trad jazz, which I did, and I also read a piece I’ll reproduce here on my own discovery, at age fourteen, of the music at the hands of a drummer from Chicago, J. P. Wolff, who transferred to our Michigan high school (carting a pair of sticks he claimed had been given him by Gene Krupa—which may or may not have been true). One day, after we’d stood and studied a handsome set of Slingerland drums in the window of Grinnell Bros. Music Store, Parker (his “real” name) marched me over to his home, where his own set of drums resided in the living room. Here’s my account (read to the kids at the Dixieland Monterey clinic) of what took place:
I’d never seen anything like those drums before. A wooden bass drum big as a wine cask, its calfskin moldy yellow. Wooden snare tilted at a rakish angle that, nearly vertical, made you want to catch it, as if it were about to fall over. No hi hat. One small cymbal mounted on the bass,precariously. Two cowbells. A tone block. Well, I had seen drums like this before. In record stores, on the covers of albums: truly old cats like Chick Webb, Big Sid Catlett and Baby Dodds. J.P. Wolff smiled, as proud as if we were staring through the window not of Grinnell Brothers but a maternity ward. This was his kid, his child, his creation. He then stepped up to a phonograph—big, wooden, clumsy and ugly as those drums—and, lifting the arm, bid me have a seat.
“Listen, Kid,” he said.
This was my introduction to a group led by tenor guitarist Eddie Condon. The singer was trombonist Jack Teagarden: “Born in Texas, raised in Tennessee,/Born in Texas, raised in Tennessee./Ain’t gonna let no one woman/Make a fool out of me.”
I thought I knew music. I thought I’d heard it before. I’d mastered a cardboard set of drums I made (with the top of a number ten can of beans as a ride cymbal) and a wooden snare. I played piano, or at least I tried to. I had a collection of 10 inch LPs by great jazz pianists—but I had never heard anything like this before: “Impromptu Ensemble #1.”
Gene Schroeder, a piano man, kicked it off—smooth enough and what I was accustomed to—but what happened after, all reeds and horns laced together like some crazy cloverleaf, a rhythm section sedate and steady as stone, this headed by the ubiquitous Eddie Condon, his guitar silent but there. Condon was special. He played a four string, a tenor. You won’t find them in music stores anymore. And he was special in another way. Although he made a thousand records, no one I’ve ever met—J. Parker Wolff included—can claim that on a single one of them he’s ever really heard Eddie Condon play. The rhythm section is there all right, fine and strong, but Condon for some reason never seems to be in it. But this was a team affair the likes of which I’d never heard, never known, raucous and rich as a family reunion. It raised me from my chair, but Parker shoved me back down again.
“They’s just begun to percolate, Gate,” he said. “Listen!”
“I’d rather drink muddy water, Lord, sleep in a hollow log,/I’d rather drink muddy water, Lord, sleep in a hollow log,/Than to be here in New York,/Treated like a dirty dog.”
Pee Wee Russell: stitching, weaving, playing the beautiful fool—his throaty hesitations, his cavorting with several or holding a single note, someone keeping the subway door ajar while all his friends rush in. Which is just what they did: those clean insolent trumpets—Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky—brazen, obnoxious, obviously loving every single note and minute of it; then, the backseat trombone—Jack Teagarden—filling out the bottom chords, humble as the jug in a skiffle band until he unleashed flatulent smears, unblushing, arrogant, and not backseat in his vocals, vocals which—when I came to know them well—made him one of my favorite frontline performers. All this wonderful stuff was nudged, fraternally, by Ernie Caceres on baritone sax, smooth as the snout on a Saint Bernard, complete with the cask of brandy. Shroeder again. Cool. That silent person who sits through an evening of clever conversation and, later with one small remark—a single flourish, “in-the-windows” as the jazzmen say—may outdo the entire house. But no one outdid anyone here. After each member of this family, this aggregate, had shown what he could do—alone, alive—they put it all together, the reunion came, eachholding that difficult balance, no functionary but a host of full-fledged, headlong, rabid, loving, spoiled brats. It was my first taste of “hot” jazz and I loved it. By the time pianist James P. Johnson had slipped into “Just You, Just Me,” I was a convert, completely.
After I gave this account of my own “conversion,” Bob and I presented a history of the evolution of jazz from ragtime to the present day, employing a single tune, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” and taking it through a series of styles. Or I should say, Bob Phillips embodied that history, for all I did was call out the name of a practitioner known for a particular style, or a type of the music itself : Jelly Roll Morton “jassing” up ragtime; the “Latin tinge”; the blues, Teddy Wilson’s swing/stride; Thelonious Monk (tenor saxophonist George Young joining Bob for this approach) and ending with the open, free “modern” but grounded in New Orleans tradition of Marcus Roberts. Once I’d named a style, Bob set about playing it, brilliantly, beautifully, with all the ease and grace and “fun” (spontaneity) for which he is so widely respected. After, trumpeter Hart Smith, one of the clinicians, said, “You guys must have rehearsed like crazy”—and I replied, “No, all I did was call out the names, and the rest was left to the complete genius of Bob Phillips.”
In 2002, Dixieland Monterey not only recognized Bob Phillips limitless talent by naming him Musician of the Year, but he’s been made a permanent Artist in Residence. When the Monterey Bay Area celebrated John Steinbeck’s 100th birthday that year, Bob formed the Sweet Thursday Jazz Band. He performed with Old Friends (Bill Dendle, George Young, Jackson Stock, Shelley Burns) in 2014—and he will certainly be on the scene at JazzAge Monterey’s “Jazz Bash by the Bay” this year.
The last group of “favorites” I’ll mentioned from the Golden Era is the Blue Street Jazz Band from Fresno—a group for which Betty and I and Dick and Sarah Maxwell became persistent followers throughout those “middle years.” When we started out as devotees, the band, founded in 1983 by trumpet player Forest Helmick and then under the leadership of trombonist Dave Ruffner, consisted of those two plus John Martin on soprano sax and clarinet (and later on: Nathan Ketner and Ted Strauss on reeds), Bob Embry on piano and viola (Jason Wanner now on piano), the amazing (his solos!) Ed Hull on tuba (later: Jason Jurcak on tuba and string bass; and Sam Rocha on bass and sousaphone), Rick Canfield (drums), Robert Bennett, banjo (replaced by Matt Bottel, banjo and guitar: a computer program designer who would become the husband of … ), Sherri Colby, vocalist, the “Siren of the San Joaquin.”
Three early members were jazz educators: Dave Ruffner (high school band director), Rick Canfield (junior high or “middle school” band director), and Forrest Helmick (elementary school music teacher), clinicians who became “advocates of traditional jazz bands for the youth.”—and this combination of skills produced elaborate and highly creative arrangements by knowledgeable players with a solid hold on and foundation in their “stuff”—their eclectic originality branding them as “The Bad Boys of Dixieland,” their sets known for variety and surprise, a delightful rapport amongst themselves and with their audience, providing ample space for humor.
We all fell in love with Sherri Colby, who seemed nearly a child (a teenager) when we first heard her, and who would go on to earn a doctorate in cultural anthropology, yet remain true to (a member of) the band. The vocal duet she and Dave Ruffner provided on “Rose of Washington Square,” taken at a tempo approaching a mental Theta cycle (slow! The third slowest of the four different brain wave cycles: the state we are in when most relaxed but not asleep, a “foggy alertness,” but also the mind set of the “enlightened”). And I can still hear (without playing the CD it’s on) Bob Emery’s viola solo opening on “Ashokan Farewell.” Other favorite tunes were “Mardi Gras Mambo,” “Last Night on the Back Porch” (on which Sherri shined), “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “They All Asked for You” (“I went down to the animal zoo and they all asked for you … they even inquired about you!”); and moving from the secular to the sacred, Blue Street’s renderings of “Since Jesus Came Into My Soul” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
The group has recorded twenty-two albums (I won’t pretend that I have all of those!) and in 2013 at “Jazz Bash by the Bay,” they celebrated their 30st anniversary as a band. Here’s a photo I took of Sherri Colby when we first began to frequent Blue Street Jazz Band sets; a photo of the band as a whole now; and a CD cover, photo of leader Dave Ruffin, and the fan badge that became quite popular.
Each of the groups I have cited established a warm, comfortable, fully human kinship with their audiences, their fans—and not just because many of the venues were small and intimate by nature during that era. I have tried to get this point across by telling “stories” about them, to make these remarkable people come alive as best I can, and not just dwell on musical attributes. We had other favorite bands among the 160 that have performed at the event of course, and I’ll pay homage to two more by way of Sarah Maxwell’s drawings: of The Golden Eagle band and Beverly Hills Unlisted.
I would get to know Bob Murphy, who played soprano saxophone in the Natural Gas Jazz Band. I interviewed Bob because that group was billed as “the only American jazz band ever to play in Siberia,” and I had begun a book that would be published as Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union (a place where Betty and I undertook a 9,000 kilometer “trek” of our own, in order to interview Soviet musicians). Bob Murphy proved to be, as I wrote, “a large genial bear of a fellow: loose, agile on his horn, ingratiating with the silver-haired crowd that pursues the infinite supply of local Dixieland festivals and ninety-one tours and jazz cruises scheduled annually in the U.S. catering to their social and musical needs.” And that seems a perfect lead into a summary of sorts …
How do you keep an institution dedicated to “old time” music vibrant and alive year after year—in the face of featured artists grown too familiar perhaps and impending stasis? Even as I relished so much of the music I heard, I began one of the articles I wrote on Dixieland Monterey for the local Herald Weekend Magazine (an article called “Dixieland—More Than Funny Hats”) with the following: “Dixieland. Who needs it? Or what, for that matter, when you get right down to the music, is it? British jazz critic and poet Philip Larkin (a die-hard trad jazz fan himself) wrote, ‘It is distressing that an adjective of the most impeccable lineage should now denote no more than a dreary repertoire of worn-out trudging numbers verging at times on juvenile funny-hat comedy. But there it is. The word is practically synonymous with “traditional”—and bad traditional at that.’” And I added, “I love jazz—many forms of it—but if there is anything I do not need in my life just now, it’s funny hats.”
Philosopher George Santayana (another “favorite’ of mine!) once suggested that when things pass away it’s probably high time they did so. I am too fond of “eternal verities” (and music I find “eternal”) to agree with the statement, although I can see the sense in it. Fortunately, Santayana also said, “The best men in all ages keep classic traditions alive,” and also, “We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.”
In his brilliant study of not just literary but human history as well, Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin shows how human incompleteness that invites imagination and genuine growth is opposed to fixed, immutable notions of a “completed” nature and clearly defined boundaries—and Bakhtin clearly comes out in favor of the “carnival spirit,” the life of the “marketplace” that evolved over hundreds and thousands of years “in the infinitely varied culture of folk humor”—the human soul’s need for “gaiety and joy”—as opposed to what has declined into the typical, average, literal, trivial, or sentimental–a world of atrophy. The “true ambivalent and universal laughter [of “festival” life, of comic rites and pageants] does not deny seriousness but purifies and completes it,” and a genuine ongoing festival refuses to dry up or settle for a conventional “fixed parade.”
But how does one keep that genuine “carnival spirit” alive? Once again, George Santayana reminds us that, on one hand, “Life is not a spectacle; it is a predicament,” but also that there is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.” In the next blog post I will write about the metamorphosis of Dixieland Monterey into JazzAge Monterey, with its renewed hope to widen its horizons, to attract a wider age range of fans, to make Jazz Bash by the Bay get “better” (and better), to allow it to represent truly “the heart and soul of the great Jazz Age” as well as the rich trad jazz heritage.
The 2015 event will open Thursday night, March 5 at the Portola Hotel & Spa with “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” a dance party featuring Swing Fever, an eight-piece big band from San Francisco that features vocalist Denise Perrier, and the weekend event that follows will offer a host of both fresh and vintage talent that I’ll “talk” about next time I write.
Because I made this blog “personal,” I will end on a nostalgic note—and post photos taken during the “middle years” of Dixieland Monterey: of our friends Dick and Sarah Maxwell “gussied up” at and for the event; of Sarah and Betty the same (or as ”gussied up” as we ever got), and of good friend clarinetist Joe Gallo from San Jose who, having heard his favorites at the event (Allan Vache, Abe Most, Bob Draga, etc.) and I so many fine pianists (John Sheridan, Dick Carey, Johnny Varro, etc.), we returned to Pacific Grove and, inspired, and late into the night, we tried the music on for size ourselves!