A Season of Superlatives

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W. C. Fields in his famous role as Mr. Micwaber. Public Domain


During the season in which I write this, it is almost impossible to avoid Charles Dickens’ inky thumbprint on our culture. There is a pervasive odor of artificial nutmeg and ersatz figgy pudding, of forced magnanimity co-opted into the service of commerce, of brain damage as a portal to redemption. Ebenezer Scrooge is held up to us as the example of how It Is Never Too Late To Change, even though the unfortunate man has evidently been subject to a psychotic break. Cheap food (rye ergot and dodgy mushrooms) will have that effect, so perhaps he had only himself to blame, after all.

If we can’t chortle ourselves into a serious coughing fit, epithets like “Scrooge” are thrown at us. I made the mistake of saying what a relief it was that the local classical station took a break from the annual caterwauling of its Yuletide castrati to celebrate Beethoven’s birthday, and I got slammed. “Come on—enjoy Christmas!” was the comment. “Why start now?” was my reply.

In his favor, I’ll admit Dickens was an indefatigable and prolific novelist and magazine editor—who did it all with a steel dip pen. He gave bundles of money to charity. He was also guilty of such behavior that would now occasion him being “called out” (as it seems all men today must be).

But Dickens wrote one book for all seasons, that may be dipped into at any time of year—if only for the first line of the first page. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” begins Dickens’ saga of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. Reading on, one also finds “it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

In the realm of hot jazz, this is indeed the best of times. I note the release of two magnificent debut albums by young performers who should give us sufficient hope for the future of this music. Cornetist and time-traveler Mike Davis is set to release the first album by his excellent band, The New Wonders—my assessment in having heard an advance copy is that it is a vital contribution to the music this paper celebrates. The New Wonders revisit less-traveled selections by The Chicago Loopers and Red Nichols and the Five Pennies—and other obscurities worthy of the Davis touch. The sound is so true to the Jazz Age that it begs for the addition of surface noise.

Likewise, The Original Cornell Syncopators are a gifted band of college students who, under the able leadership of multi-instrumentalist Colin Hancock, veer into utterly forgotten backwaters of early jazz to bring old tunes to glorious life. Colin delves into alternate musical history with his new arrangements of recordings that might have been, that should have been—and now, finally, are.

It is also the spring of hope for ragtime: in this, the hundredth anniversary year of the death of Scott Joplin, there are more and better young rag players and composers than the world has enjoyed since 1917. If you are an aficionado of the form, our cover profile in this issue should make you smile. Danny Matson’s commissioned Rivermont album of new rags, Ragtime Wizardry, has been transcribed by the pianist Max Keenlyside and issued in a folio he designed so that you may now try out all these syncopated gems on your own piano. (Would that I were a better sight-reader!)

Speaking of Joplin, the new Complete Piano Works performed by Richard Dowling (also on Rivermont) stands definitively on the shelf next to all earlier compilations; we may happily refer to it for ragtime scholarship and listening pleasure for the coming century.

And yet: it does feel like the worst of times. Word came this week from Charlotte Dickison that America’s Classic Jazz Festival, held annually since 1991, will not take place this year—or ever again. St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, made changes to their program that precluded the Greater Olympia Dixieland Jazz Society from using the campus for the event.

The loss of the Lacey festival feels incalculable for jazz fans in Olympia—and everywhere else. Bill Hoffman, who does not often venture so far afield, attended the fest in 2016 and wrote a glowing tribute to festival director Charlotte Dickison in his “Jazz Travels” column for August 2016: “Charlotte deserves special recognition. A vibrant 91, she’s in charge of lining up the world-class talent that this festival has become known for. In addition, she is the event’s Perle Mesta—doing whatever is necessary to make attendees feel welcome. Thank you, Charlotte.” Bill Hoffman went on to say, “having thoroughly enjoyed the bands and excellent organization of the Lacey festival, I now have to come up with reasons to get back to the West Coast next June.”

At local jazz clubs all over the country, the winter of despair is no exaggeration as many long-time members have settled into the winter of their years. In lieu of new and younger attendees, many clubs are soliciting for contributions just to stay afloat. There is serious membership attrition for which there is no facile solution.
Where will the stellar young musicians, who have taken hot jazz and ragtime to heart and perform, compose, and arrange them brilliantly, ply their vocation as festivals and clubs wink out one by one, like the stars at dawn?
“We had everything before us, we had nothing before us,” quoth Charles Dickens.

Even so: in David Copperfield, Dickens has the eternally hopeful character of Wilkins Micawber say, “Something will turn up.” I’m with Micawber.


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