Baby Soda: Bringing Hot Jazz to the People5 minute read

The idea was always to bring the music to the people.

Over its nine years in existence, New York City’s Baby Soda Jazz Band has performed at big Big Apple venues such as the Rainbow Room and Radegast Bierhall, but the band’s most satisfying gigs have been played on the streets and the subway.

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“It feels like music on the street makes a city a real city,” says de facto bandleader Peter Ford, a dapper dude who often sports vests and fedoras and plays an absolutely unique and toneful one-string bass.

“The street and the subway, that’s really where you can connect with people,” Ford says. When the combo cooks at on a sunny afternoon at Washington Square Park or a darkened platform at the Union Square subway station, passers-by are often stopped in their tracks by lively renditions of tunes ranging from “Weary Blues” to “Winin’ Boy,” from “That’s a Plenty” to “Palm Court Strut.”

Ford knows the combo’s connecting when he sees people looking up from their smartphones and pocketing those ubiquitous gizmos. He knows it’s happening when toddlers dance and old folks clap their hands. He knows it’s working when they gladly drop dollar bills into the open instrument case.

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“This music is full of joy, full of life,” Ford says, “and when we’re playing on the street we’re really being in a community, reaching all aspects of human condition. We’re not re-creationists. We don’t play note-for-note Bix solos or that kind of thing. We’re like a lot of the other younger bands, playing this music because we love the music, but not as a museum piece, more as a part of the community.”

Although climbing on a lower rung of the Big Apple jazz ladder, the Baby Soda Jazz Band routinely features some of the best musicians in the city. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg has often busked with them and appears on their third and most recent disc, Baby Soda Live at Radegast (2012), featured on a vibrant version of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”

– Like “a big family” –

“The Baby Soda Jazz Band is like a big family,” says Skonberg, one of the hemisphere’s most promising young jazz artists. “I was very fortunate to be invited in right when I got to New York thanks to my good friend, Emily Asher.”

Asher, the Brooklyn-based trombonist and vocalist, played and recorded with Baby Soda circa 2009-2012 before launching Emily Asher’s Garden Party, a band which has toured the United States and Israel and produced three CDs.

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When Skonberg arrived in Gotham from Canada, Asher immediately introduced her to the Baby Soda outfit.
“The very first day I moved to New York my flight landed at 6 a.m. and by 11 a.m. I was making music in Washington Square Park with Baby Soda,” Skonberg remembers. “Around 1 p.m. Wynton Marsalis happened to walk by, stopped to listen and gave us a thumbs up. I think we were playing ‘Winin’ Boy Blues.’ Between finding a wonderful group of kindred spirits and seeing the Great Oz of the trumpet walk by, I had all the signs that I had made the right choice to move and haven’t looked back.”

Skonberg is now celebrating her first major-label release, Bria, on Sony Masterworks, as well as her September tenth wedding to Matt Papper, artistic director of the Town Hall in Manhattan.

Another top trad brass player, cornetist Ed Polcer, the 79-year-old veteran of Benny Goodman’s small group and former co-owner of Eddie Condon’s Jazz Club, plays with Baby Soda at least twice a month. First-call clarinetist Dan Levinson jammed with them this summer at Washington Square Park. Polcer and Levinson both bolstered the band’s first CD, Baby Soda Cures Everything but the Blues (2009), along with another remarkable reedman (and Syncopated Times columnist), Prof. Adrian Cunningham, a native of Sydney, Australia.

In 2008, during Cunningham’s first week in New York, he journeyed over to Brooklyn’s Café Moto to sit in with Baby Soda. “That was my first gig in New York, and Moto became my regular Saturday-night home. I subsequently joined the band and have many fond memories of playing with them.”

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So does Ed Polcer. “I particularly like the energy that Baby Soda generates,” the cornetist says. “The band is very people-friendly, producing a comfortable feeling between the players and the audience. They’ve welcomed me into the gang and introduced me to scores of younger musicians.”

– Born in Brooklyn –

Ed Polcer’s brass-playing son, Ben Polcer, and accordionist Patrick Harrison co-founded the band during the winter of 2007-08 while the two shared a drafty loft in downtown Brooklyn.

“We wanted to organize all the NYC guys that we had met during our time with our band, the Loose Marbles, so we started a new project, recorded a CD and hit the streets and subways,” Ben recalls.
The new project needed a name.

Ed Polcer’s rumored, but hotly denied, habit of brushing his teeth with baking soda seems to have inspired the combo’s unusual moniker. “Bass/sousaphone player Jason Jurzak was joking around one day when we were touring in Berlin,” Ben recalls. “He was acting as Ed Polcer doing a commercial for the made-up product ‘Baby Soda,’ a new toothpaste. Patrick Harrison thought it would be funny to name the band after that.”

While Ed insists he doesn’t use baking soda on his chompers, he admits that he heard all about Jurzak’s hijinks. “Since I wasn’t there I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but I did hear the story afterward,” Ed says. “Sounds to me like they had a few good German beers and were sitting around acting crazy. How else could you come up with a name like Baby Soda? I’ve always looked at it as good-natured ribbing of ‘the father figure,’ since I’d known Jason for several years.”

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Ford allows that the name’s “a little goofy,” but it attracts attention and is easy to remember. “I think of Baby Soda as a kind of elixir,” Ford says. “This music is an elixir that keeps people happy.”

In fact, the group named its sophomore recording, Jazz Roots Elixir (2010), featuring sprightly standards such as “Hindustan” and “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” as well as less-familiar tunes such as “When You Wore a Tulip” and “A Monday Date.” While Ford vocalizes most of the Jazz Roots songs with a certain panache, Emily Asher unleashes her cool coloratura on “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?”

– An ever-shifting lineup –

Baby Soda’s personnel changes regularly, but the anchors are Ford and guitarist/banjoist Jared Engel. Over the years, they’ve been joined by drummer Kevin Dorn, trumpeter Kevin Louis, percussionist David Langlois, and guests such as clarinetists Will Anderson and Michael Magro, trumpeter Satoro Ohash, and jug player Rich Levinson. This month, Baby Soda will take a mini-tour of Upstate New York led by Ford, and featuring trumpeter Simon Wettenhall, reedman Tom Abbott and trombonist Joe McDonough.

The ever-shifting lineup poses no problems, Ford says.

Although a relatively healthy trad-jazz scene now spices the Big Apple, Ford maintains that “no one has enough work for a musician to commit to one band. In most of the bands here, each musician may have four or five other projects they’re working on. But we’re all familiar with the repertoire, and we know each other and we’ve played together enough that you can and keep the quality very high.”

Baby Soda: Bringing Hot Jazz to the People

From “Tiger Rag” to “Tennessee Waltz,” the band’s arrangements are universally melody driven. “With this music, the road map inside every song is melody,” Ford observes. “Melody is the secret weapon. You don’t get lost.”

Ford coordinates most of the band’s bookings, negotiates fees, signs contracts and lines up the musicians for each gig. “I try not to be an ogre,” he says of his management style, and he relies on the fact that the musicians personally dig the music. “They need to be glad to be there,” Ford says. “We don’t get paid enough money to not be having fun.”
Bria Skonberg credits Ford for forging a sound of its own. “The group’s sound is unique largely because of Peter Ford who is a gem in terms of both music and heart,” she says. “I have nothing but love and gratitude for the band.”

Related: Peter Ford’s Box Bass

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