From the 2023 Davenport Bix Fest

In my report of the 2022 Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival In Davenport, Iowa, I opined that it was one of the best edition I’ve attended. It was, but this year’s surpassed it.

The 53rd Bix got off to a rousing and auspicious start on Thursday, August 3, with the annual one-hour free concert at the Putnam Museum. The museum houses Bix’s cornet, engraved with his name. It is played at this event by whomever is in the participating band; this year it was Andy Schumm with a band he called the Wolverines. This seven-piece group was comprised of the front line of the Chicago Cellar Boys—Andy on just about everything and John Otto and Natalie Scharf on reeds—plus Jeff Barnhart on a 66-key piano, Steve Pikal on bass, TJ Muller on guitar/banjo, and Josh Duffee on drums. Their set covered exclusively covered tunes played by Bix in the various bands he was in or led. A truly enjoyable performance, not that I expected anything less from a group like this.

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Actually, the festival began unofficially the previous night at Jim’s Knoxville Tap, a roadhouse just outside of Milan, a small town across the Mississippi in Illinois. The Cellar Boys played, as they usually do. Normally this event occurs on Sunday evening, but there was a schedule conflict at the Tap, so it was moved to Wednesday. I only learned this from Josh Duffee’s Facebook post a few days earlier, when it was too late to change my travel plans in order to attend. The venue has only limited capacity so reservations are a must.

Then the festivities at the Rhythm City Casino began Thursday evening with the Bix Youth Band, Hal Smith’s New Orleans Night Owls, Banu Gibson and Hot Jazz (a further description to follow) and the Cellar Boys.

Sets at the casino ran one hour each with a 15-minute break in between; this was different from past practice when sets were 45 minutes. I like this arrangement better, and supposedly the bands do, too, since it allows them to “stretch out” before they have to clear the stage for the next act. Only one band plays at a time so you don’t have to make hard choices as to which performance to see, especially given the “can’t fail” lineup of bands at this year’s festival.

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Now for the nitty gritty on Banu’s band. This consummate entertainer knows how to pick her side(wo)men. Her most frequent pianist David Boeddinghauus was there as was Charlie Halloran on trombone; the three of them are from New Orleans. Dan Levinson from NYC was on reeds, Andy Schumm from Chicago on trumpet, Steve Pikal from Minneapolis on bass, and Hal Smith from Searcy, Arkansas, on drums. You would never suspect that this specific group had never all played together at one time. Their sets had Banu’s vocals on about three-quarters of the numbers. When not singing, she was on guitar or banjo. I have long been a Banu fan and it was great to see her back at the Bix after an absence of at least five years. I was sorry I had to miss her second set because I had signed up for the optional Friday three-hour luncheon cruise, as follows.

For the first time there was a cruise on the Celebration Belle, a four-deck excursion boat docked on the river in Moline. Its theme was “Bix returns to the river,” where he was first exposed to the music that from then on governed his life. During the cruise there was a ceremony where a wreath was lowered from the bow into the river with members of the Beiderbecke family on hand. The band then played “Davenport Blues.” The only members I saw were James Beiderbecke, Bix’s great-(or maybe great-great) nephew, and Fred Beiderbecke, who as I recall from having met him once before, is descended from a different branch of the clan. I do not know if Bix’s great-niece Liz Beiderbecke Hart (James’s aunt) was there, as I did not see her during the weekend.

Heaven on the Mississippi: T.J. Müller’s Jazz-O-Maniacs and the steam table! (photo by Bill Hoffman)

The cruise featured a buffet lunch and music by TJ Müller’s Jazz-o-Maniacs, composed of TJ on banjo and guitar, Dave Kosmyna on trumpet, Matt Tolentino on bass sax and accordion, Jeff Barnhart on piano and Josh on drums. I fortuitously was assigned a seat with a direct view of the band that was also next to the buffet table.

Other individuals and groups were on the cruise, and perhaps some of them, having been introduced to this music, will attend future festivals. If there was a downside to the cruise it was that it diverted attendance from the casino, which is a bit unfair to the bands that faced this competition.

Now, about the other bands. The 10-piece Graystone Monarchs, led by Josh, had Matt Tolentino, Mike McQuaid from England, and Klaus Jakobi from Germany on reeds; Charlie Halloran on trombone; TJ Muller on strings; Dave Kosmyna and Andy Schumm, cornets; David Boeddinghaus, piano; and Steve Pikal, bass. Their Friday set honored drummer Chauncey Morehouse, who made numerous recordings with Bix. His granddaughter Susan Atherton was on hand and was introduced. The Morehouse-Atherton family has “adopted” Josh, who never fails to pay homage to the noted drummer, to the point of naming his son Chauncey.

Nauck

Reedman Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band made its first appearance since 2017. He brought Mike Davis on trumpet, Kevin Dorn on drums, and lured trombonist Matt Musselman out of self-imposed retirement. Jeff Barnhart was on piano. This band, one of several Dan leads, features what was then called “rag-a-jazz,” an amalgamation of ragtime and the then new form jazz, or originally “jass.” I know of no other band in the country that plays this style. Their sets included ragtime and pop tunes from the late teens and early ’20s. The few tunes that had vocals were ably handled by Mike.

Hal Smith’s New Orleans Night Owls consisted of Hal on drums, Ryan Calloway on clarinet, TJ Muller on cornet, Charlie Halloran on trombone, Bill Rinehart on banjo, Michael Gamble on bass, and Kris Tokarski on piano. This band also appeared here last year but with slightly different sidemen.

There were also two personnel changes in the Cellar Boys this year: Jim Barrett on banjo and Dan Anderson on tuba. Otherwise, the lineup included the regulars Andy Schumm, John Otto, Natalie Scharf, and Paul Asaro. Much well-deserved ink has been spilled on this band, by me and others.

TJ’s Arcadia Dance Orchestra made its first appearance at the Bix. Its personnel were partly drawn from festival musicians—Dan Levinson, Matt Tolentino, Dave Kosmyna, Andy Schumm, and Kris Tokarski—augmented by St. Louisans Ken Cebrian on trumpet, Mikail Andrea on trombone, Josh Baumgartner on tenor, and Jon Weiss on tuba and bass. I found their “sound” very distinctive, not like other large bands I’ve heard. I liked them very much, and like the Cellar Boys, they played a lot of obscure tunes. One of their sets was dedicated to music about or written in or by St. Louis musicians.

The only band I have not mentioned is the Bix Youth Band. Due to other activities, I was only able to catch them for part of their Saturday afternoon set. I should make a greater effort to watch them, as they represent the future of this music. The portion of the set I saw was excellent.

The graveside concert (From Facebook)

One standard festival event I did not attend this year was the Saturday morning gravesite concert in Oakdale Cemetery. The cemetery is at least a half-hour bike ride from the casino, and if I had gone I would have missed part of Arcadia’s set.

I also did not attend the Sunday church service at the First Presbyterian Church where the Beiderbecke family belonged. A five-piece band led by Dan Levinson provided the music. I was on my way back to Union Station in Chicago at that time.

The Bix museum downtown was closed during the festival. It had been flooded in the spring, and while some repairs had been made, the restoration was not complete and the Society decided not to open for a less than complete experience.

Indirectly, the closure led to the absence of Bix Society president Verna Burrichter. She was helping with the cleanup earlier in the week when she fell, breaking her femur. A report I got from another Society director was that she was on the mend and had already begun physical therapy.

The annual Bix Lives Award is presented Friday evening. This year’s recipient was past Society president Steve Trainor who has served the organization for some 40 years.

Having now been to about a dozen Bix festivals since 2001, and every one since 2014 (except for 2020 which COVID canceled), it is becoming like Old Home Week, not only for the musician friends I see but also for the people I’ve met here and at other festivals. I’ll name a few, assuming that people like to see their name in the newspaper (better here than in the post office, I guess): Bruce Thorburn, Hal Vickery, Jerry and Mary Grace Lanese, Chuck Larrabee, Bill Gensen, John Landry, and Joe Busam. Joe’s caricatures grace each issue of this paper. This was his first time at the Bix but I’ve known him for over ten years and have encouraged him to attend.

Two people were missing this year: longtime Bix Society stalwart Gerri Bowers, who died last Christmas Eve, and my Tri-State Jazz Society co-director Mike Mudry, who died in his sleep three days before the festival began. Mike was 96 and was known at many other festivals for his dancing and sandals. He attended many more festivals than I did.

The presence of several multi-instrumentalists allowed most bandleaders to augment their lineups beyond their usual rosters, to the great benefit of all attendees. The fact that the added members may not have played together before in no way hindered the music produced. Other festivals do this, too, and it’s a financial plus because it allows for more varied music with little or no added labor cost. And I’m sure the musicians enjoy a chance to play with people they seldom see.

It’s normal for festivals to vary their band rosters each year to keep things fresh and expose attendees to new (to them) groups. So I would be very surprised to see all the same bands next year, but would be very happy if I did.

Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.

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