The 51st Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival In Davenport, Iowa, got under way, as usual, with a free concert at the Putnam Museum on Thursday afternoon, August 4. This year the music, which included Bix’s cornet brought into service, was provided by the Chicago Cellar Boys. The horn was played, appropriately and beautifully, by Bix protege Andy Schumm.
Due to my train arriving late in Chicago, I missed the first 20 minutes or so of this one-hour concert. As I walked into the theater, who greets me but Andy himself. He was sitting out one number, which coincidentally could have applied to me: “Out of Town Guy”—er, “Gal.”
I normally change trains in Chicago to get to Galesburg or Kewanee, then bicycle the 50-60 miles to and from Davenport. This year, partly because I had already experienced Iowa’s heat and humidity early in June right after the Glenn Miller festival, I opted not to risk a repeat, and instead rented a car in Chicago and drove to Davenport. As soon as I stepped out of the car at the Putnam I knew I had made the right decision. And it only got worse as the weekend went on. And Sunday it rained heavily all morning, making bicycling anywhere a risky proposition.
Thursday evening at the Rhythm City Casino was an auspicious start to the festival. The Bix Youth Band, numbering about 15 pieces, gave a very creditable performance. Due to COVID, a few of the young members were absent and were replaced by adult subs. Their set was followed by the T.J. Muller trio, consisting of T.J. on banjo, guitar, and vocals, Matt Tolentino on accordion, bass sax, and vocals, and Jeff Barnhart on piano and vocals. This was a different and very enjoyable group, playing together for the first time anywhere.
The program listed the next set as “Jeff Barnhart: Ragtime to Swing.” I assumed that meant a solo show by Jeff. It was much more than that. With Jeff were seven other musicians: T.J. and Matt from the previous set plus most of the Cellar Boys’ front line (Andy Schumm, John Otto, and Dave Bock), and drummer Hal Smith and bassist Michael Gamble. With most of them playing more than one instrument, a wider repertory could be presented, and was. This was a double set, lasting almost two hours with a break. Between the music and Jeff’s commentary about the development of jazz and the tunes chosen to present that theme, it was a wonderful show.
The schedule for the weekend called for 45-minute sets with 15 minutes in between, running from 11:30AM to 4:15PM and 6 to 10:45PM (except 9:45 on Thursday). Thus, there were five sets each afternoon and evening. Each band had three sets except for the T.J. trio which had two and the “Benny Goodman Quartet” led by Dave Bennett that played only one time as such.
The other bands booked this year were: the perennial favorite the Chicago Cellar Boys (which now includes one “Girl,” Natalie Scharf on reeds), the NOLA Jazz Band from Des Moines, the New Orleans Night Owls, Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles from Denver, and Josh Duffee’s Graystone Monarchs from Davenport (but with some non-local players).
The Night Owls were new to me but four of its seven members are old “friends.” There were two subs in this band: Dave Bock of the Cellar Boys for Californian Clint Baker on trombone and Bill Reinhart from San Francisco for banjoist-guitarist John Gill. Both Clint and John were recovering from surgeries. Drummer and frequent TST contributor Hal Smith leads this band, and its roster guaranteed a good showing. They did not disappoint. The Owls recently released a remotely-recorded CD that I look forward to hearing.
I did not enjoy as much NOLA or the Spicy Pickles. I have seen both bands at the Bix before and they are competent but I feel they are better suited, especially the latter, to a more modern jazz setting. I will say, however, that the Pickles’ vocalist, 23-year-old Hannah Rodriguez, is very good. Perhaps these bands were hired to attract swing dancers, who must be acknowledged as a growing part of the jazz audience, and whose admission fees help support this and other festivals. But this time the trad bands brought out greater numbers of terpsichoreans.
Several musicians present acquit themselves nicely on multiple instruments: Dave Bock on tuba, trombone, and bass; Matt Tolentino on accordion and C-melody sax; T.J. Muller on banjo, guitar, and trumpet; and Andy Schumm on just about everything. Matt and T.J. are also fine singers.
The annual (since 2007) Bix Lives award was presented this year to Vince Giordano. He was unable to attend but recorded a 7-minute video thank-you that was shown. Truly a deserving recipient.
Due to the heat and humidity, I skipped the gravesite ceremony Saturday morning. Had it been the Cellar Boys or Night Owls I might have toughed it out, but I did not envy NOLA having to play under a tent for an hour.
As sometimes happens at festivals, I meet people who actually read my columns and recognize me from the accompanying mug shot. This time it occurred at the Bix Museum. It was Glenn Wolfe from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, whose mother was Glenn Miller’s sister. (See his letter to the editor this month.) He was born a few months after his namesake’s disappearance. Unknowingly, our paths had crossed at the Miller festival in June but obviously, my report of that event only appeared last month. Another acquaintance was formed with Chuck Larrabee from Albuquerque, who had emailed me a few months ago asking about the way I combine bicycle travel with the Bix (and other) festivals. He is also a cyclist and told me he was coming to the Bix. During his college days he worked summers for the Santa Fe Railroad (this was pre-Amtrak), so we also had train stories to share. I enjoyed his company for most of Saturday’s sets.
Then at breakfast Saturday at my hotel, a woman came up to me and asked, “Did I see you in biking clothes in Sedalia?” “Yes, you did.” That opened the door to a half-hour conversation about cycling. She is also a lifetime cyclist, which made the discussion easier because she “spoke the language.”
As mentioned in this paper’s July issue, this was the first festival under the direction of Verna Burrichter, the new Bix Society president. I made it a point to meet her, and after doing so I felt confident the festival will remain in good hands.
I often complain about Davenport’s August weather (and that of a lot of other places as well), but the quality of this festival offsets the usually less-than-ideal (by my definition) weather and keeps me coming back. I have attended about ten Bixes going back to 2001, including all of the last seven or eight, and this was clearly one of the best.