CAKEWALKIN’ JASS BAND- Toledo’s Oldest Dixieland Band
The Cakewalkin’ Jass Band (CJB) was organized in December of 1967. After playing three short night club jobs and one wedding, the band opened at Tony Packo’s Cafe Wednesday, July 3, 1968. Eleven and one-half years later, the CJB was still packing them in every Friday and Saturday night at the Hungarian style restaurant.
On Friday May 9, 1980, the CJB began a new era in Toledo by opening at Lulu’s Storyville Saloon in Old Towne at Southwyck Mall. Expanding to four nights (Wednesday through Saturday) the band played in a total New Orleans setting especially created for them – including three authentic Creole dishes.
Accommodating the will of the people of Toledo, the band returned to Tony Packo’s Friday, August 21, 1981. The Cafe has remodeled the rest rooms, added another room to handle the large crowds, and converted a back room to a balcony.
On March 21, 2001, the band was let go by Tony Packo’s Café. The band then played every Friday at Ragtime Rick’s First Draught, owned by the band’s pianist and banjoist. Unfortunately, Rick’s closed on November 3, 2003 and for the first time in 35 1/2 years, the band was looking for a permanent venue. They found one in Murphy’s Jazz Café in downtown Toledo starting December 19, 2003. Unfortunately, the gig ended on June 6, 2008 and for the first time in 40 years, the band was left without a regular gig. Hopefully, that will change!
Starting out as a four piece group with banjo, drums, piano, and clarinet, the band expanded after beginning at Packo’s to include cornet, trombone, tuba and/or sting bass. The size of the band has been four, five, six, seven, six, back to seven and now eight persons. Presently, the instrumentation is banjo, string bass, piano, cornet, clarinet, drums, trombone, and vocalist with eight members. Over the years, there has been 29 full time musicians and about 51 often used substitutes in the CJB.
The band has been very popular and plays many what are called outside jobs. These jobs consist mainly of dances, dinners, weddings, and parties. Other gigs include playing for jazz clubs, festivals, and funerals.
Jazz clubs that the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band has played for are the Detroit Hot Jazz Society, the Indianapolis Jazz Club (IJC), the Classic Jazz Society of Southwestern Ohio, the Charleston (West Virginia) Jazz Club, the Potomac River Jazz Club (PRJC), the Detroit Windsor Jazz Club, the Vintage Jazz Club of Muskegon, Michigan, the Illiana Jazz Club, the Tack Room in Illiopolis, Illinois, and Earlyjas in Kent, Ohio. Clarinetist and leader, Ray Heitger, has been made an honorary life member of the IJC.
The bands first festival was the Detroit-Windsor Jazz Festival. then came a four year run the annual Schuss Mountain (Mancelona, Michigan) Jazz Symposium – to which the band returned to many times before the festival ended. The CJB was one of fifteen bands to participate in the World Championship of Jazz held in Indianapolis. Heitger was selected as one of the six outstanding musicians at the festival. Sandwiched among these was a small jazz festival held at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. Starting in 1978, the band has played an unprecedented seventeen years at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival in Davenport, Iowa. This event draws well over 20,000 jazz fans. The CJB has also played the prestigious St. Louis Ragtime Festival, and twice the largest festival in the country, the Sacramento (California) Dixieland Jubilee attracting over 250,000 fans. 1988 was the third year since 1984 to play the Sturgis Falls Dixieland Jazz Fest in Cedar Falls, Iowa. 1987 marked the fourth time that the band had played the Olde Towne Jazz Festival in Traverse City, Michigan, since playing the first in 1980. The CJB has helped to inaugurate two new Midwest festivals: In 1985 the Central Ohio Dixieland Jazz Festival (also playing it in 1986 and 1987) in Columbus, Ohio; in 1986 the “Banks of the Wabash” Traditional Jazz Festival in Terre Haute, Indiana (the band returned to Terre Haute in 1987 – unfortunately, its last year); and in 1996 The Greater DesMoines Good Time Jazz Festival, returning again in 1997. The CJB played the very popular Central City Jazz Festival in Central City, Colorado in 1988 and 1990. Also in 1990, the band played its first Northern Michigan Dixieland Weekend in Bay View, Michigan. 1991 saw the band perform at the 12th Annual San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival in California. The Central Ohio Hot Jazz Society still uses the CJB most every year for their Fall Festival in Columbus. The band’s piano player, Ragtime Rick, has started a new festival to replace the Earlyjas Jazz Festival in Strongsville, OH, with the Gruglefest in Toledo. The CJB played the first and most of the Strongsville fests and is the house band for the Gruglefest.
Heitger’s Spittune Records has produced eight albums of the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band: “Tony Packo Presents”, “Plus 456”, “Doin’ the Cake Walk”, “Take 4”, “Thank You Fans”, “For all You Diehards and Lovers of Fine Music”, “Our Latest Hot Selling Album”, and “Live at Elkhart” are available on CD. Also done the same day as “Thank You Fans” was a trio album with clarinet, piano, and tuba titled “The Whole World is Shakin’ That Thing”. it is available on CD. All in all, over eight thousand records, tapes, and CD have been sold to jazz fans at home and around the world – including Russia. Our last two recordings also features two other Heitgers: Duke and Nicole.
There have been about twelve funerals that the CJB has played for including that of two of the Cafe owners, the late Tony Packo Sr.’s wife Rose Packo and her daughter Nancy Packo Horvath. Two of these were in the true New Orleans tradition with the up-tempo happy jazz after the burial following the somber dirges at the service.
Several articles about the band have appeared in the Toledo Blade, the Jazzologist, the Classic Rag, and the Mississippi Rag. Seven TV specials produced for public TV in grand Rapids, Michigan, Toledo, and Davenport plus three Toledo public radio performances round out the bands varied musical activities.
With all this and an authentic New Orleans style repertoire now at over 490 tunes, the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band has a bright active future. The band’s love of the music and of bringing its inherent happiness to an audience is infectious – as the thousands upon thousands of people who have seen and heard the band will attest to.