I spent most of this summer in western New York instead of at my usual place, Potsdam in the St. Lawrence River valley, since my house there was occupied by graduate student tenants again this summer. This change of venue allowed me to attend two jazz events run by, respectively, the Queen City Jass Society and the Flower City Jazz Society.
On Sunday, July 11, I shuffled off to Buffalo for Queen City’s annual picnic, held at its customary location, Banchetti’s Grove in the Town(ship) of Amherst. About 110 people attended. The picnic was outside in a large tent, which was fortunate because it rained the entire afternoon (but no thunder to compete with the music). I learned about it by from QCJS’s Facebook page, but I knew of QCJS from their ads in this paper. I requested and received the necessary information in time to mail back a check.
Music was provided by the Chefs of Dixieland, a seven-piece band from Toledo that has performed for QCJS several times. This band is led by “Ragtime Rick” Grafing on piano and vocals, and includes his wife “Banjo Betsy” and son John on trumpet. The well-known clarinetist Ray Heitger is there (Ray also leads the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band), along with Wes Linenkugel on bass, Kevin Shope on trombone, and A.J. Cechner on drums.
The Chefs are an authentic Dixieland band. Each member is well-schooled in his/her instrument, and several double on vocals. I had not heard them before, though they’ve been on the scene for many years, apparently with very few changes in personnel. Quite a few of the numbers they played are not widely known—always a plus in my book. One, “Hungry Women,” was recorded in 1928 or ’29 by Eddie Cantor, probably with a studio band. I’ve never heard any other recordings of it, although the West End Jazz Band from Chicago used to play it. The musical meal served up by the Chefs was very tasty indeed.
In addition to the music and food, the dance floor in the middle of the tent saw considerable use. And of course there was the usual second line parade near the end of the day. It was clear that everyone had a good time, and I thank QCJS for their gracious welcome.
On Monday evening, July 19, Flower City held an indoor picnic at the Double Tree hotel the Rochester suburb of Henrietta. Music was provided by a local band, the Smugtown Stompers. I had heard of this group, now in its 63rd year, but had never seen them. I missed their free gig on June 25 in Pittsford, another suburb, because I didn’t know about it.
The crowd was smaller than in Buffalo, but the format of the event was the same: a picnic dinner (with a menu very similar to what was served at QCJS) with music, dancing and a second line parade. When the band led off with “Susie,” a seldom-played tune recorded by Bix with the Wolverines in 1924, I knew I was in the right place. Other less well known numbers populated the show, some of whose names I had to ask, in addition to standards such as “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Muskrat Ramble” (with the seldom-heard vocal), and “Sleepy Time Gal.”
The Stompers are eight pieces including a vocalist. Some people are still arguing whether the vocalist is a full-fledged band member; I say “yes.” Trombonist Dave Sturmer is the leader. The rest of the front line is Mark Bernard on trumpet and Glen Estey on clarinet. The rhythm section is Al Santillo on drums, Bud Taylor on tuba, Bob Worden on banjo, and Andrea Fragmino on keyboard. Andrea’s daughter Sophia, who attends music school in New York, is the vocalist. Thus, there are apparently three generations of one family in the band, as Al was announced as Andrea’s father. It was also revealed that there are some 50 living alumni of the band. This is not a large number when you consider that there are currently eight members, indicating a very low turnover of personnel in 63 years.
In addition to Sophia, vocals were provided by Al (by both of them on one number) and Bud. Sophia’s rendition of “Second Hand Rose” was a good imitation of Fanny Brice’s, but otherwise her singing sounded a bit off-key at times. She did, however, acquit herself well on the non-verbal vocal chorus of “Creole Love Call,” and her diction and projection were good.
Near the end of the evening several audience members were invited to sit in. That did not happen in Buffalo, but I would not have expected it with an out-of-town band on the stage.
I was happy for the opportunity to attend these two picnics, and if I lived in western New York, I would be a member of both clubs. I would probably lower the average age, but sadly, that is not unusual in trad jazz clubs. I see the same demographic at Tri-State concerts, perhaps with a few more younger patrons there. Tri-State, however, does not incorporate meals with its concerts, which allows for a lower entry fee, which might have an effect on the age mix of attendees.
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.