When Marty McGinnis, President of the Valley Jazz Club, announced that Wally Holmes was coming out of retirement, I couldn’t believe my ears. I asked him to repeat the announcement. “Yes,” he said, “coming out of retirement, Wally Holmes will reassemble his Yankee Wailers Jazz Band for just one day, for an informal return to the Valley Jazz Club. There’ll be some playing of favorite tunes, some catch-up socializing, and maybe a surprise announcement—but not what you’re probably expecting!”
If you are an L.A. classic jazz enthusiast, Wally’s name will ring several memory bells: besides being leader of the Yankee Wailers Jazz Band since he formed it in 1984, Wally was the Director of the much-missed Sweet and Hot Music Festival. This delightful event was held annually at the Los Angeles Marriott Hotel, bringing top-notch jazz musicians and fans from near and far together for a joyous four days and nights of the good stuff. The Sweet and Hot Music Festival is yet another of the fine classic jazz events to leave us. All that remains of the Sweet and Hot now are the memories of the good times there with friends new and old brought to mind when some of the same songs are heard again.
Some of that same music was heard today, played by the Yankee Wailers one-day reunion band. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” featuring Jim Richardson, playing both tenor and alto sax simultaneously, then putting both saxophones down to sing it! Richardson was also featured on “I Got Rhythm,” taking it a little easier with playing just the tenor sax and sharing the feature spot with drummer Don Hooker, who drove the tune with certainty. Don has his own sound at the skins.
“Ed’s Boogie Woogie” was hotter than a barbecued potato, as played by one of my favorites at the piano, Vinnie Armstrong, an easy going fellow—until he sits on the piano bench and becomes the Airborne Pianist. Vinnie was remarkably rhythmic, wonderful to hear and entertaining to watch as he performed. He seemed to be seated on the piano bench only about half the time; the other half he is either on the way up raising off the bench, or on the way down back to his seat. Vinnie is musical down to his bones—which seem to defy gravity. With such excellent players, the band was in fine form even though they had not been together for a number of years. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if as a result of this one-day reunion, they raised their flag again and reformed?
Clarence Robinson playing acoustic bass, led the way as featured performer in “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home?” With his big, powerful voice, everyone’s attention was on “Pennies From Heaven,” sung by Bili Redd—that’s the way he spells it. Although vocalist Ava Dupree sang just two songs, she had a commanding presence and owned the stage when performing. And finally, leader Wally Holmes was about to begin his trumpet feature on a medley of tunes centered around the classic, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” until he experienced the trumpet soloist’s nightmare—his trumpet failed. A trumpet valve appeared to be stuck. Not one to be stymied, always in control, Wally reached into his coat’s inside pocket, pulling out an old-fashioned penny whistle he plays superbly in concerts as an added treat, and played an absolutely brilliant solo. But this was not the intended surprise. The real surprise, hinted at above, was that the long time Yankee Wailer vocalist, Ava Dupree, was introduced as newlywed Mrs. Wally Holmes!