To set the stage for this month’s journey, I’ll quote lyrics from one of my biggest inspirations, pianist, composer, vocalist and lyricist Dave Frishberg:
I want to be a sideman
Just an ordinary sideman
A go along for the ride man
And I do, I DO! Only problem is it so rarely happens. Once musicians wait for “the call” from you, you can go off their radar on the few occasions when THEY’RE leading a gig. There are some exceptions that I will hopefully herein elucidate.
The 52nd annual Bix Jazz Festival occurred in Bix’s hometown of Davenport, IA and I was honored to be in the stable of musicians who were hired to perform. And I was a bonafide sideman, playing piano primarily in Dan Levinson’s terrific Roof Garden Jass Band, recreating the sounds of the Original Dixieland Jass Band and related groups from 1917-22, but also in several additional ensembles led by fantastic musicians from the Midwest.
I arrived on Wednesday, August 2, with an invitation from percussionist/bandleader Josh Duffee to come sit in with a band playing a session in nearby Milan, IL called the Knoxville Tap…on trombone (!?!). With a band consisting of the fiery Dave Kosmyna from Toledo on cornet, visiting guest reedsman Claus Jacobi from Germany, incredible multi-faceted pianist David Boeddinghaus from NOLA, Andy Schumm from Chicago on bass sax, and hometown hero Josh on drums, the quality went down when they added me on sliphorn, but everyone was so in their cups by then that no one noticed! Moreover, we were playing in the corner of the bar that Bix and his band had played 100 years ago!
On Thursday afternoon I was able to perform at the Putnam Museum with Andy Schumm’s Wolverines (the band name an homage to Bix’s first recording group from 1924). The band had the front line of his popular Chicago Cellar Boys (Andy on cornet with John Otto and Natalie Scharf on reeds) with an ad hoc rhythm section made up of people who both know and enjoy the style (T.J. Müller on banjo; Steve Pikal on bass; Josh Duffee on drums and me). Highlights included a ceremonious passing of Bix’s cornet (housed at the Putnam) from a curator’s gloved hands to Andy’s eager ones, the hot tunes to honor Bix he chose for us to perform, and the emcee repeatedly getting Andy’s name wrong: “Ladies and Gentleman, let’s hear it for Andy Schoom!” It got so bad that I enthused to the audience toward the end how great it had been to play with “Andy Schoom” at the “Pootnam Museum” to titters galore.
The next day was a riverboat cruise on the paddlewheeler Celebration Belle down the Mississippi—and this was all before the festival proper even started—with another amazing line-up: cornetist Kosmyna, leader/banjoist/trombonist/vocalist T.J. Müller, Matt Tolentino on the bass saxophone (that had belonged to superstar Adrian Rollini), Josh Duffee on drums, and me…on a beautiful Mason & Hamlin upright from 1909 provided by the festival through a local dealer! During our first set we concentrated on performing riverboat-themed tunes for the sold-out crowd and then opened it up with more variety in the second half. We went from hot to scorching and I reveled in every bar of music! Once the cruise was over, I was vainly trying to figure out a way to fit that gorgeous upright piano into my rental car (DANG, I should’ve taken Hertz up on their “drive a 15-passenger van instead of this Smart car we’ve put you in” offer!).
The Friday cruise ended at 2 pm and my first set with Dan Levinson’s RGJB began at 3:15 at the festival venue, about a 20-minute drive from the dock. All would have been fine, except I was transporting drummer (and Duffee hero) Chauncey Morehouse’s grand-daughter and her husband—lovely people and that was the problem; we were kibitzing so much I missed the exit—to the festival venue. Suddenly, with 35 minutes left until downbeat, the robot voice from Google maps (Alexa? Siri? Joan??) informed us we had 71 miles left in our journey. In the Midwest, for those who have not yet been or those who have never found their way out, exits can be 2,430 miles apart. At THIS rate I was going to miss the final set on Saturday afternoon…
So…I did what most of us have done at one time or another: I used the “Authorized Vehicle Only” lane, praying to whatever deity was tuned in that there wouldn’t be a cop around (there wasn’t; I attribute it to the hand of Bix) and hauled rectilinear ass towards the Rhythm City Casino where the main festival venue was housed—I’ll briefly interrupt the narrative to say that with a separate entrance to the Convention Hall section of the casino, festival goers were never subject to slot machine bells, tweets, and farts or the wails of those who had just lost Grandma’s endowment. I called Levinson and told him according to my AI guide (Cortana? Mabel? Myrtle??) I’d arrive at 3:13 so I would be onstage by his count-off!
I made it!!! Although, my entrance was more dramatic than I’d hoped as I ran full-bore into the venue, with my sunglasses on, and down a narrow side aisle—into the Valley of Chairs ran the one: chairs to the right of him, chairs to the left of him, chairs in front of him volleyed and thundered as he took out four rows of them (that’s 36 chairs) trying to avoid an attendee who was in the wrong place at the right time. I limped to the piano on the six-foot-high stage with 11 seconds to spare. Take THAT, Tennyson!
The remainder of the festival was a blur of an excess of highlights that for lack of space I must list rather than describe in detail:
♫ Being in the presence of the masterful pianists David Boeddinghaus (Banu Gibson’s New Orleans Hot Jazz and Josh Duffee’s Graystone Monarchs), Paul Asaro (The Chicago Cellar Boys) and Kris Tokarski (The New Orleans Owls and the Arcadia Dance Orchestra) while I was playing with Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band
♫ Hearing and playing unadulterated hot jazz from the 1920-’30s, played by the country’s best exponents of the styles of that era
♫ Having my three favorite US-based trad jazz drummers (Hal Smith, Kevin Dorn and Josh Duffee) under one roof
♫ Enjoying the hot trombones of Charlie Halloran (Banu and Owls) and Matt Musselman (RGJB)
♫ Reuniting with long-time friend and inspiration, the multi-faceted reedsman Dan Levinson
♫ “Starvation Blues,” the final tune played by T.J. Müller’s Arcadia Dance Orchestra that reminded me this music was the punk rock of its day; the final chorus essayed by this group from St. Louis (with several festival ringers) will remain in the top ten musical moments of my life
♫ Experiencing the love, dedication and versatility brought to OKOM by young titans of authentically hot ’20s jazz, each of them a bandleader and multi-instrumentalist, and all under 40-years-old: Matt Tolentino (bass sax, clarinet, accordion, vocals); T.J. Müller (cornet, trombone, tuba, banjo, guitar, vocals); Mike Davis (cornet, trombone, vocals); Andy Schumm (every instrument except—maybe—string bass). Where others are moving on to other styles, these champions of HOT never veer from their course and are rewarded with insanely busy schedules.
There are many other moments I’ve not the space to share, but I have one final experience to describe. For years people had told me to get to Bix’s grave on Saturday morning at the Oakdale Memorial Gardens Cemetery and I’d never made it. It starts at 10 am and after the jam session the night before, sometimes going until 5 am, I’d have needed to stay up to get there. THIS year, I was assigned to play it so I had no choice. The group consisted entirely of bandleaders, so everyone was on-time and looking smart. Tolentino led the leaders, who were Davis, Levinson, Müller (on banjo and trombone), Duffee, and me. Matt remarked to the audience how refreshing it was to have a “pick-up” group that could perform “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down” properly without even a talking-over, let alone a rehearsal! It was the highlight of a weekend of highlights for me!
One final note: At the cemetery I finally understood what a prominent Davenport family was the Beiderbecke clan in the early 20th century. The monument was huge and there were nearly twenty grave markers behind it (though Bix’s was the only one adorned with flowers, etc). I mulled over what pressure that young musician—the Black Sheep Beiderbecke had flouted family tradition—must’ve endured. I can only imagine how haunted he was over not having his family’s approval of his chosen path. It was likely more than just the musician’s lifestyle of lore that kept him drinking. We’re all infinitely richer that he didn’t give in to familial tradition or convention, but what a price he paid. I know, for one, I am eternally grateful that his light, though brief, so brightly burned.