Set forth below is the forty-seventh “Texas Shout” column. The initial installment of a two-part essay, it first appeared in the February 1994 issue of The West Coast Rag, now known as The Syncopated Times.
Frequently after a gig, a fan will come up to me and ask “Don’t you think Dixieland is going to make a comeback?” Sometimes the question is bolstered by a comment like “After all, all things come around.”
I truly wish I could agree with such good folks. Besides, I don’t want to say anything that throws a damper on the good time they’re having. So, I respond with something positive but noncommittal, such as “That would really be great, wouldn’t it?” or “I sure hope so.” However, you and I are alone here where we can let our hair down. Thus, I’m going to tell you what I really think about this issue.
Let me warn you that my thoughts are not optimistic. I don’t want to appear to have a negative attitude, but I want to be honest.
Besides, I think that, in order for the Dixieland community to address its problems properly, it needs to get those problems clearly understood. After all, just because I can’t think of the solution doesn’t mean that someone out there can’t do so if we can just get the situation in proper focus.
To begin with, what would be meant by a “comeback” for Dixieland? How would we recognize it if it happened?
After all, Dixieland jazz, like other areas of show business, has always been an uncertain profession at best, subject to the vagaries of popular taste and the ups and downs of the economy. We all have heard stories of famous Dixielanders having to exist on transparent sandwiches and sleeping on the floors of colleagues’ apartments.
However, when I first became interested in Dixieland as a teenager in the early 1950s, most of our largest cities, and many others not so large, had at least one tavern that, like Condon’s or Ryan’s in NYC, provided a daily living for a house band of Dixieland musicians. Major record labels were interested in maintaining a complete line of music, issuing LPs on a regular basis by name Dixielanders like Phil Napoleon, Eddie Condon, Yank Lawson, and Bob Haggart. Dixieland artists who had achieved recognition among the broader general public, like Louis Armstrong, Red Nichols, and Jack Teagarden, led bands that toured theaters and clubs, giving steady employment to their sidemen.
In short, in those days, while Dixieland had its insecurities, there was a regular market for it on some level. A musician who liked Dixieland had reason to think that, if he was just good enough to crack a club house band or name combo, he’d be able to get along.
To me, that would be the standard by which to judge a comeback for our music. That is, Dixieland hasn’t “come back” until it offers a viable alternative to someone contemplating a career in music.
Doesn’t that put us on too commercial a basis, you ask? I don’t think so. Anything short of the standard I propose leaves us where we are now, at a point where the only people who choose to become professional Dixielanders are those whose internal makeup drives them to play the music regardless of the consequences. If the only new Dixielanders we’re going to get are those who would sign up anyway, how can the music have “come back” in any meaningful sense?
If that is the standard, we can now see in retrospect that Dixieland died sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Moreover, though it’s hard to imagine anything deader than dead, the scene has steadily deteriorated since.
It was during the sixties that the major labels, and even the larger minor labels, began to abandon Dixieland jazz. That was the decade in which many of the famous pioneering Dixielanders died or became inactive. Their touring bands and recording dates were not taken over, to any noticeable extent, by the next generation of Dixielanders.
Instead, the recording scene shifted to independent labels run on a quasi-hobby basis by Dixieland fans. Tours started to ebb into occasional weekends of concerts for the geographically adjacent Dixieland clubs that were springing up, mostly in the East. Instead of Dixieland night clubs, annual festivals of varying size began to dot the landscape.
Today, except for New Orleans and Orlando, where Dixieland and nostalgic music are part of the attraction for the large tourist trade, our big cities no longer have clubs that offer a house band – the same personnel every night – playing Dixieland five or six nights a week. Again, except for New Orleans and Orlando – and casinos, where Dixieland is sometimes used to facilitate the action but where few of the patrons are attending specifically to hear it – Jim Cullum’s San Antonio-based septet is the only full-time every-night Dixieland aggregation I can think of offhand. (Readers will undoubtedly write to mention others I’ve temporarily forgotten, but there aren’t many such combos, and you take my point.)
As for records, the majority of the Dixieland records being made today, even by some of the most popular names on the circuit, are produced by the musicians themselves. Most of the independent labels concentrating on Dixieland have, at this writing, issued only a handful of albums, the principal exceptions being George Buck’s and Bob Erdos‘ operations. (Further, I understand that Bob, having established one of the highest-quality Dixieland catalogs ever and having paid his dues to our music far beyond just about all of his contemporaries, is beginning to look toward the day when Stomp Off’s release schedule will be cut back to allow him to get on with some well-earned activities in other areas.)
Outside of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has a mystique that sustains it apart from the band’s makeup at any given time, there is no Dixieland band recording for a major label or regularly touring large theaters. Even Preservation Hall’s touring group may not be on the road that often, or appearing with a set personnel, although (not having followed PHJB recently) I can’t be sure of those points.
While the festival scene has blossomed since the sixties, one only has to do the arithmetic to see that it isn’t providing, and can’t provide, a living for musicians. Even the most active bands rarely play as many as 30 three-day festivals a year. The normal musician’s fee for such a schedule is not a living wage, and the sale of records (at least for a sideman) doesn’t add much to the total. Further, regular sidemen with busy festival bands have trouble keeping steady musical jobs back home because their employers don’t want them running off every other weekend.
Finally, if you read the standard Dixieland periodicals and stay in touch with the industry gossip, you have to come away with a bleak picture of the Dixieland employment picture. I don’t want to name names, but a I recall a few years back hearing a well-known player with a top-name professional band saying he was thinking about getting a real estate license to help make ends meet. The other day I heard of a musician who had “joined” a “full-time” band, though his first gig therewith would not occur until a tour scheduled some two months after his joining.
A coterie of free-lance Dixielanders, mostly in New York City, New Orleans, and Orlando, seems to be getting by. However, the grapevine throbs with tales of world-famous Dixieland musicians looking for casual festival gigs, playing club dates for peanuts, and moving hither and yon in hopes of landing something that will last for a while.
Like it or not, this is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Is Dixieland likely to deteriorate further, or is a “comeback” in the cards?
To get a handle on that subject, I find it instructive to examine demographic data available to me from several surveys taken in recent years. The sources are diverse not only geographically, but also in universe covered, including a West Coast jazz festival, a British jazz periodical and two East Coast Dixieland clubs. Yet, after making a few rough adjustments to the results to concentrate on the Dixielanders, they seem to have come out about the same way.
The New Jersey Jazz Society, a long-standing club devoted to pre-bop jazz, principally Chicago-style Dixieland and small-band swing, reported its survey results in the December 1990 issue of Jersey Jazz. Age Of Members Responding: Over 70 – 20%; 60-69 – 45%; 50-59 – 23%; 40-49 – 7%; 31-39 – 4%; Under 30 – 1%.
The Potomac River Jazz Club in Washington, D.C., also a long-standing society, focuses almost exclusively on Dixieland in all of its styles. Club Director Maury Cagle, in a 6/25/93 conversation, reported to me the breakdown of those who answered a 1988 club survey question on members’ ages. 70 or over – 10%; 60-69 – 39%; 50-59 – 32%; 40-49 – 13%; 30-39 – 4%; 20-29 – 2%. A followup in 1991 was even more skewed toward the elderly, with no one responding in the 20-29 bracket, and nearly 70% being 60 or over.
Jazz Journal International, an almost 50-year-old British periodical that is one of the world’s best jazz magazines, covering all types of jazz except the most anarchic free-form modern stuff, broke down its readership in April 1992. Over 70 – 3%; 61-70 – 25%; 51-60 – 44%; 41-50 – 21%; 31-40 – 5%; 30 or Under – 2%.
In 1991, the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, which draws heavily from the nearby community, presenting a cross-section of excellent Dixieland bands along with non-Dixieland headline acts whose names will be familiar to the locals (e.g., Frankie Laine), took a survey of attendees. During a phone call on 5/11/93, the festival’s Executive Director, Roger Krum, told me that the age category results were: Over 65 – 25%; 45-64 – 53%; 25-44 – 19%; Under 25 – 3%.
I’d make a few “guesstimate” adjustments to the above data to try to focus on Dixieland fans. For example, because Jazz Journal covers bop, it should have a higher proportion of readers in their forties (who would have been forming their musical tastes as kids when bop first made it big on records after World War II) than Jersey Jazz, which doesn’t pay much attention to bop. Similarly, because Sacto’s Jubilee is the biggest thing that happens all year in the city, it naturally gets somewhat more of a cross-section of the general public than would a meeting of the local Dixieland club.
Even without such allowances, it seems clear to me that a good three-quarters of the audience for Dixieland is over 50. I’d “guesstimate” from these figures that probably two-thirds of it is over 60 and that virtually none of it is under 40 (that is, the younger half of the U.S. population includes no significant amount of Dixieland supporters).
These results are hardly surprising. The literature has been filled in recent years with concern about the aging of Dixieland musicians and their followers.
It’s seeing the precise numbers that put the dimensions of the problem in focus for me. They also tell me something about the likelihood of a “comeback” for Dixieland.
Want to read ahead? Buy the book!
The full run of “Texas Shout” has been collected into a lavishly illustrated trade paperback entitled Texas Shout: How Dixieland Jazz Works. This book is available @ $20.00 plus $2.95 shipping from Tex Wyndham, On request, Tex will autograph the book and add a personalized note (be sure to tell him to whom the note should be addressed).
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Note: All links, pictures, videos or graphics accompanying the Shouts were added at the discretion of the Syncopated Times editorial staff. They did not accompany the original columns and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Tex Wyndham.