The Fat Babies (featuring Beau Sample, bass, leader; John Otto, sax; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet; Andy Schumm, cornet; Dave Bock, trombone; John Donatowicz, banjo; Paul Asaro, piano; and Alex Hall, drums) kick off the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival at the Putnam Museum on August 3, 2017. (Neal Siegal photo)
The New Venue
The 46th annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival took place on Thursday, August 3, through Saturday, August 5, at its third change of venue in as many years: the recently-opened Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport, Iowa. The casino is in an incongruous location: amid cornfields instead of on the Mississippi River like others in the area, and highly visible (but not directly accessible) from Interstate 80. I was initially put off by the site and garishness of the place, but after hearing several music sets and finding that I didn’t have to leave the premises for meals, I was won over. The festival is not in the casino per se, but in a separate area specifically designed for concerts and other exhibitions. Steve Trainor, president of the Bix Society, which runs the festival, told me that they were pleased with the deal they got from the casino. There is an on-site hotel, which is a benefit to people who did not drive to Davenport and would otherwise have had to rent a car, as well as to those with mobility issues. Other, lower-priced, lodging is available within a few miles.
While a few attendees did not like the venue, the majority did. My only complaint was that the temperature was always too cold, and I rarely gripe about the “coolth.” Perhaps the thermostat was set with the expectation that the room would always be filled to capacity, but that did not occur. Saturday’s sets were well attended, but the crowd was small on Thursday evening and Friday. In addition, the weather outside on Friday and Saturday was unseasonably cool, which should have reduced the need for air-conditioning. Normally in Davenport in early August, heat and humidity reign.
The Fat Babies of Chicago
The festival officially got underway on Thursday afternoon with the customary one-hour concert at the Putnam Museum, at which the Fat Babies from Chicago played. To these ears, the Fat Babies are to Chicago what Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks are to New York. I can never get enough of them, and attended all five of their sets during the weekend. One set opened with a tune I had never heard, so I asked their multi-instrumentalist, Andy Schumm, its title. He said, “Oh, that’s one of my compositions. It’s called ‘Uptown.’” When I told him that it sounded like it had been written in the ’20s, he grinned appreciatively. The talent of this young man almost defies description. In addition to composing and arranging, I have seen him play six different instruments. The Fat Babies also played the last set of the weekend (but not officially part of the festival), the traditional Sunday night gig at the Knoxville Tap across the river in Milan, Illinois. I have never gone to this one, and was told that it sells out early.
Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band
Also on the card was the return of Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band, this year commemorating the centennial of recorded jazz. Dan always has top-drawer talent in his bands, and this one was no exception. With Mike Davis on cornet, Matt Musselman on trombone, Kevin Dorn on drums, and Dalton Ridenhour on piano, I need say no more. My only disappointment was knowing that this was Matt’s last gig, at least for a while. He’s leaving the music business to pursue a career in special education. I hope that once he gets settled in that field, he’ll be available for occasional gigs. Since this band is based in New York, I have heard them often, and by the time you read this, they will have performed at the Tri-State Jazz Society and the next day in my hometown of Lancaster. Jim Fryer will replace Matt on trombone.
Hal Smith’s Swing Central
Each of the bands offered a different style. Hal Smith’s Swing Central, so named because it’s comprised entirely of musicians who live in the Central time zone, devoted its sets to music of Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Lester Young, and the less well-known Chicago pianist Frank Chace. I had not heard this band before. Their music was mostly from the Swing Era, but the group was very good. Jonathan Doyle did double duty this weekend, on reeds with Swing Central and in his regular chair with the Fat Babies. He turned out some great solos.
Dave Bennett’s Quartet
Dave Bennett’s quartet, a repeat visitor to the Bix, played distinctly non-trad sets, and while this was not the type of music I would have come to the festival for, they were a tight group and acquitted themselves well. Dave is known as a master of various genres. Other than Steve Pikal on bass, I had not heard the other two guys before. They, like Dave, are both from Michigan but are not in his larger band, which I have heard on a couple of occasions.
Josh Duffee’s Graystone Monarchs
The fifth band, Josh Duffee’s Graystone Monarchs, is patterned after the Nighthawks, and are masters at re-creating the libraries of the Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, and other top orchestras of the ’20s and early ’30s. This year the personnel included several members from Roof Garden and the Fat Babies. Josh, in addition to being a quintessential ’20s-style drummer, is a devotee of xylophonist Teddy Brown, and wowed the audience with several numbers on that instrument while someone else manned the traps. The Monarchs’ personnel has varied during the years I’ve heard them at the Bix, but their playing is always impeccable. I suggested to Josh that he needs to record with this band, and such a project is under serious consideration, though probably not with exactly the same lineup we heard here. My sole regret about the Monarchs is that they only played two sets.
One advantage of having only five bands at the casino was that there was no need to choose which band to see. Six other local bands played on Friday and Saturday evenings at LeClaire Park in downtown Davenport, but in order to go there one would have to miss two sets at the casino. The sets at the park were free, and were provided in hopes of attracting local residents who might like the music enough to pay to see the bands at the casino. I consider this a wise strategy by the Society; you have to spend money to make money. Other than this, having everything in one place was a welcome convenience.
A regular feature of the festival is the one-hour concert on Saturday morning at the Beiderbecke family graves in Oakdale Cemetery. The Locust Street Boys, a local band, played this year. They could have used some more practice. If any family members were there, they were not introduced. There was also the Sunday morning liturgy (two services) at the Beiderbecke family’s church, at which music was provided by Dave Bennett’s quartet.
A point worth noting was made repeatedly throughout the weekend: the Bix needs donations to keep going.
Corporate sponsorships, which help pay the big bills, have been declining. A solicitation earlier this year of previous attendees helped guarantee that this year’s edition came off. It is well known that a number of other trad jazz festivals have folded, or have widened their music offerings in an attempt to survive by attracting a younger and more musically diverse crowd. As a staunch traditionalist myself, I have, reluctantly but realistically, come down on the side favoring the broader offerings if that’s what it takes to keep the festival in question going, provided that the trad bands remain in the majority. When I, at 70, am younger than most other attendees, it is clear that a different approach must be considered. I don’t see an alternative other than finding new deep-pocketed sponsors. Aside from the money question, it would be good to entice younger people to discover this music so that, someday, they will be the oldsters in the crowd.
I have now been to six Bix festivals starting in 2001, but this was the first time I had been to two in a row. I’m hoping to make it three in a row next year.
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.
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