The Big Spider Back Jazz Festival?!

“Mommy, the Bix Beiderbecke jazz festival is coming up soon. . . can we go, please?” I pleaded with my fingers crossed. I had heard about this event for over a year, and it had particularly intrigued me because of my great interest in Bix Beiderbecke’s music and hometown. So, when July of 2023 rolled in, I grew antsy. The desperation increased as I got updated that my favorite musicians were coming too, and never in my life had I heard live traditional jazz before.

“Big Spider Back Jazz Festival?” Mum responded in perplexion.

Hot Jazz Jubile

“Oh, yes! And it is held in Davenport, Iowa, by the way.”

“When is it?”

“August 3, 4, 5!” I rejoiced with hope, so I began listing all the little museums and activities around the Quad Cities in case one of our future “crew member” prospect might not be so enthused in three days of hot jazz.


However, a long series of days dragged by, and Mum and I never seriously conversed about this. It was only until July began inching towards the bottom of the calendar when Mum asked: “Okay, so the Big Spider Back Jazz Festival is soon in early August? Did you get the information on ticketing?”

“Yes, I did. I also phoned the Bix Society and emailed some questions on the festival info.” I confirmed.

“Okay, let’s leave—tomorrow, I guess. Go ask your siblings if they want to go.”

I raced through our house and began knocking every door like a salesman. While I failed to coax my brother, my two older sisters (both very musically talented) decided to join! So, we packed till midnight and hopped into the car the following morning, leaving our Atlantan home in the South for Davenport, IA.

Despite the fact that Mum thought this “bizarre” jazz festival was about one “Big Spider Back” she drove us a long way for the music. It was forsooth only until we reached the Rhythm City Casino venue when she realized whom this “Big Spider Back” was.


Being an enthusiast and pupil of trad jazz in a land where increasing scarcity of this music is apparent, I’ve had fruitless searches for gigs or bands in Atlanta, Georgia. So, when we traveled to Davenport last August for the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival, it was our first time hearing traditional jazz being performed live! Here’s how the chronicle began once we first reached the festival on its second day, August 4, 2023:

Mr. Andy Schumm’s cornet sounded brightly and Ms. Banu Gibson’s combo followed with excitement. I, dumbstruck from eagerness, could feel my pulsing heartbeats syncopating during the first song of August 4th. Positively flummoxed with leaping glee, I froze momentarily, and soon found myself and my sisters stomping away to the rhythm until the 4:30pm break. How exhilarating—what a thrilling experience!

While I am unaware of to whom the volition of band selections was given, it was indeed an omnibus of sound bliss! Banu Gibson’s combo brought a welcoming start to August 4th; Andy Schumm’s Chicago Cellar Boys embodied authentic early Chicago style; Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band, which I’ve anticipated for weeks prior to the festival, performed the novel rag-a-jazz and the ODJB repertoire with additional explanations by Mr. Levinson; the Bix Youth Jazz Band was heartening to hear the younger generation; Hal Smith’s New Orleans Night Owls featured the repertoire that I was unaccustomed to, so I listed the songs down to learn in the future; T.J Müller brought his Arcadia Dance Orchestra, highlighting a St. Louis collection, and some vocals on his KMOX radio microphone; the Graystone Monarchs presented fine musicians and the band, led by Mr. Duffee on his novelty musical “arsenal” of percussion (including the Zutty Singleton-type bock-a-da-bock cymbal he utilized when performing “Symphonic Raps”), played a couple Chauncey Morehouse numbers for a Morehouse descendant, who was among the crowd.


Besides the concert attendance, another special happening that enthused me was meeting the very musicians, many of whom I have listened to via YouTube or CDs and some that I’ve even included in my school research paper! I highly anticipated the online updates prior to the festival dates, but it was personally a great surprise to see Mr. Michael McQuaid, whom I did not notice on the schedule previously! He is one of my favorite reedmen, so when I turned around to glimpse behind my seat during a performance and I noticed him at a distance near the stands, I turned to my siblings and whispered, “He’s here?!?! That’s him!! Look, there’s [Mister] Michael McQuaid!” Many of the times, I was nonplussed from surreal realities in sharing discussions with the polite maestri. And, of course, getting the autographs!

It’s a wonder how these sophisticated musicians capture the era’s style. Yet, instead of sounding like a reincarnation or carbon copy (e.g. of Bix), they absolutely possess these distinct elements mixing into their OWN genuine style. This is both unique and ingenious, and I value their knowledge in history and the novelty techniques in sublime playing and the equipment. Indeed, the more I learn, the more I appreciate.

From the 2023 Bix Fest

While I cannot include every musical detail or the comedic anecdotes between sets, a couple notable feats were done: one of my favorite videos captured the Graystone Monarchs on the ditty “Borneo,” featuring Mr. Matt Tolentino doing splendid vocals, trailed by the celebrated Bix-Trumbauer “chase” duo, accomplished by Mr. Davis on cornet and Mr. Tolentino on reeds. Another extraordinary moment was during “That’s No Bargain,” arranged in the style of the 1926 Red Nichols & His Five Pennies rendition; Mr. McQuaid did the daunting Dorsey solo with precision. Also, Mr. Davis’ singing “I Lost My Heart in Dixieland” was memorable. A rather silly tune was done by the Arcadia Dance Orchestra “I’m Just Wild about Animal Crackers,” which I knew through the Goofus Five record; “I’ll Be a Friend with Pleasure” and that animal crackers song remained as my family’s most memorable melodies from the trip, and the latter being my mom’s favorite.


Speaking of the humorous side-stories, I’ll mention a few here: I recall that during an intermission I heard a bass saxophone blaring something from behind the black side curtains, which I believe was the introduction line to “Cornfed” in the Red Nichols arrangement. And when a technical error occurred (the stage lights went off for a mo), Mr. David Boeddinghaus began playing “In the Dark” on the piano. During the Roof Garden Jass Band set, Mr. Levinson’s (I believe) finger rest broke off his clarinet, but he merely grinned and managed to smoothly continue and finish perfectly.

At the closing of our first day, I noticed the musicians’ exodus from the venue and nudged my mom, presuming that they must be heading to the jam session. And indeed, they were! The Quality Inn jam session had been on my bucket list for some time, and when both Mr. Schumm and Mr. Duffee suggested that we’d join, I was undeniably grateful! However, it was arguably late, and my crew was fatigue. I’d say that so was I, although I probably did not feel so from the adrenaline rush. So, soon after schlepping my washboard and my obscure “musical” instrument (I call it the “POCKET ROLLINI” which I’ll reveal one day) we sauntered and stayed for one ditty. Again, how unreal it felt to stand at the edge near the blazing torches of that legendary half-acre plot of history! Although I never directly participated, it was delightful to witness a continuation of the tradition and development of the current generations’ contribution to the trad jazz community.

Afterwards, upon reaching the hotel room, in my mental caverns I could still hear echoes of the bands from that day’s allotted nine-and-a-half hours of pleasure. Before collapsing from exhaustion, I grasped my pen and journal and hastily scribbled in shorthand of the day’s events. It was personally both a delight and an opportunity to list observations of music, history, amusing incidents, and techniques on instruments.

The following day brought more abundant joy. Whereas we chose to rest during the Oakdale cemetery session, we rejoined the festival for T.J Müller’s Arcadia Dance Orchestra in the morning and remained until the finale of the festival. After the Graystone Monarchs performed “I’ll Be a Friend with Pleasure” in respectful tribute to the late Gerri Bowers, sorrow overtook me as I recognized it as our penultimate piece. The closing song, however, was “Market Street Stomp,” arranged in the style of the Missourians’ record! As those who’ve heard this exuberant record know (if not, please immediately listen to it!), it brought the passionate audience bursts of joy. I heard several jolly folks interject “whoo, hoo!” and “yah!” and found myself doing the same. It was a bittersweet moment once the uplifting song finished.

Chicago Cellar Boys at the 51st Bix Fest (From Facebook)

Most of the audience left, and after gazing and strolling through the valley of vacant chairs, I came across Mr. Davis and soon afterwards Mr. Schumm and Mr. McQuaid. They signed our BIX LIVES caps and we parted after a brief conversation.

I suppose that I can most certainly continue on awfully long about the lively side anecdotes, conversations, and musical/historical analyses and inquiries concerning those two remarkable days, and the memorable, benevolent folks I’ve met. Now comes an end, as all memoirs should, and I close with the purpose that in this letter, you’ve found both amusement and hope. I also want to show my deep appreciation to all who’ve contributed, including both the ones that haven’t been mentioned here and those I do not know.

So here is how our visit to Iowa ended: as we crossed the Ol’ Man River, I bid Davenport a melancholy farewell. After several days of journeying home, I arrived in Georgia with hot jazz tugging my heartstring, an archive of notes and recordings to educate myself on playing the cornet, shoes worn down from dancing, and a hasty longing for yet the upcoming festival. And most of all, irreplaceable reminiscences to treasure from that good ole “Big Spider Back Jazz Festival.”

Clorinda Nickols is a homeschooler residing in Georgia. While being an avid pupil of trad jazz, she is also fond of researching history and sharing her thoughts through her writings. Her hobbies also include: playing the cornet/piano/her ‘Pocket Rollini,’ sewing vintage garments, and drawing.

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