In many ways, the existence and growth of the band Junco Royals was made possible through the standard millennial catalyst: the internet and more specifically, YouTube. I found my passion for traditional jazz when I started searching the internet for music similar to the traditional Appalachian fiddle music I had been playing for a couple years.
The band that really resonated with me was Tuba Skinny. They embodied the aspect about traditional music that I loved but didn’t yet know how to articulate. They just seemed like normal people playing folk music really well. The way they just got out on the street in normal clothes and played this fairly complicated genre made it seem attainable and accessible. I immediately felt like it was not only cool to like this music, but that it didn’t need to feel antiquated. Instead, there was a way to just make it feel American. I wanted to contribute to the possibility that America could reclaim some of its musical culture from the era-specific stereotype that traditional music is often plagued with. I also wanted to claim some of that American culture for myself, for my own national identity.
For Molly, our clarinetist and a founding member of the band, the path to traditional jazz was more hands-on. “When I was in college at Florida State University in Tallahassee, a spot in a band called The Yellow Dog Jazz Band fell into my lap. The Yellow Dogs play in the style of the Creole Jazz Band—two cornets, clarinet, trombone, tuba, banjo, piano and drums. The story of how they ended up in Tallahassee is a long but interesting one that traces back to a man named Robin Wetterau. In the 1950s Wetterau collaborated with Dixieland Rhythm Kings band leader, Charles Sonnanstine, to transcribe and arrange at least 240 tunes that combined the styles of the great band leaders King Oliver and Lu Watters.
“When Wetterau retired, he moved to Bradenton, Florida where he met a young pianist named Aaron Ferral. Aaron played in Robin’s group for a few years before he moved to Tallahassee and brought the Yellow Dog Jazz Band book with him. The Tallahassee band was formed in 2008 but the legacy doesn’t stop there. Aaron moved to Kentucky in 2010 where he started another iteration of the Yellow Dog Jazz Band. I played with the Tallahassee band from 2010-2013 and during that time I learned so much about this obscure, mysterious, and exuberant genre. Rehearsals were every Friday night in the basement of the local music store I worked in part-time, Music Masters.
“It was a really big commitment for a 20-year-old college student to give up her Friday night but each time we met, I was reminded of how lucky I was. While most were out dancing at the local Tallahassee night clubs, no other 20-year-old girl in Tallahassee got what I had—stories, folklore, communion, and a direct connection to the lineage to American musical history. I got to lay my eyes on these charts, play the notes and see the scribbles of players before me and it was like being in on the inside joke.
“I remember distinctly on one of the charts the words “two-pot hominy” written out instead of “two part harmony” and I don’t know why but that just struck me and in a way, embodied the disposition of traditional jazz. It’s goofy, disarming, surprising, delightful yet at the same time, it has so much depth and complexity. I was enamored. In 2013, however, I had to make a difficult decision to move back to Jacksonville. But like Aaron, I had the tunes in my head and the promise that if I ever wanted a chart, the current band leader, Mike Grant, would happily send me the pdf—empowering me to keep the legacy going. At that point, the story of Junco Royals begins and I believe that somewhere in the mix is the hair of a Yellow Dog–sorry that was cheesy but I couldn’t resist.”
About five years ago, Junco Royals was born as me, a guitar player, and Molly, a clarinet player. A side note that may or may not be important to this narrative: Molly and I are getting married later this year.
Both of us dreamed of being in a jazz band but having never actually started one, neither of us really knew where to begin except to learn some tunes and find a gig. Unfortunately, the only gig this guitar and clarinet duo could find was an unpaid lunchtime gig in the cafeteria of a local hospital during Nurses Appreciation Week. Needless to say, the nurses didn’t appreciate it.
I remember being so nervous for this gig because it was our first one but the day we were supposed to play, our point of contact at the hospital was on vacation and didn’t tell anyone we’d be there so we didn’t know where we were supposed to play, or for how long. After about an hour of being met with the confused stares of healthcare workers on their lunch breaks, a nurse came up to us and literally said “Why are you here?” We packed up and ghosted knowing that there was a lot of work ahead if we eventually wanted people to appreciate our music.
Fast forward five years and five members and Junco Royals is now a seven to eight-piece band and we have finally carved a cozy niche for ourselves in Jacksonville as the traditional jazz band to call for all of your Roaring ’20s, Mardi Gras, Great Gatsby parties, Speakeasy bars not to mention any gig that has a parade.
“There are obviously some gigs where we get typecast for the role of old-timey jazz band, and don’t get me wrong, those gigs are a lot of fun, but, more and more we are starting to get gigs where its not because our image fits the theme of the party but because the person who hired us thought we were a good band, not a kitsch band. I think that’s a sign that we are on the right track—It may be a lofty idea but we want traditional jazz to be as important and relevant to our listeners as whatever they listen to on the radio. After all, there was a time when this music was pop music.” says Molly.
Over the past five years, the additional Juncos have both trickled in and in some cases, flooded in. Sean, the tuba player joined the group in 2015. He and Molly actually went to college together at FSU. Murphy, guitar & banjo player, joined in 2017 and the most recent four members fell into step quite gracefully by way of Milan. Milan is our percussionist and in a lot of ways, he has ushered in the renaissance of Junco Royals by finding two trumpet players, Steve and Greg, and a trombone player, Bryant.
These new players have enabled the band to really start sculpting more historically-informed arrangements of traditional jazz tunes. “Before we had the other horns, we had to make certain concessions to make sure that the melody of the tune lived in the space we created for it. Without a trumpet, Molly would play melody on clarinet and sometimes I would play counterpoint to that but now that we have the other players, the trumpets can take on the melody role, the trombone can play counterpoints, and the clarinet can play the obbligato.” says Murphy. With this new roster of musicians, we are forging a path toward some more ambitious goals and asking a lot of questions of ourselves about how to keep moving forward. Even with the right people there are still more key factors that turn a group of musicians jamming into a viable traditional jazz band.
Finding our sound
One of the more difficult aspects of getting the band on track has been deciding what exactly we wanted the band to sound like. Even though I was inspired by the specific style of Trad I was seeing contemporary bands play on the streets of New Orleans, there was no precedent set for the style here in Jacksonville. It was difficult to introduce a style that is actually largely unknown to musicians and listeners here. Even some jazz musicians we tried out had really only heard contemporary trad in the style of vaudevillian vintage acts playing “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
We knew that was not the kind of band we wanted, and it has been challenging convincing other musicians to get on a bandwagon of obscurity. Surprisingly, that same burden has also been a blessing. Since no one here really knows what the music is supposed to sound like, we kind of get to decide. We’ve decided to attempt a similar style to that of some of the New Orleans purists.
We try to bring obscure tunes to the top of the set, play within traditional instrumentation and play era-specific licks, harmonies and rhythms. For instance, if we decide to play a tune in the style of Django Reinhardt or Oscar Alemán, we’ll often have the horns sit out and just do two acoustic guitars and a clarinet. Where as when we play a Clarence Williams tune, the guitar player will leave the gypsy jazz licks behind and the horns and banjo will be the more featured players. Now that we’ve finally got a group of musicians who’s ideas resonate with this, it’s finally starting to click.
Of course we would love to actually get into a studio and record an album but we are not quite there yet. In the meantime, we are trying to create as much media as we can. This is something we have been slacking on but we recently had a rehearsal and did a quick video of the tune “Grandpa’s Spells” by Jelly Roll Morton and posted it on our social media.
Our followers devoured it! It’s a great way to make quick engagements without the commitment of a studio recording. In some ways, I think the more candid the media is, the more approachable it is. Just like food, if it’s not too processed, it’s easier for the audience to digest.
Engaging the audience
We play all sorts of different gigs from weddings and fundraisers to bar and restaurant gigs and recently we’ve been experimenting with how to adapt to the setting. For instance, we’ve been debating the idea of standing while playing. Some of us feel that standing would be a way to match the audience’s energy or to even encourage the audience to engage more.
Others in the band argue that not many traditional jazz bands stand so is it an expectation that we should? While standing might make our shows more exciting, there are some logistical issues that arise—standing can accelerate fatigue in long gigs, some of the horns say they play better sitting, the guitar and banjo players would need straps.
We don’t have conclusive evidence that one way is better than the other, but we know what we want to inform our choices. We want to have fun, and we want to normalize the music. I feel like even something as small as making the decision to sit can be one of the small factors that says: This isn’t so much a show, as it is a display of people playing folk music. Maybe we can show people that this is their music too, and that they don’t need to be entertainers to join in on the fun. They just need an instrument, practice and people to play with. I think we felt that message when we saw the locals playing in New Orleans, and as younger musicians we have the opportunity to portray the genre as timeless, which it is.
Sharing the history
We have a pretty big concert coming up next month through a performing arts concert series in Jacksonville. This will be a departure from our normal “wallpaper” gig because the audience is coming to hear us perform a concert, not to be at an event where we are playing in the background.
Needless to say we are working on making the performance as compelling as we can and one element of that is to share the history of the tunes we perform. We’ve been researching composers and interesting historical elements of each tune. I think it’s going to be a really nice way to share with the audience some of the reasons we are all so compelled by the music we play.
Throughout all of the additions and enhancements to the band, we recognize the importance of acting quickly on our potential to do something noteworthy. We have a group of dedicated musicians who are interested in the same music but it’s not necessarily going to stay that way. We have to capitalize on the current vibrancy of our group and capture the artistry we have before it dissolves, and we will!
So keep an eye on us. We have plans to skip our own rock into the ethos of traditional jazz.