Trad Jazz in Maine: From Desert to Oasis

As I read Andy Senior’s February 2023 “Static in My Attic” column where he recounted pushback he’d received on the need to save trad jazz, I thought to myself: This is all well and good, but what can an ordinary person, such as myself, actually DO to help save jazz?

I love trad jazz, but I’m what you would call a “casual.” I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of technique or discography or historical players exhibited by the various TST CD and book reviewers, I’m not a musician or even musical (heck, I can’t even carry a tune in a bucket), the mister and I live in the hinterlands of Maine—not exactly a happening jazz scene (or so we thought), and as the mister teaches at a university, we’re unable to attend any jazz festivals happening during the school year that aren’t local (which is none… or so we thought) as we lack the funds to be the kind of folks who fly across the country and back in a day.

Hot Jazz Jubile

But you know that old saw about how you might never see a particular thing, like a yellow sweater, until someone mentions it and then, suddenly, all you see is yellow sweaters everywhere? I think you see where I’m going with this, but if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I’d like to take you on a short odyssey.

It started with a meandering Sunday drive to get out of the house after a few weeks of non-stop rain. We stopped at a red light, and I (in the passenger seat) happened to notice a vinyl banner hanging on the side of the road advertising the “Jazz in June” Camden, ME festival. I did a double take and thought, “Wow—we have a jazz festival up here? Holy cow!” Now, because I had been pondering Andy’s article and had “saving jazz” on the brain, I was primed to notice what usually might have gone unnoticed and to act upon it. I grabbed my phone and looked up the details of the jazz festival.

Alas, none of the acts, save one (a University of Maine jazz ensembles), appeared to be performing any of the trad / hot jazz disciplines. However, I did learn that the University of Maine has a jazz studies program and four jazz ensembles that actively play around the state, including playing some trad jazz. Well okay, I had now discovered 100% more jazz in Maine than I thought existed. That was an exciting discovery. I made a mental note to research the ensembles more fully when I got home and to see when and where they might be playing.

Evergreen

This reminded me that, in the past, husband and I had enjoyed a high school jazz band’s trad jazz playing at the local (Blue Hill) county fair, so I conducted an internet search to discover this is the George Stevens Academy (a private, grade 9-12 high school in Blue Hill, ME) Jazz Band, which, according to their website, had won, in the past, the state jazz championships nineteen times. Okay, so trad jazz education for high school and college students seems to be alive and well in Maine. Even more exciting news!

A couple of days later, the mail lady delivered a brochure for the Bar Harbor Music Festival (now in its 57th year) which features an entire evening concert by The Wolverine Jazz Band out of Boston. Hot dog—now we were cooking with gas! The Bar Harbor Music Festival takes place annually from the end of June to the end of July and features a couple dozen classical, pops, and jazz acts at venues around Bar Harbor and a satellite location in Belfast (an hour south of Bar Harbor). The Wolverine Jazz Band will be playing Sunday, July 23rd, which, by the time you read this, will have passed. You can learn more about the festival (to prepare for next year) at barharbormusicfestival.org. The Wolverine Jazz Band will be playing various venues around Massachusetts during the summer; you can find their appearance schedule on their website.

Our cup overflowed with jazz bountifulness when, a few days later, I received an email newsletter from the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor announcing The Duke Ellington Orchestra would be making an appearance on Thursday, July 27th. I shouted (well, perhaps squealed at a level only discernible by dogs) in delight and one-click bought tickets so fast, I frightened my cats.

And then our July issue of TST arrived and lo and behold, in the festival roundup, there was a listing for a jazz festival happening in Medford, MA of all places. Medford is a small city in northeastern MA. It’s quiet, home to the world-class (and world-renowned) Tufts University (one of my alma maters), and a generally pleasant place, but not one I think of as a “jazz festival” kind of place so this was a pleasant surprise. It’s also within a reasonable (four-hour) drive of us, and The Soggy Po’ Boys were playing, hold the phone, get the credit card Martha, we’re going to Medford! (or ‘Mefferd’ if you’re from there).

The Soggy Po’ Boys of New Hampshire, from left: Mike Effenberger (piano), Zach Lange (trumpet), Scott Kiefner (upright bass), Brett Gallo (drums/percussion), Eric Klaxton (clarinet/soprano saxophone), Nick Mainella (tenor saxophone), and Stuart Dias (vocals, guitar). (photo courtesy Soggy Po’ Boys)

I discovered The Soggy Po’ Boys from a CD review in the TST a few years ago and I am a huge fan. Alas, we have a schedule conflict for the Medford festival date, so I frantically Googled to see if the band would be playing anywhere else in the area while “up here,” to discover, to my great surprise and delight, they are making several trips to “Downeast ME” over the summer! Alas, none of the dates lined up with our availability, and I was in the “depths of despair” again (as Anne Shirley might say) until I saw on their website they have a weekly gig at The Press Room restaurant in Portsmouth, NH on Tuesday nights. One one-click hotel room booking later, and we were set to head down to Portsmouth to see the band live.

Nauck

And then, with trad jazz happenings starting to accumulate like a snowball rolling down hill, I saw on Facebook a post by a local group that organizes live music at the waterfront park in Belfast, ME that their June 3rd line up included the Undertow Brass Band out of Providence, RI, and let me tell you, whenever I hear the words “brass band,” I will drop what I am doing and beeline for the source, leaving little cartoon dust clouds in my wake like Wile E. Coyote. My musical tastes lean toward the loud, thumping, funk, “get up” side of things, and I love a brass band—Funkrust Brass Band, Euphoria Brass Band, The Original Pinettes Brass Band… they are on endless repeat on my iTunes.

So, we grabbed our portable lawn chairs and headed down to check it out. The emcee announced the band and left the empty stage. The audience waited for the band to appear and then, from far away behind us, came the slow, halting strains of a funeral dirge. We all turned to see the band slowly and in proper New Orleans funeral-parade style making their way down the riverside boardwalk. They dirged all the way to the stage and then broke into some of the hottest brass band rhythms I have ever heard—a combination of New Orleans brass band, eastern European rhythms, and funk. Their music is fun, infectious, and impossible not to move to.

After we left, I googled the band to see if they would be playing any additional locations here in Maine before heading back down to Rhode Island and they were playing two dates, both local to me. Yellow sweaters, yellow sweaters everywhere!

Elvis

After all these amazing discoveries, I started thinking to myself, “Maybe Maine isn’t the jazz desert I thought it was. Maybe there is more trad jazz going on here than it at first appears.” So, I sat down at my computer and Googled “jazz bands in Maine.” And I discovered the State Street Jazz Band out of Portland, ME. And the Novel Jazz Band out of Newcastle, ME. And a list of venues hosting live music and trad jazz bands in the state. And the Django by the Sea Festival in Kittery, ME at the end of September. And was reminded of the Seacoast Jazz Festival happening in Newburyport, MA in August.

And as discovery after discovery piled up in front of me, I realized what I, an ordinary person, can do to save trad jazz (and should have been doing this entire time): I can, first and foremost, exert a very small effort to discover the rather robust trad jazz ecosystem that already surrounds me. I had been passively sitting back, like a rock in a stream, waiting for trad jazz concerts and artist appearances to float by, when I should have been actively seeking them out. It’s extremely easy to set up an automated Google search based on keywords (such as “traditional jazz,” “hot jazz,” “Dixieland,” “ragtime,” and “Maine”) and have the results emailed to oneself daily. And I should be checking all my favorite bands’ Upcoming Appearances listings online. Third, I realized I can always email my favorite bands directly and ask, “Are you making any trips to [my area] this year?” This lets the band know that there is interest in having them appear in a particular area and if they get enough inquiries, indicates a possible “critical mass” of ticket sales that would make the location economically viable for them to hold a show.

This all then led me to casually posting the following question in my neighborhood Facebook group: “Are there any traditional jazz enthusiasts in the neighborhood? I’m thinking of maybe hosting some small lawn/house parties next summer and hiring a trad jazz band to play. Would anyone come?” Replies poured in; it turns out, to my surprise, that my neighborhood is FULL of trad jazz fans! Who knew? So yes, trad jazz is alive and kicking, even up here in remote Maine. I just had to do a little light digging to find it, but it most certainly is here!

Nauck

Big festivals and cool, interesting clubs that feature live jazz daily are certainly great means of keeping trad jazz alive, but falling down the rabbit hole of trad jazz happenings in Maine has made me realize that, even more importantly, a) measuring the health of trad jazz simply by the number of large, high visibility festivals might, perhaps, be giving us all a skewed view of the patient (it’s a bit like measuring marine life by looking only at the surface of the water), and b) keeping the music alive happens in the million small things ordinary fans can do to support the jazz happening in their own backyard.

So, I challenge everyone reading this, to go (right now!) and perform an internet search for [name of your favorite trad jazz sub-genre / term] and [name of your state and/or closest city] and see what comes up. Any surprises? Local bands with which you are unfamiliar? Venues where live trad jazz is playing you didn’t know about? One-off appearances by bands traveling to your area? Jazz education programs for youth and/or adult students taking place? And then, report back what you’ve discovered. I bet we’ll all be surprised just how much trad jazz is actually happening when we stop and dig a bit beneath the surface.

By day, Terri Bruce works in the government and nonprofit sector, helping to eradicate poverty. By night, she’s a science fiction and fantasy author. In between, she’s a trad jazz fan. 

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