The Sultans of Swing
It’s the Saturday before Halloween at the James Joyce Pub in Santa Barbara, and in the long narrow room with the pressed tin ceiling, a guy with a drooping blonde moustache, in full Civil War regalia looking like General Custer, nods his head to the music, a dancer in a Zorro mask maneuvers his partner in a cowgirl-peasant lass get-up, and the legless torso of a zombie is hanging above the unflustered leader of Ulysses Jasz, Alex Marshall. Carnation in boutonniere, Marshall hunches over his tenor banjo and chunks out the chords to “China Boy.”
Behind the bar, plastic skulls mingle with bottles, and trumpet player Bob Couto plays a blistering solo, it’s another great Saturday night for trad jazz in Santa Barbara. Following Couto, who in his long career has backed singers such as Tony Bennett, Al Martino, Mickey Rooney, and Frankie Laine, trombonist Larry Jones, picks his way through “China Boy.” Jones, who plays with lyricism and finesse, has long been a fixture with Ulysses. Couto trades off trumpet duties with Ulysses regular Curt Sletten, who has played with the Harry James Orchestra, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and recorded with Aretha Franklin, Joe Walsh, Gladys Knight, and Marvin Gaye. Like Couto, Sletten can reel off a fast-paced solo that swings, takes unpredictable turns, and has the good humor expected in trad jazz.
The band is assembled just inside the door to State Street, downtown Santa Barbara’s main drag, and passersby stop, and many come in, smiling, or dancing, aware the music isn’t cliché but quite alive. Across from the band, on a slightly raised gallery, are the regulars, while jitterbug and Balboa dancers work their way over a dance floor strewn with peanut shells. Above them, the television displays the Los Angeles Dodgers falling behind in the World Series to Boston.
At the break, I talk to keyboardist John Leonard about his entrée to trad jazz. “I’ve been working my way backward. I started playing modern jazz in big bands at the city college here, then I hooked up with guys only interested in early bebop. When I got a chance to play with Ulysses, I fell in love with it. In Dixieland everyone’s playing at once—the idea is to not make it feel too crowded. You have to pick your spot. When you’re playing in the moment that’s when the magic occurs.”
The singer, Hanna Ross, dressed in a purple fox outfit, complete with ears and tail, jokes with friends at the bar. As a performer Ross gets coquettish on songs like “Button up Your Overcoat,” or “Makin’ Whoopee,” and belts out standards like “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” in her gutsy quaver. Ross tells me that before she joined the band, over ten years ago, she was singing rock and roll, as well as Arabic tunes, and working as a belly-dancer and stripper. She remembers that cornetist Dick Miller (Richard Roy Miller), then playing with Marshall, told her, after she got in the band, “Hanna, now you’re going to jazz college.” She adds, “I never went to college or graduated high school. So this was it.”
Until recently, Ulysses had the remarkable saxophonist Bob Efford joining them weekly. He still plays occasional gigs and records with them. In addition to studio work in London and Los Angeles, and a long discography, Efford, a Lester Young disciple, once toured with the Ted Heath Orchestra. Two of the members of the Ulysses rhythm session come from local musical royalty. Drummer Rene Martinez, along with his brothers Lorenzo Jr. and Ruben are fixtures in rock and jazz bands around town. He was taught by his father, Lorenzo “Lencho” Martinez, a specialist on the marimba and vibraphone, who toured with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra for four years, before settling in Santa Barbara.
On upright bass and tuba is Dean Dods, son of local legend Bill Dods, who often played with clarinetist James “Rosy” McHargue in Los Angeles; Dods also led the Santa Barbara trad jazz group The Mission City Ramblers and played trombone and tuba for many years with Ulysses. Dean recalls, “I grew up with the music. My parents didn’t always have money for babysitting so they’d take me to gigs. Supposedly I was dancing on top of a bar at one when I was two years old. My dad got me a union card when I was fourteen and I started playing gigs.”
After the band sails through a second set with songs like “Goody, Goody,” “Paper Moon,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Bill Bailey,” and “Bye, Bye Blues,” Marshall sets down his banjo, leans in toward his classic slotted microphone and with his Scottish brogue, says, “We’re going to take a short break. Then we’ll be back with more songs.” Hanna winks at me, says, “Make sure you get that in. ‘We’re’”—she rolls the ‘r’—“‘gaw-ing to take a shot brea-kh.”
The hand-lettered set lists that Marshall prepares weekly for the musicians are virtual artworks. An illustrator and graphic artist, he first fell in love with traditional jazz in the late 1940s when he attended art school in Edinburgh.
When I visit his studio in Santa Barbara, in addition to a pile of guitars and shelves loaded with cds, is a beautiful letterpress poster, all text, from the early 1970s. Jazz at the 100 Club. After a long list of band names, comes the assurance:
Fully Licensed Bar
The top two bands on the poster are ALEX WELSH BAND and GEORGE HOWDEN’S HOTSHOTS.
Marshall started his professional career playing with his Edinburgh friend trombonist George Howden. He has reason to believe that the Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing,” about a Dixie band in South London, was based on their band the “Hotshots” that played South London venues like the 100 Club in the 1970s. The song alludes to “Guitar George” who knows all the chords but is strictly rhythm and never solos. “That would be me. He may have switched my name with that of George, the trombonist.” As for the Alex Welsh Band, Marshall, as a young man idolized them. “They were really fine. The most prestigious of the British trad bands.”
In 1979, Marshall came to Santa Barbara and played with the Mission City Ramblers. Jazz cornet legend “Wild” Bill Davison, who’d recorded with the Eddie Condon band, was then living up in the Santa Barbara foothills. “I wanted to record him,” Marshall recalls. So he found his name in the phone book, visited, and they “struck up a friendship.” Davison, detoxing at the time, ended up gigging with Marshall and local bass player and singer Jill Avery, who has a beautiful bluesy voice.
Before the current Django Reinhardt craze, Marshall put together a “Hot Club” band that had restaurant gigs in Montecito and played Hollywood house parties. Then he joined the weekly jam session at the James Joyce Pub—“you know in Britain it’s traditional to have jazz at public houses. This was true in Edinburgh, in Ireland, and in London. People expect to go down for a Sunday brunch at the pub and hear jazz.” The Joyce’s owner eventually hired Marshall to lead the Saturday gig, and the original band included Dick Miller–who later went off to Paris—and Bill Dods on trombone.
Although the personnel has changed, the band Ulysses Jasz has been on now for twenty years at the James Joyce Pub. Of the pub’s owner Tommy Byrne, who came here from County Galway in Ireland, Marshall said, “He stuck by his guns and kept us going.”
The break is over, the band begins on the third set, with its usual mix of tunes, like Fats Wallers’s “Yacht Club Swing,” then “Undecided,” a swing tune that brings out the best in the brass players. The band is cooking. Marshall hits the chords on his banjo. “We’re pretty lucky,” Sletten told me over the phone a few weeks later. “The James Joyce is a great place. We’re like family. There’s regulars and we all go by first name. Alex is so passionate about this stuff that it rubs off. If he didn’t care that much and said ‘I have this gig,’ there wouldn’t be the interest. But his love for this is contagious—I think for everybody.”
The crowd is getting bigger, the dancers now include a girl with a unicorn horn and a guy dressed up like a washer woman with a broom, and the peanuts in the barrel are going lower. On the television screen the Red Sox beat the Dodgers and no one seems to care, as they cheer on the soloists, and enjoy the swing.
Fred Nadis is a writer and musician. His most recent book is The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Adventures. He has performed as a clarinetist with the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Middle Eastern Ensemble, and leads his own band, Kalinka, that performs a mix of klezmer, Balkan music, and jazz. He has sat in with Ulysses Jasz ten times, and has the hand-lettered set-lists to prove it.
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