In the 1940s and 1950s, as the world of jazz moved from big band swing to the modern jazz dialects of the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie bebop revolution and the third stream implosions of classical and jazz popularized in the harmoniclly dense layering of Dave Brubeck, a revival of traditional jazz sprouted as well. Surprisingly, it was the sunny climes of California that spawned Dixieland's rebirth.
This seeming quirk calls into question such geographic assumptions as the still prevailing "up-the-river" myth which privileges New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz. In fact, jazz history's topography is a much more convoluted and fascinating affair. Therefore, one of the most interesting and little known geo-jazz facts (except, of course, for the cognescenti who prune jazzdom's roots with Michael Maher on his Saturday morning "The Vintage Jazz Show" on KANU-FM), is that the essentially post-war Dixieland revival erupted in San Franciso and Los Angeles.
NOW, THANKS to the Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone family of labels headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., the venerable Good Time Jazz catalog, with its stable of 1940s-1950s West Coast traditionalists, is now being reissued in digitally remastered compact disc form. It's an obvious boon for traditional jazz fans whose tastes center on the panoply of styles falling under the Dixieland rubric; and, it represents a challenge for revising our too often pat assumptions about the geographic and stylistic contours commonly made about jazzdom's first epoch where the music bubbles with energies that percolated in the Crescent City, as well as in Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Mobile and St. Joseph.
Oh, yes. Regardless of one's personal tastes, the music recorded by producer Lester Koenig for Good Time Jazz is just plain fun. It swings like mad. It's often downright virtuosic. There's a sense of joy, of good cheer and genuine sharing. There's even a dash of lunacy of the kind that Spike Jones built a career on. In a word, it's infectious!
FIREHOUSE FIVE PLUS 2 GOES SOUTH! (Good Time Jazz GTCD-12018): In his original liner notes for this rolling, good time set from the mid-1950s, cartoonist Walt Kelly who gave us Pogo and friends, waxes philosophic on the connections between jazz and cartoonists. And when he gets to the specific members of the Firehouse Five, mostly animators from Walt Disney's fun house, Kelly, at one time an up-and-coming tin whistler, opines on the Firehouse Five and an opportunity forever lost:
"These kinded souls hit it off at once, and swiping all my orchestrations, arrangements, trousers and clever remarks, they headed straightway for fame. Left behind as I am with my empty music stand, I can only wish them well. As they rise from success to success, I dream of the long ago when WK (leader-trombonist Ward Kimball) shared a tin whistle with WK (yes, Walt Kelly). Them, as that old tailgate man Shakespeare said, THEM was the days."
AND WHAT days they must have been for the Disney renegades. Slipping and sliding with an obviously rakish mien and devilish grin, mentor-man Kimball leads the troops through high-steppin' renditions of such mint juleps as "Swanee River," "Basin Street Blues" and "The Original Dixieland One-Step." The ensembles are tight and there are contrasting vocal choruses. The lingering impression, though, is the joie de vivre. These guys are just on the edge of having, as Letterman puts it, "too much fun!" Hooray!
SCOBEY AND CLANCY, Bob Scobey's Frisco Band (Good Time Jazz GTCD-12009): In the 1950s, Bob Scobey and his Frisco mates were as de rigour for visitors to San Francisco as Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista at the end of the trolley line at Fishermen's Wharf. And no wonder. With their slick ensembles, laid back professionalism, and weathered vocals of banjoist Clancy Hayes, the Scobey group projected a crazy kind of cosmopolitan funkiness that balanced sophisticated urbanity with raw-edged guttiness.
Indeed, Scobey's heroic trumpeting in features like "Home" seems to owe as much to Harry James as it does to Louis Armstrong. Even with a traditional tune like "St. James Infirmary," the surprisingly brisk medium tempo adds an unconventional spin; so, too, does Clancy's vocal which somehow merges an earthiness worthy of the Delta with a throw-away "hipness" that seems almost an harbinger of the Beats then stealing their march into the mainstream of American popular culture.
A footnote: Scobey's Frisco Band was a favorite of S.I. Hayakawa, the famed semanticist and infamous U.S. Senator, whose passion for Dixieland manifested itself in a series of famous lectures on the meaning of jazz, most of which were illuminated by Scobey and his improvising musical linguists.
THE LEGENDARY 'KID,' Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band (Good Time Jazz GTCD-12016): Here's the red beans and rice nitty-gritty. With trombonist Kid Ory, who gave Louis Armstrong his first recording gig, and a band of intrepid New Orleans' veterans mostly pushing 70 when this was recorded in 1956, we're treated to such evergreens as "Sugar Blues," "Shine," "By and By" and the irrepressible "At the Jazz Band Ball."
Also on hand are bassist Wellman Braud, who spent a decade stoking the fires for Duke Ellington; Minor Hall, Ory's percussive alter-ego for more than 40 years; trumpeter Alvin Alcorn who honed his skills playing street parades and funerals; and pianist Lionel Reason who also tickled the ivories for another New Orleans' legend, King Oliver. It's mellow, yet intense, and something like one would expect to hear on a visit to Preservation Hall, but with greater panache and skill. Terrific!
BUNK & LU, Bunk Johnson and Lu Watters (Good Time Jazz GTCD-12024): Recorded on December 19, 1941, in San Francisco, less than two weeks after Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II, these time-tested sides by trumpeter Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band are credited by some with sounding the chime that ushered in the 1940s' revival of New Orleans and Chicago-styled Dixieland. Also included is a poignant set from 1943 led by the New Orleans' pioneer, trumpeter Willie "Bunk" Johnson, rendered in the leisurely Crescent City tradition.
RAGTIME CLASSICS PLAYED BY WALLY ROSE (Good Time Jazz GTCD-10034): Recorded in 1953, decades before the vogue for ragtime stirred by the Robert Redord-Paul Newman movie The Sting, pianist Wally Rose offers a repertory of classics by Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin, Jelly Roll Morton and Paul Pratt, among others. Gifted with a precise yet light touch, Rose plumbs the genre's structural delicacies without sacrificing the forward momentum generated by ragtime's idiomatic, off-beat syncopations. A pleasant departure from the usual ragtime performance is Rose's addition of a bassist (Morty Corb) and drummer (Nick Fatool); Corb and Fatool are perfect foils for Rose's leading role in their senstive yet lively support. A charmer!