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Jazz O’Maniacs: Sunset Cafe Stomp

The Jazz O'Maniacs
Sunset Cafe Stomp

Dixieland this isn’t! Dixieland, strictly speaking, is a European-American music, initially based closely on African-New Orleans music and reflecting something of the European-American musical heritage of its white, and initially often Italian performers. Jimmy McPartland was an Irish-American cornetist not too severely misrepresented as a Dixielander, and he remembered all his life the evening in about 1930 when he met his hero, Maurice Ravel, to whom he was introduced by Louis Armstrong en route to some of the after-hours music-making which was so very much the centre of jazz.

Like many Chicago contemporaries, McPartland found considerable serious musical interest in the rhythmic and harmonic features of the music which arrived from New Orleans from the early 1920s.

Listeners deafened to such considerations by decades of overhearing crude imitations of imitations, and to a sub-culture of amateur bands with no interest in the subtleties and profundities which attracted the young McPartland, have even been known to refer to the original New Orleans jazz (Buddy Bolden, Frankie Dusen, King Oliver) as Dixieland. That is pretty much equivalent — though it would presumably offend fewer people — to standing to attention for “Dixie” at a commemoration of Martin Luther King.

When the American piano professor extraordinarius Dick Hyman first traveled to a European jazz festival (search YouTube for evidence of his appearances), he was astonished to hear bands playing a repertoire of by no means widely-known 1920s jazz tunes with the same researched and animated attentiveness as other musicians are praised for devoting to the music of less well-known contemporaries and predecessors of J.S. Bach.

And that’s what we have here — although to earn a living this band certainly also needs to play for audiences comprised mostly of people who’d not, alas, be unhappy hearing “When the Saints…” eternally — or similar embalmed numbers moved about mechanically. Here, however, is an interesting and well-researched repertoire, performed with considerable attention to style.

The style is an interesting question, for where one and another amateur-Dixieland and nostalgia-based American band used to come to Europe sometimes at their own expense and (all they had thought worth knowing) play hackneyed repertoire in a generalized style at jazz festivals, this band from Hamburg has homed in on what Louis Armstrong was doing circa 1926.

In 1926, Armstrong reached an unprecedented peak as an instrumentalist, and that shaped the general style of the bands he played in. The same could be said of Armstrong in 1927, and 1928, and….

In other words, every year for a few years in his middle 20s, Armstrong opened up another seam of musical inspiration, each year leaving behind something valuable and not fully explored — like the second symphony of a composer who went on to develop further and compose more and different symphonies.

The leader, founder, and trumpeter of Jazz O’Maniacs, Roland Pilz, doesn’t try to emulate the Armstrong of any period. This is not imitation. Pilz has worked out a contemporary style appropriate to the music, and to the wide repertoire which exists in recordings and sheet music from the period. I’m rather taken with the story of “Sweet Mumtaz”, composed by the classically trained Luis Russell (whose 1929 New York band captured the distinctive New Orleans Swing). That tune isn’t the most famous memorial to the Mumtaz, the Indian beauty whose bereaved husband built the Taj Mahal in her honour. The reference should make clear that there was nothing “primitive” about the initial makers of that music, despite the exotic cachet which endeared contemporary Europeans to it. Some were no doubt horrified when visitors expressed a love of Bach.

Beside the indeed limited number of compositions Armstrong recorded circa 1926, such as “Weary Blues”, the contemporary repertoire has been well explored. “Come on Coot Do That Thing”, “Put ‘Em Down Blues”, “My Baby”, and “Beer Garden Blues” are not hackneyed numbers.

The only German-ness is in Pilz’s occasional venture into a not unmusical and slightly barking style of singing. When the band’s usual clarinetist was unable to make the date, an equally idiomatic player was borrowed without difficulty from another German ensemble.

The music is spirited as well as having scholarly foundations, and like many Europeans concerned with 1920s jazz, the members of this band have worked out styles of their own. Their brio comes naturally, and if it didn’t they wouldn’t of course be able to get paying gigs for the less than ideally appreciative audiences who let them pay bills.

The real curiosity of the CD, and the musically most interesting number, was almost an accident, a spontaneous performance by the band and some American guests of the Armstrong number “Willie the Weeper”. The additional forces give the band something more of the sound of “Chicago Breakdown”, recorded by Armstrong with augmented forces.

The band was invited to Racine, Wisonsin, to participate in the BixFest, nominally a regular commemoration of Bix Beiderbecke, German-American, remembered by the late Doc Cheatham as the second major influence on jazz trumpeters, and a preoccupation of Miles Davis. The music heard at that festival is in styles current during the 1920s, the decade in which Bix spent almost all the adult life he had.

The DVD issued parallel to the CD shows the Jazz O’Maniacs playing at the Bix Fest just as they can be heard on CD. “Willie the Weeper” and other titles not on CD but on the DVD were recorded at Meyers Ace Hardware emporium on Chicago’s 35th Street, whose healthy business has kept a building in good order that once housed the Sunset Café, a major jazz venue in the 1920s. Amstrong was a star soloist there, delivering extended improvisations that there wasn’t the technology to record. Later, the building was remodeled as The Grand Terrace, where Earl Hines performed and broadcast with his outstanding big band. It is now an official Chicago landmark.

Some murals from the building’s musical past survive and can be seen on the DVD, as well as the performance of “Wille the Weeper” and more things not found on the CD. The informality as well as inspiration from the venue give an extra lift to the music, and the American musicians sitting in plainly knew well Amstrong’s original recording of “Willie the Weeper”. The result of their joining in, forming a personnel rather larger than on that masterpiece, gets the spirit of the thing, without either mistakes or self-indulgence. For the extra tracks, even if I might not want to see the performers and the documentary visuals all that often, I’d prefer the DVD.

Incidentally, Pilz founded the band in 1966, it includes some returned original members, and was named for a St. Louis band of the 1920s, changing the punctuation to Jazz O’Maniacs to minimise confusion.

RATING 7 / 10