Jazz O'Maniacs: Sunset Cafe Stomp

A cellar-matured band from Hamburg, Germany, seriously devoted to 1926 Louis Armstrong, finding in the USA even more inspiration in good company where Armstrong's legend especially burgeoned.

The Jazz O'Maniacs

Sunset Cafe Stomp

Label: Delmark
US Release Date: 2006-04-18
UK Release Date: 2006-04-18

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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