FIFTEEN THOUSAND MUSIC lovers will converge on Eureka this weekend for the Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival.
Music enthusiasts and the musicians themselves are coming from all over to hear American music in many forms from traditional jazz to swing, blues and zydeco.
At the core of one of the North Coast's biggest events is a traditional style of jazz that comes down to us from the turn-of-the-century music
of New Orleans.
The music we call Dixieland was first played in bars and brothels in the famed "Red Light District" Storyville, by groups like the legendary Buddy Bolden Band. Lead by a cornet, clarinet and trombone with rhythm provided by bass, guitar or banjo and drums, they were a variation on the popular marching bands of the day.
In 1917 came the first recordings in the style by "the Original Dixieland Jass Band," a group of white musicians imitating black bands like Bolden's and King Oliver's. They set a style that is followed to this day, described by Barry Ulanov in his Handbook of Jazz,
"The white Dixielanders had humor; even the most casual listening to the technically wretched recordings made by the Original Dixieland Jass Band or the Rhythm Kings reveals a relentless attack on sentimental tunes, a fine corny sense of humor and a clowning caterwaul that keeps step as easily as the simple parade tunes of John Phillip Sousa played by a fife and drum corps."
The caterwaul Ulanov alludes to may apply to the collective improvisation of a band like the Catsnjammer Jazz Band, a Dixieland group from Sacramento. Gene Berthelsen, the band's founder and cornet player, explained that the name is a quadruple pun. It's derived from the old Katzenjammer Kids comic strip and alludes to jazz slang, i.e., cats jamming.
It's also German for the sound of a cat fight and a slang term for a hangover.
The band has been together for 20 years and usually plays 100 gigs a year. For most of the players, music is an avocation, not a vocation. At 62, Berthelsen is the oldest member; the youngest is half his age.
"We're often classified as a so-called trad band," Berthelsen said. The rhythm section includes banjo and tuba, along with clarinet, cornet and trombone. A large part of the band's book is traditional tunes New Orleans and San Francisco-type, things by Jelly Roll Morton and others by Lu Watters, he explained.
"Trad jazz is a niche music, and it always will be. You have people who like the symphony, others like bluegrass, some like Irish music kinds of music that will appeal to a small segment of the population. I think Dixieland is one of those that will always have its niche," he said.
Berthelsen is also part of the group that puts on the Sacramento Dixieland Festival, the largest of its kind in California. Like all traditional music festivals, organizers are working on expanding the demographics of attendance by adding different styles to the mix.
"The Sacramento Festival is striving mightily to bring the younger swing dancers in, hoping that they will hear something else they like," he said. "We have cowboy music, zydeco, swing and blues. Some who come to hear one of those styles find they enjoy Dixieland and we're building the audience that way."
The local fest has also been expanding its music range of appeal for the last few years. Included in this year's lineup are the Dynatones, a hot horn-based rock 'n' soul band from San Francisco and Pieces of 8, a soulful rhythm and blues combo that includes several alumni of the great '40s jump blues outfit Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers. The bluesy accordion music of the Zydeco Flames was a bit hit at last year's fest, and they're back along with another swamp music band, Gator Beat.
There's even more variety among the local bands. The Hall Street Honkers offer trad jazz. Humboldt Ragtime plays authentic rags. The Horn Band plays swing. Then, there's klezmer music from the Jewish Wedding Band and the Trinidadian steel drums of the Humboldt Calypso Band.
As for the young musicians, Zane Junior High, Fortuna High and Eureka High all have jazz bands performing. This year for the first time, both Arcata High and McKinleyville High have their own jazz bands. The latter has also spun off a small Dixieland combo just for the fest.
Eureka High's swing band will play for the qualifying round in the Swing Dance Contest Saturday afternoon at the Muni. Those who make the cut will compete in three categories based on combined ages of the couple: 50 and under, 51-99 and over age 100. Lena Petty is known to kick up her heels in the senior class.
Petty, 78, has attended all eight local Dixieland festivals and travels to half a dozen similar festivals each year with her dance partner, Al Foster, age 84. They go out dancing whenever there's music at the Moose Lodge, and they are regulars at the Doubletree Hotel where the Hall Street Honkers play every Sunday from 4 until 7 p.m. She said she has seen an increased interest in jazz for dancers among the youth, and that is the only hope for the long-term future of the festival.
"It's important to get the young people interested in dance music because many from my generation are getting too old to go out," she said. "Sometimes one partner can't make it any more and I'm sorry to say it, but many of us are dying off."
Nick Crawford is one of those young people Lena has hoped for. He's 15 years old and is one of 30 members of the Arcata High Swing Dance Club. Every Thursday during lunch they meet in the school multipurpose room, put on some records and dance.
"We feel good about bringing swing dancing back into the high school community," he said. "We feel that it's a really big part of our culture now, like it used to be a couple of generations ago.
"I'm really looking forward to getting out on the dance floor and dancing. There's nothing like live music. It's nice because there's all different kinds of people out there. It's great to see the older people swing dance, the ones who learned this stuff when they were kids, and then to see people my age dancing next to them."
The Redwood Coast Dixieland Festival was the result of several needs in the community to boost economic development and tourism, and to help seniors.
County Supervisor Bonnie Neely, one of the festival's early organizers, recalled that in 1989 Humboldt County received national recognition for its outstanding services for seniors.
"But right after that, the federal government starting cutting all the funding for senior programs," she said.
Working with Patty Berg, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging, Neely assembled a brainstorming group to find a creative solution to this budget reduction.
"We were looking for an annual fundraising activity that would raise money for senior programs," she said.
A member of the committee, the late Jean Nielson, suggested a Dixieland jazz festival.
"Jean was a jazz aficionado who traveled to festivals all over the United States," Neely recalled. "We did some research, looked into what it takes and after bringing all the information together, wondered where we would get the money to do it.
"Luckily it was Simpson Timber's 100th Anniversary of doing business in our area, and they wanted to give something (back to) the community. When I approached them and explained how it would work, they came up with $25,000. That was the seed money and they have been among our sponsors ever since."
The first year the event was promoted to the seniors who traveled from festival to festival, and 75 percent of those who attended came from outside the area. They made some money for the seniors and then some.
Since then, the festival has continued to grow each year, with 13,700 attending last year's event. Each year there has been more money to distribute to senior programs and now to award scholarships for local youth pursuing music in college.
After branching out to run the Blues By the Bay festival on the Eureka waterfront two years ago, the organization has changed its name to Redwood Coast Music Festivals.
"Now I think it's time to look at another event in late spring or early summer," Neely said. "It might be bluegrass or maybe country. We haven't decided yet."
The future of music festivals in Eureka got a boost last week when the Eureka City Council set aside last week 31/2 acres on the waterfront near the Adorni Center as a performance park. The area has been the site of Blues By the Bay for two years and includes this year's waterfront tent location for the jazz fest.
1. The Catsnjammer Jazz Band, a Dixieland group from Sacramento.
2. The swamp music band, Gator Beat.
(These are two of the groups on this year's venue.)
3. Pieces of 8 , photo courtesy of Redwood Music Festival, Inc.
4. Dancers photo courtesy of Redwood Music Festival, Inc.
FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS YEAR, THE FESTIVAL'S headliners include two female jazz and blues singers.
Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers and Maria Muldaur play back-to-back on Friday and Saturday evenings at the Eureka Municipal Auditorium, with the high-powered blues of the Dynatones following them each night.
Muldaur is remembered by many for her hit "Midnight at the Oasis" recorded 25 years ago, but she has recorded 15 albums since then. Muldaur has been around for years before then, recording old time jazz and blues tunes, first with the Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band (where she was Maria D'Amato), then with Kweskin alumnus Geoffrey Muldaur.
She went solo in 1974 and put out an album called Maria Muldaur, with the help of a group of musicians including Dr. John and Ry Cooder. The surprise hit single, "Midnight at the Oasis" stayed on the charts long enough for her to establish a permanent niche in the industry and explore blues and gospel music.
How does Muldaur fit into a Dixieland jazz festival?
"I kept telling them, `You know, I ain't Dixieland.'" said Muldaur, during a phone interview from her home in Mill Valley. "And they said, `It's not just strictly Dixieland, there's all kinds of blues and jazz. Just do what you do.'
"The stuff I do is all kinds of good American roots music, genuine authentic music. I'd say everything I do has a vintage feeling to it. It's all rooted in classic American forms like early blues, early jazz and gospel. And when I use horns, I tend to use them in a way that gives you the feel of older New Orleans Dixieland music."
Along with some of her old hits, Muldaur will offer an advance taste of her coming Telarc album, Meet Me Where They Play the Blues, an exploration of her blues roots. When she began the project, she had originally set out to make the record with the great West Coast bluesman Charles Brown. She hired Brown's rhythm section, a group she had worked with on her recent Music for Little People album Swingin' in the Rain, choosing half a dozen songs that would work as duets with Brown. Then he fell ill and was hospitalized, and was not able to participate.
"We decided Charles would just be our musical mentor and spiritual guide on the album. Then he had a little upswing in his condition and kept feeling better and he really wanted to cut some tracks."
Brown ended up singing a duet with Muldaur on one cut, "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You." A month later he died. The recording was his very last work and her album is dedicated to him.
The sultry vocalist Lavay Smith seems to be able to channel the spirit of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington or Bessie Smith at will. With her band the Red Hot Skillet Lickers she has become a mainstay of the San Francisco swing jazz scene playing weekly gigs at the upscale Mark Hopkin's Top of the Mark and at the hip South of Market nightspot, Cafe du Nord.
When asked how her band fits into a Dixieland festival she gave an answer similar to Muldaur's.
"We're playing classic American music, classic jazz. All the bands, even the traditional bands, each one has their own twist. We play blues and jazz, so I think we fit in perfectly," said Smith.
"Jazz is a relatively new music, but it's gone through so many stages and they're all good as far as I'm concerned. There are so many styles that you can do a whole festival and every band can have their own take on things.
"Our band and groups like the Royal Society Jazz Band or Dixieland style bands like Blue Street or Wooden Nickel are all playing this old music, but we all sound totally different."
Smith traces her interest in singing old-time jazz and blues back to the purchase of a Bessie Smith record.
"That was it. I just fell in love with classic jazz and swing and blues. I went from Bessie to Billie and stopped listening to alternative rock. I had finally found the real alternative music."
She hooked up with a local combo that played early blues, ragtime and old timey music called Bo Grumpus. They busked on the street and had a gig at a small club in San Francisco, the Blue Lamp. Then with the help of the band's pianist, Chris Siebert, she put together a group with horns. Therefore, the Red Hot Skillet Lickers was born.
Lavay emphasized that she and Siebert were not jumping on some West Coast swing bandwagon. In fact, at the time, there was no swing scene.
"We love the swing scene," Smith said. "It's great to see all the people learning how to dance and moving away from listening to rock music, but we were playing this music in 1989, before the swing craze took off."
She likes the fact that bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Royal Crown Review are using horns instead of guitars and turning young people on to some great music, but she believes that the Skillet Lickers are quite different.
"The difference is most of those bands come from the rock side, and we come from the jazz side," he added. "People keep telling us we need to add something to our music, but I'm not adding any rock. With jazz and blues, you always add something of yourself and reveal yourself. That's all we need to add."
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