ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Dixieland and beyond


[photo of dancers]IT'S CALLED THE REDWOOD COAST DIXIELAND JAZZ Festival, but after 10 years of evolution it might be time to give it another name.

Not that you can't hear more than enough Dixieland jazz over the "three days of jazz and good times" this coming weekend. Eleven of the 28 bands play some variation of Dixieland, aka traditional or "trad" jazz. Another four -- and the half dozen youth bands -- play swing or some other type of jazz. The rest play something else.

In fact, the emphasis of the advertising campaign in the media is on "premiere performances" by fiery blues guitarist Tommy Castro and blues/rock harmonica master Norton Buffalo. And a few after years of adding Louisiana zydeco and the sound of tropical steel drums, the ever-more-inclusive festival lineup has stretched its open arms to bring in more blues, salsa and even bluegrass.

The San Francisco-based Tommy Castro Band is a logical choice as headliner considering the fact that his guitar pyrotechnics and soulful vocal delivery have stolen the show most years at the Redwood Coast Music Festivals' other show -- Blues by the Bay. Castro and company will close the show at the Muni Friday and Saturday night.

Norton Buffalo and the Knockouts have the slot right before Castro both nights. A master of the harmonica, particularly the chromatic harp, Buffalo has had his own band off and on. He recorded two brilliant records in the '70s when albums were actually records. But the harp player/vocalist has mostly made his mark as a sideman. He toured for 25 years with the Steve Miller Band and added his talents to some classic recordings, including Bonnie Raitt's remake of "Runaway."


Gator Beat

[photo of Gator Beat]One of the most popular "alternative" styles presented at recent festivals is the propulsive style from Louisiana known as zydeco. Richard Domingue is accordion player and founder of Gator Beat, a Cajun/zydeco band that played at last year's fest.

"Dixieland festivals have been pretty open to this music. I tell 'em the reason is because the music got the same mama but different papas, you see. The only thing that comes between what we do and jazz is a big ol' swamp.

"I'm originally from south Louisiana, so we do zydeco and Cajun music," Domingue said in a call from his home in Sonoma County. "I write a lot of stuff, in fact most of the tunes. But the band has a solid grounding in the traditional stuff. I teach it to them so they know where they're coming from."

Cajun is the music Domingue was raised on. "My grandfather was a stone-cold Cajun. He could hardly talk English. He had a little store down there. He played the fiddle and made guitars out of two-by-fours and plywood."

Back home Domingue learned piano, then guitar. And after moving to California and playing all kinds of music, he decided to get back to his roots.

"A lot of people were asking for Cajun music and I knew French and stuff. So about 18 years ago I got an accordion and just started playing it."

He plays a diatonic accordion, which means squeezing in creates one chord while pulling out makes another. "The Cajun developed a style to play that way. It's called chanky-chank style because you gotta chank it in and chank it out. It's a unique style developed around what would seem to be the limitations of the instrument. Once you understand that style you can change it. I've always been interested in playing chords that are a little more complex around that simple traditional Cajun accordion. I had a bit of shading, but the core sound is old school; that's combined with more modern stuff. That's what I'm experimenting with."


Valerie Johnson & the Blues Doctors

[photo of Valerie Johnson and the Blues Doctors]Valerie Johnson and the Blues Doctors is a five-piece band from San Luis Obispo. Johnson is a dynamic singer, one who crosses genres with ease. Besides singing blues with the Doctors, she sings with two trad bands.

"We wanted to try to get into the flavor of `60s soul and R&B, but also do blues and gospel. We played the bar scene when we started out. We kind of went toward the Janis Joplin thing for a while -- not because that was what we wanted to do, but because that's what people kept requesting."

Johnson is good at the "Joplin thing," so good that the remaining members of Big Brother and the Holding Co. regularly have her channel Janis in their band.

The Blues Doctors are more than a blues band, Johnson explained.

"Tom (Armistead), our piano player, has a jazz background so we have a lot of jazz influence. Then Al (B. Blue), the guitarist -- my husband -- he has a lot of funk and rock `n' roll background. So we add that to the mix."

Johnson has plenty to do at the jazz fest. Friday morning she and Al are doing a blues and gospel show for schoolchildren focusing on the history of the music. The Blues Doctors play eight times over the the weekend including two specialty shows -- a "Women of Jazz and Blues" concert and a tribute to Aretha Franklin.



[photo of Jellyroll]"A festival like this is great in that they recognize that swing deserves a little spot in every jazz festival, and every blues festival, for that matter," said Belinda Blair, vocalist for Jellyroll. The San Francisco-based band mixes covers from the '30s and '40s with original tunes written "in the style."

"We've been together for about seven years," said Blair in a call from Marin. "My partner Steve Dekrone and I -- he's actually the bandleader -- he and I met playing on the street in Paris,. That's where I learned to do all the swing stuff. Then we were running a Motown band called the Killer Bees in Switzerland.

"When the recession hit over there, we moved out here and put together a swing band. That was in '93. It just so happened that the swing scene was just starting to take off here. It was good timing. We've been going full tilt ever since."

Jellyroll rode the wave of neo-swing popularity. "It's down to a mere trickle now, at least here in San Francisco. But I think there are still a lot of people out there who want to learn to dance and do the whole swing dance thing. We play a lot of places where they do a dance lesson then, we come on and play.

"When we started out we were primarily doing jump swing and jump blues, but as we've gone on we've broadened our repertoire. We do everything from jazz -- even Latin jazz -- to hard hitting blues."


Stan Mark

[photo of Stan Mark]Stan Mark, a trumpet player who spent years playing with Maynard Ferguson, is leader of the Vegas-based Sin Sity Suitz. Mark says his group is a swing band, not a Dixieland band. "We play everything from Harry James all the way up to some of the new swing things that bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Brian Setzer and Royal Crown Review are doing. It's a very high energy band. We have four horns, a three-piece rhythm section and a singer."

Mark moved to Vegas from Sacramento where he led the River City Stompers, a jazz combo that played many times at the Jazz Jubilee. They drew from the Dixieland repertoire but not what Mark calls "the trad thing" with tuba and banjo. And with his latest combo he has left Dixieland behind.

"There are so many bands that do that, and not many that do what we do," he said. "We attract a much younger crowd, which is what I feel that jazz festivals need to do if they're going to survive."


Cats & Jammers

[photo of Cats & Jammers]Last year's fest included a trad group from Sacramento, the CatsNJammer Jazz Band. Cats & Jammers is a completely different band with a similar name.

Tony Marcus, who describes himself as "one third of the triumvirate," admits that he hasn't really figured out how the group fits in with a Dixieland festival. "We do a lot of older material, mostly more obscure stuff from the '20s, '30s and '40s, though some standards as well. And while I hope we treat it with some reverence, but we don't feel constrained to perform tunes exactly as they were done in 1929."

The band has been together 15 years playing music inspired by groups like the Boswell Sisters, the Delta Rhythm Boys and the Mills Brothers. Marcus's position is "utility infielder"; he moves from guitar and violin to tenor sax, accompanied by stand-up bassist Piper Heisig and rhythm guitarist Sylvia Herod, but the key to the group's sound is the vocals. "We're known for working out complex vocal harmonies," said Marcus.

Is it jazz?

"That's a difficult question," he admits. "The solos are extemporaneous so in that regard it is, but the vocal arrangements are worked out ahead of time. If you call Lambert, Hendricks and Ross jazz, I guess it is, although we don't do the same material they did."


Conquista Musical

[photo of Conquista Musical]Ramon Gilbert is bass player, bandleader, arranger and composer for Conquista Musical, the first salsa band booked at the festival.

"We're a basic salsa group playing Latin music from the Caribbean, primarily Cuba and Puerto Rico," he said in a call from Sacramento where the band is centered. "When we first came out we were trying to do the old classic salsa, keeping in the tradition of its African roots, but now we've evolved to doing a mixture, still keeping with the classic but adding the more modern romantica. Then we do our own material which includes some outside influences like funk and a taste of rock along with the African influences."

Gilbert was raised in a Puerto Rican household. "My father was a total new Rican, born in Puerto Rico but, like my mom, raised in New York. They were dancers and were really into the mambos and cha cha. The music was always playing in house."

After playing in rock bands, jazz fusion groups and top 40 cover bands, Gilbert returned to his roots and joined a Latin jazz band, then moving into straight salsa with Conquista Musical.


Compost Mountain Boys

[photo of Compost Mountain Boys]Compost Mountain Boys is among the half dozen area bands performing. Aside from the HSU Calypso Band, a steel drum ensemble that focuses on the tropical sound of Trinidad, the others bands all play jazz. The Mountain Boys definitely do not.

"We are the first bluegrass band to infiltrate the jazz festival," said mandolin player Sean Bohannon. The band is not planning on deviating from the usual repertoire. "We'll do the same stuff we always do: bluegrass." Bohannon says the Boys had trouble locating matching polo shirts, but they have bought matching ties in honor of the event. "Whether we remember to wear them is another thing," he added.

Whistlin' Dixie: A conversation with Dr. Bob Brenman


By all accounts, Dr. Bob Brenman is a key figure in Humboldt County trad band history and in the Redwood Coast Dixieland Festival story.

Brenman, unlike many in the music world who use the "Doc" title, is in fact a medical doctor. He moved his Eureka practice down the coast to San Luis Obispo a couple of years ago, leaving his clarinet chair in the Hall Street Honkers and a position on the board of directors of the Redwood Music Festivals Inc. But he'll be back this weekend sitting in with the Honkers and maybe even with his neighbors from down south, the Blues Doctors. (No, they're not really doctors.)

Last week the Journal tracked down Brenman at home to talk about the Honkers and the role they played in the festival story.

THE HONKERS STARTED IN FALL OF 1984 at Hap's Bar, which was in fact on Hall Avenue, not Hall Street," recalled Brenman. "Hap's was a local bar. A bunch of guys used to hang out there who were musicians. They were playing in a band called Puffin at the time, sort of a rock band." (The ubiquitous Dwayne Flatmo was among its members.)

[photo of Hall Street Honkers]"Randy Carrico was in the band and Brad Werren was the trumpet player. They decided they wanted to have a Dixieland jam session and organized one for a Sunday afternoon at Hap's. One of the guys who hung around the bar was George Isenhart, the last of the original Honkers, if you will. George is an emergency room doctor who played piano and trombone. He asked if he could play and they said they had a trombone player but they'd let him play piano. He asked me, `You want to come sit in with these guys?' I said `Sure.'

While he was in high school and while attending Harvard, Brenman had played jazz, so he knew some of the repertoire. "But I hadn't played for almost 25 years, not until 1983 when a bunch of doctors and people at the hospital got a rock band together called Gerry and the Temporary Pacemakers. George and I were part of that band."

In the beginning the Honkers had no name. "It was a jam session, there was no real band, but the gal who owned the place wanted to put a sign in the window. She asked the guys, `What do you want to be called?' and nobody could think of a name, so she just wrote down Hall Street Honkers, made it up on the spur of the moment."

After playing every other weekend, then every weekend for months on end, the Honkers developed a small following. "Sometimes we'd get as many as 10 people in there," said Brenman with a chuckle.

The line-up changed over time, the trombone player left and Isenhart moved into that position. Chet Petty, a 70-something drummer who had once played with Paul Whiteman, came on board. When the clarinet player went off to join a traveling circus, Brenman "became the clarinet player by default."

The Sunday sessions at Hap's moved to the Eagle House after a while. "And the band changed dramatically in terms of the people in it," said Brenman. "Brad Werren, Fred Tempas, who had been playing tuba, and Jim Peal, our banjo player, they all decided they were tired of it -- the band wasn't going anywhere. We didn't have much of a crowd -- so they all decided to quit."

The remaining Honkers -- Isenhart, Brenman and Petty among them -- weren't ready to throw in the towel. "It was at that point that Bear (Winkle) came by and said, `Hey, do you guys need a bass player?'"

Trumpet player Jack Johnson was "suckered into" joining and a piano player, Al Clark, was recruited.

The location shifted to the Ritz after the Eagle House changed owners. When it closed down someone approached the Red Lion.

"That was in the fall of 1990. The band has played there ever since. It's kind of become an institution." The following year Brenman and the Honkers were in on the beginning of another local institution. When someone suggested the idea for a Dixieland music festival, Brenman helped plan it.

"There was this gal, Jean Nielson, who was very much into these jazz festivals. You have to realize that the festivals had become an institution in the state. It started in Sacramento."

The Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society began holding concerts once a month in 1968. In 1974 the organization established the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, a festival that brought in Dixieland bands from all over the world over Memorial Day weekend to play at multiple venues.

"At its height they had something like 120 bands in 40 different locations all over the city," said Brenman.

As the fest grew it helped spur a Dixieland revival.

"A lot of bands basically started because of the festival," said Brenman. "There were jazz societies in other towns and they would go to their local musicians and say, `How about starting a band?' It became very successful. A lot of older people who were retired were into the music. It was a social event where they would all come together, and a lot of smaller towns started up their own festivals."

Jean Nielson had been following the festival circuit. "She was involved somehow with the Senior Citizens Foundation. She was supposedly the one who said, `Why don't you guys put on a jazz festival as a fundraiser?'" All concerned agreed it was a fine idea and Brenman was brought in as a musical adviser.

"I had heard a lot of the bands so I said I'd help pick the bands," he said. "The how I got the Honkers in. I said, `Well, of course you know we've got these local bands and we certainly have to have them play.'"

The Bigfoot Stompers, another area band playing trad music, was invited. Among the Stompers was Ted Schuette, a forester for Simpson Timber Co.

"One thing that was different about our festival was that we went out and got sponsors," said Brenman. The organizers determined that when they added up the cost of renting halls, hiring bands and doing publicity, it would cost around $100,000 to run the festival.

"People like Patty Berg and Bonnie Neely were essential. They said, `We're going to go out and raise money from sponsorships. A lot of the other festivals did not do that. Many of them had enough following to make a go of it on ticket sales. We realized that ticket sales would only bring in part of the money. They went out and hustled the money."

Neely approached Schuette's employer, Simpson, and the company came up with $25,000. Winkle worked for PG&E, and it made a sizable donation.

"Altogether they raised over $100,000 that first year, otherwise we wouldn't ever have been able to put the festival on," said Brenman. "We were able to turn a profit, put some aside for future festivals and give some to the senior citizen organization."

As a member of the band committee, Brenman was among those who helped the event grow and evolve.

"That first festival was really just a Dixieland festival. We had a swing band or two in there. We realized early on that if you keep it exclusively a Dixie festival it's going to be small, one that brings in a few people from out of town, but not many locals. It was mainly to make the local support grow that we brought in blues bands, zydeco bands and that kind of stuff. I think it works.

"The festival down here in Pismo Beach is all oldies Dixie bands, the same bands every year. Many are the original bands that played in Sacramento 25 years ago. And the same group of people come every year, mostly from out of town and most of them people in their 70's and 80's now.

"I think it's a great idea to diversify and become a different kind of festival. That's what the town really needs, something to bring different age groups together and give everyone an excuse to party and have a good time. "


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