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Music Review: The Memphis Nighthawks featuring Ron DeWar – Jazz Lips

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Chicago fans interested in jazz history should hear Jazz Lips by Memphis Nighthawks, a 1970s-era, University of Illinois-based group displaying their deep respect of New Orleans jazz.

Founded in Champaign, Illinois by School of Music member Ron DeWar (soprano sax, clarinet, C Melody sax), the Memphis Nighthawks consisted of U of I music students who loved traditional jazz.  Their name derives from a 1932 Vacalion recording group of the same name, though none of the members hailed from the south.  DeWar and co-founder Steve Jensen (trumpet) recruited members from the University of Illinois Jazz Band to perform in local clubs.  According to Jazz Lips' liner notes, Charles Mingus came to hear them at Caputo's, a small Champaign club, and subsequently had breakfast with DeWar and Dave Feinman (bass sax); during this meeting, Mingus "had no derogatory comments."  Bringing classically trained backgrounds to jazz, the group became known for using a bass saxophone instead of a string double bass to drive the rhythm section.

Buoyed by rhythm section members Mike Miller (banjo, guitar), Bob Kornacher (drums) as well as Joel Helleny on trombone, the Memphis Nighthawks recorded two albums: the aforementioned Jazz Lips (Delmark, 1977) and Live at the Stabilizer (Golden Crest, 1978).  The latter album received lukewarm reviews, with Scott Yannow of All Music calling the recording "disappointing."  Jazz Lips, however, has received great critical acclaim.  Perhaps this is due to the band's strict attention to detail; they obviously revere Dixieland, and it shows in their skillful and enthusiastic performances on such cuts as "Don't Forget to Mess Around" and "Temptation Rag." Fans of '20s and '30s jazz will appreciate their foot-stomping playing on various tracks, such as the title track and "Froggy Moore."  The rapid tempo on the latter song shows how difficult traditional jazz is to perform, and it's interesting to note how the banjo drives the tune's rhythm.  Purists will enjoy the Memphis Nighthawks' rendition of Jelly Roll Morton's "Shreveport Stomp," which evokes images of speakeasies and smoky clubs.

While Dixieland may be known for its dizzying tempos and joyous, raucous playing, it is capable of evoking other emotions.  "Tishomingo Blues" uses a gently swaying rhythm to communicate a wistful feeling, while "Beale Street Mama" sonically represents the gritty, racy atmosphere of New Orleans.

Delmark's Jazz Lips reissue includes all original tracks along with numerous bonus ones, all previously unreleased, such as the ebullient "Bugle Boy March" and "Buddy's Habits."  The CD boasts crystal-clear sound, as if the album could have been recorded today.

Chicago jazz fans will note that the Memphis Nighthawks' members went on to become figures on the local jazz scene.  DeWar has worked with pianist Judy Roberts, while Miller still plays guitar and banjo in the Champaign-Urbana area.  Jensen subsequently formed the Jazz Members Big Band, but passed away in 1997.  Feinman and Kornacher continue to perform, while the much-respected Helleny died in 2009.  Still, their legacy lives on in this remarkable recording, a testament to their mutual love of traditional jazz.

Jazz Lips should appeal to Dixieland fans, Chicago jazz aficionados, and jazz purists who wish to hear a faithful recreation of '20s and '30s-era jazz.  Listen to the tracks and be amazed by the Memphis Nighthawks' great artistry.

For more information, visit the Delmark label's site, Wikipedia's Memphis Nighthawks entry, and All Music's band entries

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About Kit O'Toole

  • I saw these guys play the Holiday Inn Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on New Year’s Eve 1978.
    What a raucous crowd and drunken debauchery was had by all. I will never forget my admiration for their technical mastery and the sheer volume of wind energy they expended. True American Masters!