Aside from wind, stockyards that use everything but the squeal, Da Bears and de Cubs (and maybe the White Sox) Chicago has been most noted for it being home to some of the finest Jazz and Blues in the North. While St. Louis can lay some claim to being a home to the Blues, and New York City can say everybody's played here, it's Chicago everybody thinks of when the Blues and Jazz are mentioned.
New York has too many other distractions for it ever to be the home to any one genre, and St. Louis just hasn't managed to capture the public's imagination in the same way Chicago has. Maybe it's because even today you can walk into almost any downtown neighbourhood and find that the local drinking spot doubles as a Blues bar. Or it could be that Chicago has been home to so much music and so many clubs since the 1920s that they've become synonymous in most minds. (That the biggest collection of Mormons in the United States, Utah, has a basketball team called the Jazz strikes me as one of life's biggest ironies and mysteries – but that's for another column and another day)
Because of this reputation Chicago has developed into a place for pilgrims in search of the holy sites from the past where venerated types like Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and others have played through out the years. One of the most unlikely spots on the pilgrim route has to be Meyer's Ace Hardware at the corner of 35th and Calumet in the South Side. For the last fifty or so years they've sold plumbing parts and fittings in the same building where Louis Armstrong learned his big band chops and Sun Ra took off for Jupiter.
In 2005 some of the more interesting pilgrims showed up to look around, and since they were there, the Jazz O'Maniacs from Germany decided to play a few tunes as well. They were over in the States to participate in the annual "Tribute To Bix" festival held in Racine Wisconsin, and part of the festival was a tour of Chicago's famous Jazz spots, and there are few so famous as the former Sunset Café/Grand Terrace now Hardware Store.
As is they seem to do so often, Delmark Records, was on hand to record this unique performance, and then to follow the Jazz O'Maniacs down to Wisconsin to catch them in concert during the festival. There probably couldn't have been a more appropriate band than these guys to do a few tunes where Louis Armstrong used to play.
This group from Germany has been playing the music of Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries since 1966, and aside from acting as means of preserving and honouring the music and the people, they also bring new life into some old tunes. Watching them in the DVD made of this 2005 tour, Sunset Café Stomp is not hearing the music played with the intent of preserving it for display in a museum. Each song might have been written only yesterday, they play them with such freshness and verve.
While there is an obvious love and respect for the original recordings, and they do their best to recreate as an authentic a sound as possible, they haven't forgotten that for Jazz to be effective it has to sound alive. They are very careful in their selection of material so they don't play the same old chestnuts that other groups of this type favour; no "Swanee River" or "When The Saints Go Marching In" for these guys.
Of the fourteen tracks on this DVD I only recognized one of the songs by name, "Willy The Weeper" and maybe one or two others sounded familiar as they were being played. Most of the tracks have been culled from less well-known Armstrong recordings from his days with the Hot Five and Hot Seven combo's. One that stuck out in my mind for its subject matter was Sweet Mumtaz, which was a 1920' tribute by Luis Russell to Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of an Indian Nobleman. As the liner notes say it's regrettably far less well known than the other tribute to the lady, the Taj Mahal.
Like the original bands, The Jazz O'Maniacs are a small ensemble, only eight players, but I'm not sure if the composition of the band is the same as those from earlier days. Instead of a drummer with kit, The Jazz O'Maniacs feature the amazing talents of Gunther Andernach on washboard and small percussion. Instead of your standard washboard he has custom built an ebony framed steel instrument with attached cowbells and woodblocks that he plays with the same finger picks that he uses for strumming and "tapping" his board.
Coupled with a banjo, played by Owe Hansen, and the tuba played by Dietrich Kleine-Horst, Andernach's washboard forms the rhythmic spine that holds the group together. While the leads are passed back and forth between saxophone (Cristoph Ditting), cornet (Roland Pitz who founded the group), trombone (Ullo Bella), piano (Andreas Clement) and clarinet(Claus Jurgen Moller, who was a last minute replacement when their regular player backed out) those three maintain the steady pulse that is so essential for this type of music to succeed.
With far less room for improvisation than in contemporary Jazz, it becomes vitally important that the band be as tight as possible because that's what's going to hold the audience's attention without spectacular solos. That the rhythm section is as interesting as they are tight in the Jazz O'Maniacs was one of their big attractions to me. As the tuba always seems to come in for a good bit of ridicule, it's easy to forget just how effective it can be at maintaining a beat, and how much fun it can be to listen to.
In the end that's what makes the Jazz O'Maniacs work so well where others just tend to sound tedious playing the same type of music. They are obviously having such a good time, and loving what they are doing, that as an audience member you can't help but be affected and get carried along with them.
If you are a fan of old style, almost Dixieland Jazz, and appreciate good solid musicianship as played by people who love what they do, than Sunset Café Stomp is the DVD for you. As is usual for all of Delmark's releases the sound is suitable for all systems; regular stereo, 5.1 surround sound, and dts. The special features are limited, but there is a nice interview with the current family member who owns Meyers Hardware and Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs as they discuss the historical significance of Meyers Ace Hardware and its location in terms of the history of Jazz in the city.
There is something really cool about seeing a group of German Jazz musicians setting up to play the music of Louis Armstrong in the middle of a hardware store in downtown Chicago. Music really does seem to cross all boundaries and make neighbours out of strangers.