I remember how surprised I was the first time I heard jazz being played in a band featuring a banjo. My jazz education began with my brother's Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday records, and I proceeded to explore what came after that, not their predecessors. It wasn't until I happened to pick up an album by one of the Preservation Hall Jazz Bands that I started to really explore the earlier days.
I had heard some ragtime; it was unavoidable during the seventies when the movie The Sting made Scott Joplin's song "The Entertainer" an instant hit more then fifty years after it had been written; but aside from that nothing. While a lot of the big band music still does nothing for me, although "Jukebox Saturday Night" and a couple of the other swing hits are pretty impressive and there's only so much ragtime piano I can listen to at one sitting, there was something about the banjo and tuba combination of the early jazz that I found appealing.
Historically there are all sorts of social/political strikes against the music with its associations with Minstrel shows and the accompanying denigration of African Americans, and the fact that it was predominately white musicians who were able to reap the rewards from playing what was black music. Even the name that was used to refer to the music, Dixieland, brought to mind images of plantations and slaves.
It's unfortunate that music that's so much fun to listen to, and has been enjoyed by people for over a hundred years, has been laden with this baggage. If you think about it, how different were the rock musicians of the fifties and the sixties who helped themselves to the music of black blues musicians without so much as a by your leave, or white "rappers" who've cashed in on hip hop's popularity?
You shouldn't forget about history, because that's how we end up making the same mistakes over and over again, but you can't hold it against people who had nothing to do with it. Mike Walbridge, Kim Cusack, Don Stiernberg, and Bob Cousins of Mike Walbridge's Chicago Footwarmers are four guys who have been playing this style of music for more than fifty years, pretty much for the love of it. The Footwarmers have existed as a part-time band since their founding, as the guys have held down jobs with other bands as well.
Walbridge and Cusack's association dates back to their high school days, when Walbridge picked up the sousaphone and Cusack the clarinet and saxophone. The two have played together in both the Footwarmers and another classic Chicago band, The Original Salty Dogs. In 1966, the two of them plus the remainder of that year's version of the Footwarmers entered the studio and recorded Hip Flasks And Hotcha! on the Blackbird label. When Delmark Records bought up the Blackbird catalogue they wanted to reissue the original recording, but also decided to augment the the 1966 session with material from the group today.
Exactly forty-one years later to the day, August 17th 2007, the four Footwarmers went into the studio and laid down eight more songs to go with the original nine and the result was Crazy Rhythm. Thanks to the joys of digital re-mastering, you'd be hard pressed to know by listening which songs were recorded when. The only difference between the two dates is the make up of the bands with the earlier edition having a piano player (Johnny Cooper), while banjo was played by Eddie Lynch and Glen Koch handled the drums.
I don't know about anybody else but I've always found tubas to be a humorous instrument that I have a hard time taking seriously. I can't help but visualize cartoon characters falling on their faces, or ending up splattered against a wall when I hear one being played. Given the fact that tuba is featured on Crazy Rhythm, I wondered if I would be able to take the music seriously. It's one thing to have the tuba buried in the mix under six or seven other instruments, and another all together to have it on equal footing with the saxophone and banjo.
Well I needn't have worried about that too much, because as far as I can tell this isn't music that you're supposed to get too serious about. It's all about having a really good time and trying to make the music as enjoyable as possible. These four gentlemen are masters at doing just that. Even old chestnuts like "I Would Do Anything For You" sound fresh when played by these guys, and you can't help but be carried along by their enthusiasm for material and for the music.
It's easy to dismiss this style of jazz as simplistic or lightweight compared to the more sophisticated stuff we're used to hearing played by "modern" players. But listen to what these four men are doing and you realize that the sound is deceptive. Sure it follows along in a linear line with no real room for improvisations or extrapolations, but within that pattern they are executing some pretty fancy maneuvering.
Both bands, the original and today's version, have an infinite respect for the material and their instruments, and it shows in their performances. Even though the inclusion of "Darktown Strutters Ball" from the 1966 recording made me a little uncomfortable due to the connotations of its title, it's also a reality of this style of music's history that can't be ignored. Walbridge went a long way to offset that history in choosing to name the group Chicago Footwarmers. It was a deliberate homage to a pickup band made up of some of the best black players in 1920's Chicago; Johnny Dodds, Natty Cominique and Jimmy Blythe.
Mike Walbridge's Chicago Footwarmers don't play the most fashionable of Jazz music; in fact there are probably those who will sneer at it for it's simplicity. But this is the music that started it all way back when, and it's still a lot of fun to listen to. It's light-hearted, infectious, and good spirited – and there is nothing wrong with that no matter how you look at things.