I like listening to jazz from just about any era from the very beginnnings onward. And having originally played ragtime piano before really learning how to play anything else, or any other instrument, my first exposure to jazz was to Jelly Roll Morton, especially his “Red Hot Peppers” combo of the 1920’s. I still love JRM both as a bandleader and a pianist. Similarly I like the playing of Louis Armstrong, and other New Orleans players from the era. I’ll call this style New Orleans jazz. If you don’t understand the distinction between NOJ and Dixieland, then you may as well stop reading now. Otherwise, please bear with me.
So why is it that when I hear music that’s labelled “Dixieland”, I hate it? It seems insipid and tame. It doesn’t seem to have the driving beat and bluesy roughness that NOJ does. It seems well suited to denture adhesive commercials, where indeed you do encounter Dixieland in at least one commercial, in which a denture-wearer happily demonstrates his ability to play the trombone. The odd thing is, both NOJ and Dixieland incorporate many of the same stylistic elements. A steady 4/4 beat. Swooping trombone phrases. Blues-based chord changes. So what’s the difference? Is Dixieland an intentionally toned down version of NOJ, watered down for folks who couldn’t take the real deal? Should I think of NOJ as being alalogous to Chuck Berry or Little Richard, while Dixieland would be analogous to The Big Bopper?
Actually I read Lawrence Welk’s memoir (he led an interesting life, even if I don’t care for his music), and he actually mentioned Dixieland and Louis Armstrong in the same paragraph, as much as to say he looked forward to an Armstrong performance because he loved Dixieland.
I once sacrificed a CD of Jelly Roll Morton And His Red Hot Peppers just so I wouldn’t have to hear Dixieland every lunch time. There was this little cafe in the business park where I was working at the time, and the owners played this same Dixieland CD virtually every day. To put an end to it, I offered to trade my JRM CD for their Dixieland one, and then I didn’t have to listen to the latter at lunchtime any more.
Think of NOJ as being Little Richard. Then think of the fifth-hand stuff normally labelled Dixieland (e.g. the hypothetical denture commercial) as being some deeply mediocre garage band covering “Tutti Frutti” at the Podunk County State Fair, and you’ll see the problem.
Why is there so much of this toothless, denatured Dixieland out there? It’s a long and complicated story, but essentially during the 1950s Dixieland became known as simple, feel-good fun music that everyone enjoys … and that in turn made it the lowest-common denominator form of jazz, suitable for TV commercials, kids’ shows, amateur bands, and theme parks. (Oddly enough, Disney plays a role in all this, partly through New Orleans Square in Disneyland, but even more importantly through the Firehouse Five Plus Two, an influential semi-pro Dixieland band made up of Disney animators.)
I’m probably getting into the realm of personal taste, but even if I hear Dixieland performed by topnotch musicians, I don’t care for it. Particularly disconcerting was trumpeter Al Hirt’s appearance in the 1962 movie Rome Adventure, in which his spoken lines were peppered with 1950’s style jazz hepcat lingo. But when he got up to play it was … Dixieland! Flawlessly executed to be sure, but still Dixieland. Didn’t do much for me.
I PLAY Dixieland Jazz, and I have to admit I agree with the OP, although there are a few pretty damned talented instrumentalists (Kenny Davern, Ken Peplowski) out there who make listening to the “modern” stuff worthwhile. Then again, I’d rather hear an old Johnny Dodds 78 over any of those guys.
One of the difference in the rougher 20’s Trad style (it’s as much Chicago & New York as New Orleans) is the use of the blues as underpinnings. Additionally, modern Dixieland owes as much to “dance band” and swing jazz as it does to Trad jazz, so it owes as much to the mixed-bag legacy of Glenn Miller as it does to the brilliance of Louis Armstrong.
One of my problems with modern Dixieland is that it’s almost too “bright.” Contemporary Dixieland bands worth listening to are one that isn’t afraid of blues notes and blues phrasings (or for that matter, flatted 9ths and 11ths).
But it is damn fun to play for an appreciative audience.
I live in the city that has the largest Dixieland jubilee every year, and I think I’ve determined the big problem with it.
There are far-too-many Dixieland bands that refuse to acknowledge anything that has occured in any form of music since the Red Hot Peppers. As a result, there are (literally) thousands of musicians out there, playing the same 20 or so songs. Causing more problems is the willingness of many of these musicians to resort to cliche (straw hats and garters) and to using novelty to cut a figure (which, in my experience, just results in them sounding even more similar to one another).
It’s nice to have a name to attach to the stuff I like, “New Orleans Style.” Any suggestions for a traditional or, preferably, actually old string band jazz combo? Maybe a little “better” technically than jug band?
I can’t add much to this thread except to say that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is one group that seems to maintain the connection to the old stuff without the degradation to Dixieland. We saw them in NOLA and at a concert last year in Nashville with the Nashville Symphony. They knocked the place loose. Folks dancing in the aisles at the usually restrained TPAC auditorium.
Although I’m not a Wynton fan either, his work with the Marsalis family seems dedicated to trying to get back to basics.
The Dukes Of Dixieland were among the records I got from Columbia Record Club by not sending my card in in time. I have never played the record. Not my taste at all. And only because of his influence on all trumpeters to come afterward, I can appreciate Louis. Just not a big fan of that whole period or the make-likes that have come later.
But played well, like the PHJB does, it’s great fun, especially when you hear them in person.
To me, the jazz of the pre-swing era is traditional jazz, and what we call “Dixieland” originated in the jazz revival of the forties.
The biggest problem with most Dixieland is lack of imagination. Most of it is formulaic. You could probably program a computer to play jazz the way a lot of Dixieland bands play it.
BTW, only some of the jazz of the pre-swing era sounded rough. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was certainly rough, as was King Oliver much of the time. Johnny Dodds could be rough. But Armstrong wasn’t rough - he played with great precision. Ellington’s orchestra was never rough. Sidney Bechet wasn’t rough.
There are contemporary bands and musicians that get past the Dixieland formula and play in the older style while still having imagination and spirit. I really like the clarinetists Dr. Michael White, Evan Christopher and Sammy Rimington. Gregg Stafford is a fine trumpeter. Butch Thomson is a fine trad and ragtime pianist.
The thing is, though, NOJ is also “feel-good” music to me, though the talent of the band is undoubtedly a factor in why I like their playing so much. There’s this one tune they played, Steamboat Stomp, which is a typical upbeat number which I’m sure has also been done by DL bands. The melody lines are generally quick but there’s this one place where the whole band comes together for a phrase consisting of two whole-note chords, then carries on with the quick-time melody.
Well, by “rough” I don’t mean off-key or out of time, but where the players can and do have the ability to stretch or anticipate a beat and yet still have the whole thing still hang together. A looseness without falling apart if you will.
The local AAA baseball team used to have what I would call a Dixieland band playing in the stands. The guys would march in with trombone and trumpet and banjo and a snare drummer (maybe something else, it’s been 20 years). They wore red pinstripe shirts with leather armbands and played good (IMO), foot stomping, crowd pleasing , enthusiastic music. Was this real Dixieland? Or the knock-off crap you’re complaining about?