No fool like a proud fool. I knew nobody would go with me to this - so I didn't even ask. But it is just exactly those events that you take yourself to that prove that you're someone with principles - convictions - weird fetishes that would embarrass your friends. So to heck with 'em. I'm here, accompanied only by my shadow, my pride, and a couple of hundred like minded souls.
KKK meeting? Snuff film festival? Puppy crushers convention? Naaah. I went to a (hide your eyes Ethel!) Dixieland music festival. In disguise. Under an assumed name.
Why am I so defensive, you ask? Because both my peers and my elders are on my case. The three venues for this festival are all centered around the Boardwalk's Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, which I had never been to before. On the night that I had chosen to make my lone pilgrimage a free concert was also being held on the beach bandstand: One of those hoary, old, had-two-hits 60's bands, with two of the original six members and the sobering realization that your heroes are all too visibly mortal.
As I make my way through the Boardwalk I stop and ask several wage slaves where the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom is. Each and everyone of them said: "No. You don't want that. (sour face) You want the free concert over there."
I smiled sweetly at them. "No; I don't want that. If I want to hear a washed-up has-been band rehash the same old songs in the same old arrangements with voices that have lost some of their charm and stage presences that show that they can do these shows in their sleep (and perhaps are), then I would do better to stay at home and play a CD rather than join the mob on the cold beach getting sand in their underwear. What I DO want is fast, loud, improvisational, syncopated music with timeless melodies, bluesy vocals, low humor, and musicians who can flat - out - wail!”
But when I get to the venue I do want I get picked on by the Seniors at the ticket counter, the door, the hand stamp station, even the mailing list table. "Are you in the right place, Sonny?" I am asked repeatedly. Their tone would be the same if I had on a ripped Judas Priest T-shirt, jewelry stapled to my face, and my hair was on fire. It’s always tough to bridge the generation gap, but this was a leap across three or four of them: Generation gauntlet.
And yes, New Orleans traditional jazz is populated overwhelmingly by Social Security recipients. I'm sure some of the folks on the dance floor remember when those new-fangled "auto-mobiles" came out. But maybe one reason why they are still here is that they have been dancing the One-Step since "jet" meant: 'A stream of water.'
The One-Step is an amazing sight. You hold your partner close enough to share your internal organs and then you sprint in place, like your stomping poisonous snakes. One wrong move and you'd flip the other person across the room like a tiddlywink. The one-step is so named because you put a foot down on every beat - and the beats are going by like there's no tomorrow. It makes a mosh pit look like its standing in line.
And still they manage to look silly. A Dixieland show may be the last safe refuge for the sailor suit, the straw boater hat, fringed flapper dresses, American flag ties, sparkles, spangles, and more rhinestones than I ever thought existed. Ginger the Rainbow Lady would have gone completely unnoticed, here in the realm of "people so old they have no shame."
And a word about hair. Transport this entire crowd to a gale force wind and the women’s hair would not move at all. The men’s hair, however, would be flying away like a flock of pelts.
The musicians cranking out this insane music were equally mature, generally calorically challenged, and all were wearing matching outfits. No, really; I swear. They actually wanted to appear like a cohesive unit. Weird.
So visually it’s not exactly MTV. Cut the sound and it looks like a bowling team standing around blowing into things. I saw one clarinet player who I don't think moved at all - except fingers of course - and in between songs he'd smile. At a Disneyland show I caught a few years ago the members of the band all but carried their bass player onto the stage with them and then inserted his stand up bass into his hands. He slapped the hell out of it for two hours and they took it out of his hands and carted him off.
And that's the point: "Old" does not equal "boring". "Unplugged" does not equal "ballad". And "Jazz" was not always rarefied and artsy. This is the sound that put the 'roar' in the Roaring Twenties. This is the first American Music. My toes were sore the next day from unconsciously tapping.
And to all my friends, peers and neighbors, who sat at home or endured flaccid pop in the cold sand - hear my cry: I saw a grown man sing through a megaphone, and I had a blast!
Note: Originally published in the April, 2009 issue of The American Rag.