Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra
KFAI covers Frank Cloutier

Dixieland Jazz at Dupont Circle

Editor's Note (August 30, 2006): A lot of light has since been shed on the Dupont Circle musicians by readers submitting comments on this entry. I have now closed the comments seciton for this entry, but I invite you to write me at celestialmonochord@gmail.com. I will be posting a "New Updated Revised Edition" of this entry in the coming months.

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I saw a Dixieland jazz band busking on the street in Washington, DC this early June. It was made up of about ten African American kids — all boys between 13 and 17 years, my friend thought. They played a kind of Dixieland I'd never heard before. It was apparently a sound all their own.

I wish I'd had a recorder, since all I can do now is describe the sound. In the center — physically and musically — there were a couple of drummers with a bass drum and snare, I think. They were beating out fairly complex polyrhythms, usually with a core tempo of a fast walk.

Next to the drummers was a tuba and a ... euphonium, maybe ... providing a pulsing bass foundation. Around them crowded about six trombone players. No sax, no clarinet, no trumpet or cornet, and certainly no banjo.

The trombones generally played slides and very short runs, often repeating brief phrases, intertwining with each other in keys and with a spirit that made the music Dixieland, without any doubt. But mostly, the trombones too were their own rhythm section. They pretty much stuck within the beat, and syncopated a lot more than they swung. It was Dixieland rendered from the perspective of James Brown.

The effect was sort of a long, uniform, jam-band stream of music. Often a given trombonist would stop, walk around a little, wipe the sweat off his face, and then raise his trombone again for a couple well-placed squawks — and then repeat the procedure. The music was built so that you could freely drop in and out without interrupting the flow.

So the music was "scalable" — that is, it could be played by a smaller or larger band without much harm to the overall feel. In that sense, they had rediscovered a trick at the core of the "Old Time" stringband sound usually heard today at Old Time jams.

In the late 1960's around Chapel Hill, Alan Jabbour and his Hollow Rock String Band had every instrument play in unison (except the guitar), so they could add a second or third banjo or a fifth fiddle — and the main effect was that the jam just got louder. In this way, you could have a single jam that was large enough for a whole "scene" or community to participate, something not possible with other stringband styles. This Dupont Circle jazz was a little like that — scalable, participatory, community-building, revivalist, and new.

But of course they weren't playing in unison — each was improvising. They were playing jazz. Around the 1950's, many amateur white Dixieland enthusiasts memorized the parts in old jazz recordings so they could reproduce them in their own band, sort of as a classical orchestra does. I don't know if they didn't understand, or if they just ignored, that the original recordings had been improvised. But what these white bands played wasn't jazz — it was an impersonation of jazz.

Improvisation, of course, is key. In several of the earliest articles written about bluegrass, the writers tried to explain the music in terms of Dixieland. Both forms involve an ensemble collectively, spontaneously composing a unique performance that "fills up" each measure with polyphony. Bluegrass, they said, is like Dixieland played on southern stringband instruments.

It was clear to me that the kids in Dupont Circle had been listening to Dixieland recordings and had vividly understood — and had been deeply impressed with — their essence, which is collective simultaneous improvisation.

Traditionalists who fixate on certain narrow views of authenticity would probably be disappointed in the music — particularly in the brief and simple lines they used and the featureless "architecture" of the numbers those lines added up to.

I was not disappointed. I was so happy and amazed that I couldn't believe my ears and eyes. First, these were children, damned near — born in the early 1990's around the time "Friends" debuted on TV — and they were intensely and joyously REVIVALIST in their approach. It was hardly something I anticipated seeing that night, coming from people so young of any race, any class, or any gender. Certainly, I'd seen little in Minneapolis to quite prepare me for it.

Lately, I've been studying the lives of several brass dance-band musicians of the 1920's. Most were World War One veterans, and found discipline and musical experience in the US military. Of course, these Dupont Circle kids haven't played for their countrymen during a World War (at least not yet). Nor can I imagine they were raised in a community that strongly and consistently nurtures the development of obsolete tromboning — I know I wasn't.

But they understood Dixieland jazz well enough to try it out and fashion from the results of their experiment a new thing, suited to their skills, their aesthetics, and their time and place. I walked away without really understanding who I'd seen — I still don't quite get who they were or how they got there. But they were clear proof that we are still deeply in the midst of a full-on, all-out Revival.

 

Comments

Joel

I just found your blog a couple days ago. Someone who linked to my audioblog also had a link to you. Are you an academic? Some of your post are very exhaustively researched.

There actually is a bit of a revival of New Orleans-style brass band music since the '80s. Check out the Rebirth Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, or Youngblood Brass Band for some examples. Some of these more recent groups incorporate a good deal of funk and hip hop into their music.

I don't know how many small-time local groups there are like this. Last time I was in NYC, there was one marching up and down the Coney Island boardwalk the day I went out there.

On a side note, "Dixieland" is sometimes kind of a touchy term. See the "Etymology" section of the Wikipedia article for a brief overview.

The Celestial Monochord

Many thanks, Joel. Very helpful.

I should have mentioned that I have just a wee little knowledge base about the music and its history — which is one reason why I kept comparing it to music I know more about.

I did imagine, though, that "Dixieland" doesn't sit well with some. But when you say the word, just about everyone can hear a bit of the music inside their head. It works in conjuring up a bit of the tradition. The word's communication value is too great for me to be overly concerned about its other consequences, interesting though they may be.

I've always had an academic outlook, and I did spend a LONG time in grad school, so I have a lot of those research skills. But no, I am presently an amateur cogitator.

Thanks again -- I've noticed your blog before and will keep a closer eye on it from now on.

-- Kurt G.
The Celestial Monochord

Dakota Dave Hull

In 1999 Smithsonian Folkways put out a CD called "Saints' Paradise." These were recordings of the trombone shout bands of the United House of Prayer for All People. This is a tradition that has several trombones, percussion, and maybe a bass instrument like a trombone or tuba. It's similar in feel to dixieland and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that it's actually this tradition that this young band sprung from.

DakotaDaveHull


I should add to my previous post that the trombone shout bands are a mid-Atlantic coast tradition, so it would make perfect sense that the group you saw would show up in Washington. I believe that's where most of these bands hail from.

That music is gospel and has little to do with either dixieland or Secondline brass band music- different functions and beats and harmonies. It is church praise band music originally from South Carolina and in DC since the turn of the century New Orleans music has a different sound as you can tell by following the links to Rebirth et al.

In reference to your comment about "white bands" - there are plenty of amateur bands -white black green who imititate styes of music but dont really get it- Im not sure if empahsising the the thing in terms of race (particularly when calling the black group a "dixieland" group) is helpful or even germane to the description. The fifties revival of Dixie brought about some great bands irrespective of color- check out Kid Ory's group
it was a good decade for retrospective music.
additionally in New Orleans in the 80s and 90s there was an incredible revival ( some white folks snuck in on that one too!) of brass band music- different from the dupont guys- and great as well.
One way to tell a DC praise band - aside from the different beat and the one chord changes- is the fact that its mostly bones- that was because (so Ive read) the sound of the trombone was supposed to be the cose to celestial
I think their church is supposed to be on 6th St in Anacostia.

Editor's Note: This comment is a first for The Celestial Monochord in two ways: It's our first anonymous comment ever, and it's also the first comment to take on anything like a negative or dismissive tone. That can't be a coincidence. Still, I thank you -- it's a massively interesting comment. Please write again and provide "the links to Rebirth et al." you referenced.

 

jig

you are absolutely right that there isnt a coincidence between being anonymous. I am a working musician ( white- since that seems to matter) in the type of music you are talking about and have no desire to have my name involved in discussions regarding music and race.
Im sorry that you read negativity into my post- but since Im in it- there is another (this is only my point of veiw and certainly debateable) musical point you raise- the one about improv.
Theres is often this sort of assumption that those happy african americans just make up stuff musically all the time. But implicit in that is an extreme dicipline and sense of ostinato memory.
Those trombones, if you watch them long enough, play and walk in a perfectly logical way- in fact the music is highly arranged- there is just room for improv built in- this is true in all brass band contexts- from Roma bands to New Orleans Brass Bands to Mid Atlantic Praise music. the cells of motivic development are set and people "spot" each other for breath and embouchre breaks.
watch the band again, focus on a soloist and youll see its a set pattern of Solo, rest, riff, rest solo, thats all that walking around you see- if one guy starts to solo- the other guy will usually immediately take a break. Black bands are incredible organised around certain principles and thats what give individuals the leeway to express themselves- in turn.this enables a very skilled way of taking turns that looks like mayhem to some.
White bands (if you must break it down that way)
tend to miss this aspect of it first. And White bands play faster because the value of syncopation gets a little lost- echos of the old bluegrass oldtime dichotomy here?
But jazz is jazz is jazz- and Dixieland - a caucasian phenomena is a speedy white thing - full of athleticism whereas Trad is full of syncopation and surprise- based on solid motivic principles that dont get broken easily (or without pissing other musicos off) . but the deciding thing is that the dicipline in musicality is a black thing whereas the whites dont have that same stricture working- so they have to rely on very simple beat structure.
Ahhh... another musical discussion in Black and White.
Please dont read negativity into it- Its all good in the hood.

Mark Rubin

Editor's Note: The following comment, by Mark Rubin, was received after "jig's" anonymous comment, but before I had the chance to publish jig's second comment. So it only refers to the first.

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Not to speak for Mr. Anonymous, but his points are pertty spot on. The "et al.." I think he/she reffers to are the legion number of New Orleans 6th Ward brass bands (Lil' Rascals, Newbirth, 6th Ward All Stars, Soul Rebels, ect..) Rather than a "revival" it is fact a living and evolving tradition in that town, now dangerously comprimised due to the hurricane and the shamefull aftermath.

I could go on for hours about the term "Dixieland" and it's multitude of connetations and misaplications concerning race and culture. Suffice it to say it's not too far from calling Tom Ashely a Bluegrass banjoist. So wrong on so many levels.

Trombone shout and praise bands are ubiquitous in DC I've found, and I'm surprised a well travelled cat like yourself hadn't encountered one yet. You should seek it out and dig it in the context of a service. Nothing quite like it I'm told.

dakota dave hull

The question of race in American music is one that comes up quite a bit. I've heard the arguments that blues is a purely black tradition (if that were true why doesn't African music sound like that?), the same argument for jazz (Bix and Tram weren't jazz?), and that old-time music is purely white. These musics and all the grey areas in between happened here precisely because so many different people from so many different places came to these shores, willingly or unwillingly. We heard and influenced each other. The influence of blues is easy to see in the music of Dock Boggs or Frank Hutchison, but I think it went in the other direction, too. Sleepy John Estes and Mississippi John Hurt come to mind. Modern-day Americans seem to want to compartmentalize everything and the further you go back the harder it is to do that. The shout bands didn't appear out of a vacuum. I'm not sure what they heard, what the building blocks actually were, but in the 1920s everybody heard traditional jazz. Of course it evolved into something different, but that's not unusual; it would be unusual if it hadn't.

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