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 firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be posting a "New Updated Revised Edition" of this entry in the coming months.
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.