Wachovia Wealth Management chose this night to be a primary sponsor at Brevard Music Center, and when it was all done, everyone pretty much agreed they got their money's worth. I mean everyone. The wealth was spread around by nine guys who, if you're jazz men, have the best gig in the world. They play early jazz tunes – nothing later than the '30s – as a traveling aural museum, everybody gets to dress up, the guys do the things they've always loved, and they get paid.
To start this program, the musicians took the stage one by one. Pianist David Boeddinghaus walked out, sat down and started it off. Don Vappie soon joined him on banjo. Then, in turn, there was John Joyce on drums, local Grammy winner Eliot Wadopian subbing for regular bassist Walter Payton, Joe Muranyi on saxophone, Charles Fardella with the trumpet, lively Fred Lonzo on a narrow bore trombone called a pea shooter, Fred Starr on Eb sax – and when Lew Green arrived with a cornet to complete the line-up, time simply stopped.
The group, dressed in tuxedos with white socks, is loosely based on the concept pioneered by The Rhythm Kings, the first jazz group to use nine musicians – the "full complement." In essence, this really is a repertory band fulfilling archival responsibilities to the Nation. (Look for that quote in their next grant application!) The single distinguishing element between this group and other bands from the era is the fact that they're on stage, giving a concert. Eighty years ago, bands like this would have been on bandstands or in juke joints, people would have been dancing, there would have been cigarette and cigar smoke in the air, and whiskey would have adorned the tables.
The set list was historic: That's a Plenty, a march from 1930; It's Jam Up, from 1925; She's Cry'in For Me and Muskrat Ramble, made famous by The Rhythm Kings; Potatohead Blues, a classic by Louis Armstrong; Mobile Stomp, a stylistic showcase by pianist David Boeddinghaus; Sidewalk Blues and Meat On The Table, staples of the '20s; West Indies Blues, by Armand Piron; As You Like It, by Oscar Papas; Tampico, a reminiscence of high old times in Mexico; a stirring rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown using guitar, banjo and piano; a dirge version of The Old Rugged Cross using tremolo technique on the banjo; from King Oliver's Dixie Kings of the teens and early '20s, Wah Wah Wah; and two classics by Jelly Roll Morton – Buffalo Blues and Black Bottom Samba. Yeah!
There is often a feel of old Dixieland style in this music. I would suspect they're not too far apart as the material is generally built on 8- to 16-bar phrases, and the instrumentation and number of members is about the same. Now don't be too alarmed about the whole concert-setting image. When not playing, members of the band engaged in a lot of animated conversation, voiding of spit valves (always attractive), pointing, and laughing, all of which produced distracted late entrances which were in turn instantly converted by exquisite improvisational embroidery of that moment's musical fabric. You never miss in this group. The nature of the nuclear unit and this material means musicians are always going to make something happen – and make it sound intentional. One couple from the audience got up and started dancing, just off to the right of stage.
The tale of bassist Wadopian is interesting and oddly typical of the jazz scene. In his role as master of ceremonies, Fred Starr told the audience how members of the band had traveled from various places to reach Brevard. With each journey there were stories of late departures, canceled flights, or weather delays. It turns out the bass player couldn't leave on time and was still in New Orleans. A local call was placed and Eliot Wadopian, grocery shopping in Asheville, NC, answered his cell phone. He had about four hours to get dressed, collect his axe, get to BMC, and familiarize himself with the charts.
Based on nothing but his playing you would think the guy had been with the band twenty years. A familiar fixture in the mountain region, he performs with the Asheville Symphony and is on the music faculty of UNC-Asheville and at WCU. He has performed throughout the United States, in Europe, and in Asia, with many professional ensembles, among them the Howard Hanger Jazz Fantasy and the Paul Winter Consort. He was working with Living Music in 1993 when "Spanish Angel" was nominated and won the Grammy as best New Age album of the year.
Having these influences yet being able to join the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble on such late notice tells us something about the common roots in jazz – and in all of music. It's always a matter of style, and it rarely matters what you play, but it always matters how you play. Full marks on this night!