It has been called New Orleans jazz, Dixieland (a term that most of the musicians playing it despise), and most recently, “trad” (short for “traditional”) jazz. Ever since Benny Goodman exploded onto the pop-music scene in 1935 and ignited the swing era, the earlier jazz of the 1920s has been relegated to music’s margins.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the modern bandstand.
Gradually, over the past few years, more and more young jazz musicians—mainly in their 20s and even younger—have begun to play this music and, in the process, started again to refer to it by the name it was known by when it was new: Hot Jazz. Ninety years ago, dancers employed designations of temperature to distinguish between “hot” bands, like King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band or Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and the “sweet” bands of the era, like Guy Lombardo’s.
All of a sudden, Hot Jazz bands are all over New York (and, by various indications, other cities as well)—most of them made up of musicians roughly the age of trumpeter Mike Davis and Joshua Holcomb (who plays trombone, tuba, and bass), both 21. The two are recent graduates of the Manhattan School of Music, where they jointly led a Hot Jazz student-ensemble band, and are now part of the city’s workforce of professional musicians. Such bands are heard in an increasing number of clubs, including several devoted to Hot Jazz, such as Mona’s in the Alphabet City neighborhood, and Radegast Hall & Biergaretn in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Nearly every week (particularly in the summer), these musicians also play in bands at dance-oriented “retro nouveau” events, like Shanghai Mermaid, the Jazz Age Lawn Party, and the Salon—a combination of dance, concert, and costume party. Young dancers typically come in 1920s drag, and one can see flappers and sheikhs texting and tweeting on the margins of the dance floor.
The Lawn Party, the biggest of these events, usually attracts 3, 000-plus people (most in vintage attire, almost all under 30) for two weekends a summer on Governors Island. Movie director Baz Luhrmann is a regular attendee, and although his film adaptation of The Great Gatsby—based on the definitive novel of what author F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the Jazz Age”—featured little authentic jazz from the period, the movie’s box-office success reveals again how the culture of the Roaring 20s seems to resonate with contemporary audiences.
Hot Jazz is so prevalent now that New York has almost become like New Orleans in the fin de siècle period: in covering the city’s jazz scene for The Wall Street Journal, I find that I can go hear a 20s-style band, almost inevitably made up of musicians born well after 1980, playing somewhere in the city virtually every night of the week. For these young players, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, the 11-piece ensemble that’s kept the torch burning for pre-swing music for almost 40 years. Most of Giordano’s regular musicians are in their 40s and 50s, but he occasionally hires up-and-coming artists, such as 26-year-old twins Peter and Will Anderson, two reed players (clarinet and saxophone) who have been working with Giordano since 2007, their sophomore year at Juilliard.
Hot Sardines., By Harry Fellows.
Will Anderson feels that an understanding of early jazz is essential to being able to play the music of any period. “I enjoy playing all styles of jazz, because it is all rooted in the music of the 1920s—harmonically, rhythmically, and melodically.” He adds, “Twenties jazz has a clarity and beauty that anyone can identify with; it expresses the most bitter sadness and complete joy, simultaneously.”
Along with the Nighthawks, a newer, smaller band that’s serving as the focal point of the Hot Jazz movement is Mona’s Hot Four, which plays all night long every Tuesday, to a capacity crowd of regulars and musicians who come to sit in and jam. Here, alas, there’s no room for dancing and, in fact, barely any room even for listening. “I believe musicians of my generation and younger are attracted to the roots, blues aspect of the music; the collective polyphony of the ensemble; the partner-danceability of the rhythm [that has] revitalized excitement of the audiences, ” says Mona’s Hot Four’s guitar-and-banjo player, Nick Russo. Gradually, the mania surrounding the music has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mr. Russo notes that the more musicians play Hot Jazz, the more crowds are attracted, which, in turn, he says, generates “more gigs.”
What’s also interesting is that this new wave of traditional jazz relies on nontraditional venues: formal jazz clubs, mostly in midtown, generally ignore it, and so far Jazz at Lincoln Center has not yet gotten hip—a further irony, in that 30 years ago J.A.L.C. founder Wynton Marsalis was one of the first major musicians to encourage younger players to study Louis Armstrong as much as Miles Davis. (An exception is the Louis Armstrong tribute band, led by David Ostwald, which has been playing weekly in Birdland for over a decade.) Hot Jazz turns up in all manner of venues that are far from exclusively jazz clubs, the most high profile of which is probably Joe’s Pub. The Hot Sardines, the name reflecting singer and co-leader Elizabeth Bougerol’s Parisian origins, currently enjoy a monthly residency at Joe’s, and this summer the club is also presenting another young French group, the Avalon Jazz Band.
By Bruce Gast.|||
Of all the Hot Jazz groups, the Sardines have probably come the furthest. They’ve been together almost five years, during which time they’ve assembled a unique repertoire, and a sound and a style that are distinctly their own. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional “Jass” Band, a brand new combo that, within a few months of being formed in the Crescent City at the start of 2013, was already drawing crowds in New Orleans as well as in the New York area. The Donkeys even boast a celebrity offspring: tubaist Wessell Anderson Jr. is the son of saxophonist Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, the longtime Marsalis sideman. (Full disclosure: the father of the band’s banjo-guitarist-vocalist, Sam Friend, is an editor at Vanity Fair.) Unlike the Sardines, the Donkeys don’t have an identifiable band “book” of their own yet, and most of their tunes are familiar Dixieland warhorses (many sung by trumpeter James Williams, channeling Louis Armstrong), but that will surely come in time, the longer they continue to work together. (Right now their most intriguing number is a mash-up of two jazz standards based on the same chord changes, the 1920 song “Whispering” and Dizzy Gillespie’s 1945 “Groovin’ High.”)
The Sardines, contrastingly, have not only their own identifiable tunes but a fast-paced act that combines jazz and old-fashioned showbiz, spotlighting Ms. Bougerol’s singing (and spieling). Which points up another aspect of the current Hot Jazz scene: virtually all of these players have grown up in the contemporary, post-CD era, and to them the notion of bands scuffling around trying to get “signed” by major record labels is an archaic idea from a bygone age. None of these bands has been on a top label, although some sell their own self-produced CDs. Yet audio-only representations, in general, are almost entirely beside the point. To these groups, it’s much more important to be well represented on the social networks, to have a compelling Facebook presence, and to get noticed on YouTube.