Jazz for Lunch at the Cajun

Long ago, Whitney Balliett described jazz as "the sound of surprise." That continual proof of the music's life force seized me once again listening to Stefon Harris' The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note)—a wondrous mosaic of freshly multicolored writing with intriguingly subtle dynamics, along with singular soloists. His music needs no labels like "postmodern" or "cutting edge." It is Stefon Harris music, as Charles Mingus', he insisted, was Mingus music.

At lunch recently at the Cajun, a restaurant on Eight Avenue and 16th Street in New York, where you can get Louisiana catfish, I was surprised at how much pleasure there still is in some of the jazz I grew up with. Many years ago, at Lester Young's then home in Queens, after a long interview, I was almost out the door when he, the embodiment of what was "hip" in jazz at the time (off as well as on the bandstand), said to me: "Do you like Dixieland?"

"Sure," I answered, "if its good."

"Me too," said Pres.

Every Wednesday, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at the Cajun, what the Gotham Jazzmen play for those who need labels, is not strictly Dixieland, though the repertory includes "Hello, Central, Give Me Doctor Jazz," and "The Original Dixieland One Step." But there's also a lot of Gershwin and Jerome Kern. The beat, and therefore the soloists, move in the swing-rhythm waves that characterized Eddie Condon's crews ("Nicksieland") and the good-time music of Jimmy McPartland and the Bob Crosby Bob Cats. The band, with the same name and somewhat overlapping personnel, has also been playing since 1976 on Thursdays from 12:30 to 2pm, at the public Donnell Library in Manhattan. No admission charge. Trombonist Jim Collier, who played with Max Kaminsky and Wild Bill Davison, among others, says: "We never rehearse, rarely take requests, and have never tried to promote the band. We frequently play tunes we don't know very well—or don't know at all—partly because of professionals, semipros and amateurs.

"Most of us," Collier continues, "have played in fairly fast company on occasion and some of us still do. I think nearly everyone in the band played at the old 54th Street Condon's and Jimmy Ryan's on 52 Street at some time." Some of the names may be known to readers of JazzTimes: trumpeter Peter Ecklund, who has four CD's under his own name; guitarist Dawes Thompson, who worked with Milt Hinton and Vic Dickerson, among others; tenor saxophonist Don Phillips, who measured up to Roy Eldridge's standard; and pianist Peter Sokolow, a practicing expert in what Fats Waller and James P. Johnson made of stride piano, as well as having toured Europe several times with Klezmer bands. A mixed bag of musicians, some with day jobs who don't care about critics' categories or polls so long as they can get together and play.

The Gotham Jazzmen will surely never be part of National Public Radio's dwindling jazz programming, but I bet there are many listeners around the country who either, as I did, were hooked for life as kids on this kind of music that made you feel so good-or would be if exposed. For listeners like me, as Al Cohn told me as we were leaving the Great South Bay Jazz Festival that had featured a reunion of survivors of the Fletcher Henderson band (Gerry Mulligan, naturally, sat in): "You never lose a feeling for the music that first for you involved in jazz." After all, as Lester Young said to me that afternoon in Queens, it was Frank Trumbauer who turned him on early ("He always told a little story").

In a letter in the June JazzTimes ("Hentoff Wrong") by Murray Horwitz, former vice president of NPR's cultural programming, he admits that NPR has "largely abdicated its leadership role in [jazz] programming," but, he says, the blame is on the NPR stations in the largest markets that are driven "almost entirely on audience ratings." But the national NPR audience had risen from more 13 million in 1998 to nearly 20 million last fall. And if the national NPR programmers are interested in sizable durable audiences for jazz, they should look at any issue of the monthly Mississippi Rag which has extensive listings of locations around the country that include many clubs booking music much like that played by the Gotham Jazzmen.

The Cajun is there, along with such clubs as Ruga's in Oakland, N.J., and the City Saloon in Columbia, Ill. In most of these clubs, the sessions aren't every night, and some not every week. But others, like the Cajun, have such combos on different nights during the week as Vince Giordano's Nighthawks, the Red Onion Jazz Band and the Canal Street Dixieland & Blues Band. If Frank Trumbauer were alive, he would be playing at one of those clubs. And the long list of jazz festivals across the nation in the Mississippi Rag has a large proportion of bands in the long-distance tradition of the Gotham Jazzmen.

Not only listeners who were drawn to these sounds as youngsters dig this music these days. When more or less traditional jazz groups play in schools, these kids can't help dancing. Not only NPR, but also much of the established jazz network—record companies, magazines, book publishers, public and commercial television—ignore these musicians and their fans. But the bands, like the Gotham Jazzmen, keep on for the sheer pleasure of the ride.

Originally published in September 2003

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