How long ago is eleven years? From one perspective, it’s a huge distance: we can’t go back to the seconds that just elapsed no matter how we try. But through technology, we travel backwards and make ourselves comfortable there: consider photographs and recordings. In the New York City of the recent past, wonderful things happened as a matter of course, and perhaps we took them for granted. The Cajun, a New Orleans restaurant and jazz club on Eighth Avenue between 17th and 18th Street in Manhattan, offered music seven nights a week and on Sunday afternoons. Supervised by Arlene Lichterman and the late Herb Maslin, it was more down-home than posh, but the regulars (and tourists who wandered in) got more than their chicken or pasta.
What they got was wonderful congenial jazz. Here is almost seventy-five minutes of it, still delicious. The musicians are Ronnie Washam, vocal; Alan Cary, banjo; Barbara Dreiwitz, tuba; Hank Ross, piano; Sam Parkins, Albert clarinet; Dick Dreiwitz, trombone and MC; John Bucher, cornet.
I asked Dick Dreiwitz if he would write a few words about what you are going to see — an informal record of that rainy, warm Saturday night.
A Band of Substitutes
Summers for the traditional, classic jazz bands (some called their style Dixieland), those bands fortunate enough to have steady work (even if it was only one night a week), summers came and delivered even more problems than the usual problems during the rest of the year. Vacations, tours, and travel caused individual, regular band members to be absent, so qualified substitutes had to be found and hired. Such was the case with the Red Onion Jazz Band’s (ROJB) regular Saturday night gig at the Cajun Restaurant in New York City on 8th Avenue at 16th Street one night during the summer of 2006.
Leader and drummer Bob Thompson had gone to his vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard and clarinetist Joe Licari was lured away for a more lucrative single engagement that no player in his right mind would turn down. The other regular band members away that night were: Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Larry Weiss, piano; Rich Lieberson, banjo/guitar, and Bob Sacchi, tuba. As I remember, the only regulars were Veronica Washam, our singer, and myself on trombone. Truly, it was what John Gill would have called “An Emergency Band.”
Curiously, as luck would have it, two substitutes on the night of the taping were John Bucher, cornet, and Hank Ross, piano, both regular members of the ROJB from the late 1950’s through the 1970’s when the band and its musical style were at a zenith of its popularity. This activity included travel to play at jazz festivals, intervals of steady work in the New York metropolitan area at such places as Child’s Paramount in Times Square and Park 100, and a solo, sold out concert at Town Hall. Alan Cary, banjo, and Barbara Dreiwitz, tuba, both long time friends and substitutes with the band, filled out the personnel except for clarinetist Sam Parkins, on this occasion playing his new Albert System instrument in public for the first time.
Since that summer, over eleven years ago, the Cajun Restaurant has closed its doors, Bob Thompson, Hank Ross, and Sam Parkins have passed on and the Red Onion Jazz Band is little more than a memory, a few old LP records, a couple of CD’s, and some photos.
And these videos, which I shot with my less-sophisticated camera that night, and have resurrected from the stack of mini-DVDs in a bookcase. The sound is clear and the sight lines, although restricted, are fine. I apologize to the sweet singer Ronnie Washam, “The Chelsea Nightingale,” for rendering her invisible, but my memory is that she blanched at the idea of having a video camera aimed at her.
What you’ll notice immediately about this band of “substitutes” is its easy medium-tempo embrace of the music’s inherent lyricism, a swinging sweetness that is not always the case in bands wedded to this repertoire, who often aim for higher volume and quicker tempos. This version of the ROJB feels like people very fond of one another, taking a walk in late summer, aware that they can reach their happy destination without rushing.
Here’s the first segment, with AVALON (vocal RW) / BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU / SEE SEE RIDER [C.C. RIDER]:
and more — THE LOVE NEST (vocal RW) / MAMA’S GONE, GOODBYE / ‘DEED I DO (RW) / JAZZ ME BLUES / AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (RW):
and a third helping — THE JAPANESE SANDMAN / Introducing the band / MY BUDDY (vocal RW) / BYE BYE BLUES (RW) / HAPPY BIRTHDAY (RW) / I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE (RW):
I’ll say it again: this is a lyrical, gliding band, full of individualists devoted to the communal glories of this music. I miss The Cajun and am honored to present these vivid musical recollections both to people who were there and those not able to make that scene. And there are more sounds from this band to come.
May your happiness increase!