L.A. Classic Jazz Festival Makes Dixieland the Star at 10 Venues

Times Arts Editor

The Los Angeles Classic Jazz Festival, whose sixth running concludes this afternoon with an all-hands-on-deck, two-hour jam session, has become a cultural as well as a musical phenomenon.

Its nearly two dozen organized groups, with names like Hot Cotton, Hot Frogs and the Misbehavin’ and New Reformation jazz bands, perform “Jazz Me Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and other traditional Dixieland anthems with wonderful, familiar verve.

Their principal audiences dance at a fast, age-defying clip on the spaces beside the bandstands, the ladies in fringed flapper dresses and carrying decorative parasols, which are on sale this year, the gents in straw boaters, also on sale this year.

The festival, which runs from noon Friday to sunset Monday, is an expert exercise in entertainment nostalgia, welcomed by many of the customers precisely for the down-the-rails familiarity of the tunes and the treatments.

Many of the players, along with the customers, have been around for many a chorus. But there is also an infusion not only of younger listeners but also of young musicians, like the singer Banu Gibson and her New Orleans Hot Jazz Orchestra. Gibson is a festival favorite, a charismatic leader whose vocal style embraces the raucous “Hard-Hearted Hannah” genre to slow ballads done with remarkable purity and power. The arrangements are crisp, expert and anything but accidental.


The largest events of this year’s festival were appearances by Bob Crosby and his band, including the Bobcats. In his heyday, Crosby did a good deal to make smoothed-out Dixieland a mainstream commercial phenomenon.

The Saturday night concert by the band, an ad hoc group containing festival regulars Abe Most on clarinet, Ray Sherman on piano, Bob Havens on trombone, Dick Cathcart on trumpet and Don Lodice on tenor, drew an SRO crowd of more than 2,000 to the Airport Hilton’s International Ballroom.

By the nature of the charts, the music was less interesting than the Benny Goodman tribute band that Most organized and fronted for two previous festivals, but Crosby, now 76 and living in La Jolla, charmed the crowd.

Acker Bilk, a leading proponent of what the British call trad, came from London with his band. His “Stranger on the Shore” was a big seller in this country, and his clarinet tone is rich and round even in the wilder tunes.

At that, the largest musical excitements of the festival were provided, as always, by the shifting assemblies of the post-Dixieland instrumentalists who, setting their agendas and structuring the tunes as they went along, provided mainstream improvisational jazz at its incandescent best.

With music available more or less simultaneously at 10 venues in three hotels (the Airport Marriott and the Viscount as well as the Hilton), the music lover lives with the feeling, as at a film festival, that you are probably missing something special somewhere all the time.

But the moments you don’t miss are what count. Saturday afternoon on the open air ramp where customers normally debouch for the Marriott’s ballrooms, the clarinetists Chuck Hedges and Abe Most did an amazing fast tempo duet on “Undecided,” challenging each other with furious runs, scamperings through high and low registers, lickety-split counterpoint playing that even at speed was quite beautiful, can-you-top-this exchanges of four-bar and two-bar breaks that recalled the legendary duels of early jazz in Manhattan. It ended with a sustained high note from Most that, so trumpeter Tommy Saunders said, “caused 2,700 dogs to flee the area.” Phenomenal.

There were first-time visits to the festival from the fine Toronto reed player, Jim Galloway, specializing this time on the curved soprano saxophone. Galloway, a melodist whose solos have the lovely shaped quality of flights long thought-about, makes his instrument have alternately the high purity of the clarinet and then the lower, insinuating growl of the alto sax, in a sensuous, note-bending style that recalls the late Johnny Hodges from the Ellington band. A long Galloway flight on “Someday Sweetheart,” lit with triplet runs and melancholy excursions into the cello depths of the range, was emblematic of solo jazz at its best.

Another first-time visitor was the veteran guitarist-singer Mary Osborne, who played with Coleman Hawkins in the ‘40s and is said to have been heard and admired by Django Reinhardt when she was a regular at Kelly’s Stables in New York. There are moments, indeed, when she sounds like Reinhardt with her mixture of rough vigor and intricate runs, and other moments when she hints of the late Wes Montgomery.

The fluegelhorn virtuoso, Jackie Coon, playing a set with Osborne late Saturday, whispered: “The lady is a gas .” She sang “The Man I Love,” accompanied only by her guitar and the rhythm section, with a depth of feeling that was a rare exercise in urban blues.

The weekend’s busiest and most versatile pianist was the local man, Johnny Varro, whose long solo on “It’s Been So Long” in a set with Galloway and Yank Lawson among others, was a lovely exercise in swift grace and rich invention.

One festival regular was not on hand. The veteran cornetist Wild Bill Davison was off in Japan being honored as a national treasure (whether theirs or ours was not immediately clear). His absence was widely regretted, and Tommy Saunders, the Detroit cornetist whose hard-driving style resembles Davison’s, played “Blue Again,” a Wild Bill favorite, as a salute to him.

Nostalgia and musical excellence made a joint appearance Friday night, when the bassist Bob Haggart, working with drummer Jake Hanna, reprised “Big Noise From Winnetka,” the bass and drums duet with Haggart’s whistling-through-the-teeth chorus. It was a big jazz novelty record in the late ‘30s when Haggart and Ray Bauduc did it, and it is still heard. Friday it produced that rare item, a drum solo of elegance and amusement, from the excellent Mr. Hanna.

The Los Angeles festival’s competition for players with Dick Gibson’s Denver jazz party over the same weekend is fierce and growing as Chuck Conklin, founder-director of the local bash, finds that his customers do not live by Dixie alone.

Despite the existence of a second local jazz festival this weekend, attendance at the L.A. Classic for first two days was ahead of 1988, when sizzling temperatures were a deterrent.