Traditional jazz fans gathered the week-end before Memorial Day for three days of their favorite music at the Inaugural Lake Tahoe Jazz Festival on five stages situated throughout Crystal Bay and Incline Village on Lake Tahoe's North Shore.
Simultaneously, four other bands performed on stages in the Hyatt's Regency Ballroom, the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Showroom at the Cal-Neva Resort, the Tahoe Biltmore's Nevada Room, and in an outdoor tent at the Ponderosa Ranch, while outside the rain drizzled and the air smelled of wet pine.
Draga guest stars at festivals everywhere, playing with jazz bands of every style. He can play a silky, mellow clarinet or swing it hot. Draga's also well-known for his lively and entertaining humor.
When the sound was off for 20 minutes, he quipped, "Welcome to the acoustic set. There's been a power surge, and I understand we've fried the base amp and the guitar. Did you ever wonder what bands did before they invented electricity? They played music."
The Fulton Street Jazz Band never strays far from solid small band swing. Draga's clarinet fit right in. The band closed with "Sing Sing Sing", and one fan commented, "I thought they sounded better without the PA."
Next we moved indoors to the Hyatt Ballroom to hear Stan Mark and the Rogue Valley Suitz. We've watched Stan Mark morph through several groups, and always found them well rehearsed and exciting. Opening with "Pennsylvania 65000", this band features bright new talent from the Medford, Oregon area.
Introducing bass player Anastasia Mathewson, a jazz studies major at the University of Oregon, Mark says, "I've never had anyone on my band with braces before. She just got them off on Wednesday."
Mark says their CD is "this exact band recorded live, including the mistakes." Fans laugh and he adds, "With my young students I say, mistakes are all part of music."
Eighteen-year-old Lee Barbara, a University of Oregon freshman, belts out an impressive "Why Not Take All of Me" and Mark takes off his coat to fan the young man with it. The band closes with eighteen-year-old Karla Moxley, a graduate of South Medford High School, singing "Jump, Jive and Wail."
"Jazz Central", for check-in, band, and venue information was at the Hyatt Regency. Friendly yellow-shirted Festival volunteers tell us shuttle busses run every 15 minutes to transport I.D.-badged fans between stages within the half hour break between performances. The Hyatt Regency, showing off a recent $60 million transformation of open beams, pine-themed décor, rock, and slate, is the only location with two stages: the Ballroom and the outside event tent complete with heaters and full bar.
The producers of this festival liaisoned with Sacramento's Jazz Jubilee, the largest traditional jazz festival in the world, as consultants, and it showed in the scheduling of groups and stages. You could stay seated at one stage and over three days you would see every band, or you could follow your favorites to another stage.
Introducing "C'est Magnifique," Burns says, "You know I love Cole Porter. He's my fave." Her signature number is "Hernando's Hideaway" from her debut CD. For the song she sports a white feather boa, after which she jokes, "I'm molting."
This band powers its way through jazz and show tunes with joy, humor, balance and musicianship. "I love to swing," says Shelley. She says this band's been together for 21 years.
"The acoustics in this room are wonderful," she says of the Hyatt Ballroom. "The sound system's really good."
Shelley says she hopes this inaugural Festival is "a huge success because I love it up here. It's a gorgeous drive (from Sacramento)."
Later I learn the Festival is indeed a success; projected attendance was 3,000 and nearly 3,500 tickets were sold.
"It's a little early for a band like ours," says saxman/vocalist Jeff Ervin. "Usually we're just going to bed about this time."
The band revisits the sounds and rhythms of the 1930s and 1940s in a romping style of jazz, exhibited by Pops Walsh singing "Knock Me a Kiss" and "There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens", that would later be known as Rock and Roll.
The drummer isn't miked and plays mostly brushes, so the sound is not overpowering; you can hear all the words on the vocals.
From their CD "Stompy Jones", the band belts out "Oh, Marie". They're partial to a lot of Louis Jordan numbers, and "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" is a hit with the audience. On "Whistle Stop" Pops whistles and the rest of the band provide a chorus of harmonic vocals. "It's a real treat to play here," says Pops.
The lyrics to their opening number "with apologies to the Kingston Trio" begin, "This is our new opening number, the one we use to start the show, the one that every jazz band knows."
This band has great wit as well as seasoned musicianship. Compelling vocals are provided by Claudette Stone, wearing a perky white hat adorned with lines of black sequins. She also does witty duets with husband Dick. Her voice on "Unforgettable" and "Lady is a Tramp" is a musical instrument that complements the others in the group.
Dick tells a funny story about played this room in 1948 with the Ritz Brothers. Draga reads a Tahoe bear encounter warning with funny side comments, and there are more marriage jokes.
"The only man who should ever get married is one with a pierced ear," says Bob, "because he's experienced pain and bought jewelry."
Claudette sings "When I Fall In Love" accompanied by Bob on a soulful clarinet. "Opus One" draws dancers up on the floor to swing and sway. She sings, "Route 66" and the band closes with "When October Goes", a beautiful classic ballad with Claudette on vocal and Dick blowing a soft trumpet.
At 1:00 p.m. Mick Martin and the Blues Rockers mount the stage. Mick's style is a mix of Chicago and West Coast Blues with a little rock 'n' roll thrown in. Three times the band's been named Best Blues Band in the Sacramento Area Music Awards, and four times Best West Coast Blues Band by Canada's Blues Magazine. The band opens with a tribute to Etta James and Jimmy Reed.
"This is the blues," says Mick, by way of introduction. "It's dirty."
Mick, a big man in a black coat, full gray beard, and black fedora, jokes about how to get along with women. "Just say, yes, dear." He introduces a song he wrote with Tim Barnes, "I Bought It For You", accompanying himself on bongos and harmonica. One of the verses goes, "That pretty black negligée, the one you can see right through, I know it was in the back seat of my car, but honey, I bought it for you."
"A lot of the songs we sing are originals," says Mick, a strong songwriter. They're on their CDs, "Winning Hand" and "In One Ear". One is "I've Been Burned Too Many Times." Now that's real blues.
This music draws dancers to the floor, and Mick jokes, "We love seein' bacon shakin' out here on the dance floor."
He performs an impressive harmonica solo on his instrumental rendition of "Cristo Redentor", an instrumental from their CD, "In One Ear".
Big Tiny Little and the Show Band is a regular on the Nevada casino circuit. Little perfected his monster left hand on the Lawrence Welk TV program. "Welk didn't allow for mistakes," he says.
"We'll start with a history lesson," says percussionist Roscoe Goose. "The Jugband Research Institute, located in our truck, discovered somebody wrote a song about Christopher Columbus."
Goose played the jug on "Banjerino". Changing the face of roots music, the Juggernauts are from Louisville, Kentucky, "the birthplace of jug band music, taking you back to oldtime minstrel shows." He adds that "Jugband music was about street corner entertainment."
Goose says, "Here's a song we wrote about things going wrong, something we know a lot about." The tune "Something Elemental Has Gone Wrong" is also on their CD.
This is lively, toe-tappin' music. Goose manages a short, red stepladder topped with cymbals to which are attached cowbells, bicycle horns, tin cans, a washboard, a platform for the jug and a tray of rhythm hand instruments. The sound is eclectic on "Borneo Bay" and "Everything's Gonna Be Plastic By and By." Goose calls the latter, "our little protest song."
"This ain't no reggae jug band," says Goose, proving it with their version of "Pin Ball Wizard" from the rock opera, "Tommy".
Next is Coronet Chop Suey, from St. Louis, Missouri. If you like brass these are the guys for you; it's a seven-piece band screaming traditional and swing jazz from the moment they hit the stage. It's a real New Orleans parade sound with little patter and a lot of music, evident in "That's a Plenty".
Leader Richard Domingue says, "There's even a song for people who can't dance, "Il a Deux Pieds Gauche"
They can slow it down, too, and David Scott, a native of Australian, plays his instrumental composition "Evangelina" on the pennywhistle, an instrument that looks like a recorder flute.
"Give me a gator!" calls Domingue, and the audience responds with a wide up and down clap of the whole arm, called "the gator." The group closes with the Cajun classic, "Jambalaya", as a member dons a plastic gator head. Domingue calls "Follow that gator!" and a conga line snakes around the ballroom to end in a standing ovation from the remainder of the audience.
Playing a two-beat tempo, the vocalist's version of "What's the Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You?" delights the audience with his charming Hungarian accent. The group brings back the sounds of the Jazz Age, the roaring twenties, the swing of the thirties and the Dixieland Revival of the forties. Hungarian tunes from this period are also in their repertoire, rhythmic melodies done in a playful spirit. Adding a couple of banjos, they call themselves, "The Hungarian Banjo Kings".
"You know 'Gloomy Sunday', a famous tune from the thirties? This is the famous Hungarian suicide song. I will sing in Hungarian."
"Bolero For Django", he explains, is their tribute to Django Reinhardt, who lived in Paris in the 30s, and was inspired by classical music. The band is equally appealing swinging and singing French on "La Vie En Rose." They close with "Stompin' at the Savoy." The audience can't get enough of these charismatic young jazzmen from Budapest, Hungary.
Across the street at the Cal-Neva we caught The Hucklebucks, a hard working quartet from Sacramento. This is a no chat, straight-ahead blues band that's played with legends like John Lee Hooker and the Yardbirds. They shuffle, swing and jump the blues!
The Cal-Neva has a rich history dating back to one of its owners, Frank Sinatra, after whom the Celebrity Showroom is named. In spite of challenges with the showroom sound equipment, leader Doug James, saxman and vocalist, in sunglasses and boater hat, forged the group ahead through several songs from their latest CD, "Hip Shakin' Woman." The Hucklebucks feature a variety of music: Jump, Boogie, Swing Shuffles and Blues. Loyal fans braved the unreliable sound technology, proving the group's popularity.
For an inaugural event, it was evident that the Lake Tahoe Jazz Festival people consulted with the best and did their homework. A kudo to Shelli Fine, Festival Director, and her staff. Traditional jazz fans were not disappointed.
Feature and photos by Carolyn Proctor, Las Vegas Correspondent.