Will downtown Las Vegas be the next Bleecker Street or Bourbon Street for jazz, or Beale Street for blues, or a hotbed for rock?
A city plan has been devised to enhance The Fremont Street Experience that runs pretty much traffic-less from The Vegas Club to Fitzgerald's Hotel and Casino. The new plan calls for a three-block redevelopment from Fifth to Eighth Street, and NO gambling of any sorts, not even poker slots. The plan is to turn the craven, drug and prostitute riddled area into - a tourist Mecca for jazz and blues enthusiasts. Granted there are plenty of blues on the streets in this rundown area, but this may be a stretch, even for a bawdy town like Vegas.
For those that haven't been to Vegas in a while, The Fremont Street Experience is a pedestrian mall between the down town casinos, with an interactive canopy filled will light shows. There are strolling minstrels, outside food carts, and in general, a carnival atmosphere that has made the area slow down to a wolcoming pace.
Maybe it was just me, but the ossified and gentrified fans were able to shake a collective arthritic leg with out getting fisheyes from others in the crowd. These were the fans that grew up in the swing era.
I never saw so many spats and zoot suits in my life. It was a great setup for walking jazz purists. You could change your venues as fast as a Sin City c-note, and by the time you walked the short distance from one venue to the next, the next band was set up and playing; or you could stay in your favorite venue with the other geriatrics, and eventually over the three days you would see all the bands perform, probably more than once.
And the price was right, only US$10 a day or US$30 for the 3-day event. Many fans had been flown in for slot club tournaments and the tickets were thrown in as a giveaway. So here is your chance to visit Vegas as either a jazz fan or a slot hound. By the time the 3rd festival rolls around the new light train shuttle will be completed, running the length of the Strip to the downtown center. What next - a jazz train? But the nice thing is, the train is FREE!
The two bands that seem to draw the most fans during the festival were the returning veteran Cajun favorite, Gator Beat, from the Sonoma, California area, by way of Lafayette, Louisiana. The other top contender was The Big Band Trio, from Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto and other Canadian points north.
One fan even flew in from Hawaii to see Gator Beat, a slightly funky jazz mixed in with the Zydeco. Zydeco means snapbean in French, I was informed by bandleader Richard Domingue, a guy I would love to paddle a pirogue deeper into the bayous for some frog gigin' and crawdaddin' and I am sure we would stumble across his relatives creating even more unusual sounds in the Mississippi delta backwaters. Zydeco is best defined as a jambalaya of Carib, Afro-Carib and Cajun crossovers.
And swing it did with The Big Band Trio. Everyone wondered why the zoot suiters were called a trio, when it was a six piece act. I wondered too. The three piece Jumpin' Jive Orchestra fills out the Trio's stage on festival gigs, bringing in a tenor sax, drums, trumpet, valve trombone, clarinet, piano and vocals to make the band a jumpin' and happenin' shim sham.
Behind the zoot suits was a polished and brilliant band that could swing from their own compositions such as 'Salt Lake City Blues', to the Mills Brothers. I saw the Trio perform at the Four Queens and wished I had had the time for an encore at another of the festival's venues. From their opener it was a freight train ride right up to Glenn Miller's 'Mood Indigo', and then back down the line with swaying tenor sax cackling like a chicken in 'Barnyard Boogie'. So all you Hep Cats get on the scene with The Big Band Trio.
To bop with the Big Band Trip check them out at www.bigbandtrio.com They are band that never broke from character as they 'Let The Good Times Roll' from a bygone era.
I also had the pleasure to see Stan Mark's Sin Sity Suitz at the Four Queens. They were dressed head to foot in bright, neon, monocolored suites, but each a different color. They must have had their baggy pants custom tailored, because the were dress sharply with nary a wrinkle. In fact, just around the corner from Fremont Street, on Main. is a store called Zoot Suit, catering to fans of this era. I am going to have to check it out.
With Mark leading with his Benge Trumpet the Suitz played a lot of nicely coordinated and choreographed Harry James, including obscure tunes that I loved, such as the lively 'Cotton Pickin'. From their overplayed Chatanooga Choo Choo operner to 'We Don't Play No Rock n Roll', it was all about stompin'. The last number from the group was a superb Harry James rendition of 'Sing Sing Sing', with probably the best drumming, provided by Bruce Harper, since James composed the wailful tear jerker.
As I was heading down an escalator, going up was a John Belushi aka Blues Brother going up to the Golden Nugget Ballroom. He was hanging onto the escaltor like he was riding it to heaven, and he was dressed in funereal black, with dark sunglasses and a fedora, and little did I know he was the next main attraction.
Mick Martin and his Blues Rockers, from Sacramento, saw Steve Barnes playing lead guitar upside down and behind his back on 'Gypsy Good Time'. The Blues Rockers rocked the sparse crowd that had split after Gator Beat had finished their set.
Although this was billed as a jazz festival, the mixed in blues brought a new tone to the three day event, music to ride Harley's with. The Blues Rockers laid it down and on the line in stolen and reworked tunes. "Hey, plagarism is if you steal from one person, genius is if you steal from everyone,"quipped Martin, the lead vocalist.
The British kept the Blues alive when it was near death in the States back in the 50s; even Muddy Waters couldn't make a living playing the Blues because the young blacks were playing Soul. No artist kept the blues alive like Stevie, as in Stevie Ray Vaughn. When the record producers told him to tell the press that he plays rock, he said: "Hell, no. I didn't live my life playing the Blues to say I play Rock." The Blues Rockers played lots of Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughn classics.
The slinky, sultry four piece band, with Steve Shaeffer on bass kept the line simple, the lyrics raw on 'Talk To Your Daughter', and 'Keep Your Big Mouth Shut', and 'Back Talking Baby'. The crowd's collective arthritis kicked in and they were out on the miniscule dance floor for 'Wang Dang Blues', and the Muddy Waters rendition of 'Please Don't Go', and Joan Jetts version of 'I Want to be Your Dog'. The band rode 'All Night Long' right into the John Lee Hooker boogie 'One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer', with Steve Price on drums.
The last band I saw at the festival was the Royal Dixieland Band at the Golden Nugget Pool. With a seven piece group, the Vegas-based band tuned the crowd up with the lively and upbeat 'South', and then moved to a slower tempo of the same tune with the same band, but as the derby bedecked bandleader "The Rabbi" joked, "different mistakes."
The Dixie-styled band mixed it up with jazz, Ragtime, Boogie Woogie, and Rhythm and Blues, and classics, such as Fat's Waller 'Ain't Misbehavin', sung by Marsha. All this was mashed together with their joking around and then they played the dirge 'Infirmary Blues', with the obligatory banjo and wailing clarinet. They picked the crowd back up with the Artie Shaw Gramercy 5 'After You are Gone'. And then it was the favorite part of the act: "The bar's open," laughed The Rabbi. This group will probably be the opening act at the September Comedy Festival held at the Stardust Hotel and Casino.
All in all the festival was a great success, and hopefully it is destined to draw a larger and younger crowd. This is Vegas, what else can happen here? Would you believe Dolly Parton at the House of Blues, and Burt Reynolds singing at the Orleans? Yup, you heard it here first.
By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.