By Sterling Nelson
For the Courier
Patrons of the Evergreen Jazz Festival will have the opportunity to experience “the San Francisco style” of traditional jazz when the Yerba Buena Stompers set foot on stage at the Elks Ballroom at 4:15 p.m. July 29 with their “Dixieland Jazz” theme set.
The Stompers will play three other theme sets, including “King Oliver” and “Jelly Roll Morton” (my hero), as well as four other “un-themed” sets on that Friday and during the next two days.
The Stompers are handpicked from across the continent to meet the requirements of the ensemble style from the ‘20s and then the revival of the style in the ‘40s by the Jerba Buena Jazz Band.
Some of the band members have been to Evergreen before: Leon Oakley (in 2001 with Golden Gate Rhythm Machine), Orange Kellin (in 2005 with Terry Waldo) and Clint Baker (various instruments and years). Other members include John Gill on banjo, Duke Heitger on trumpet, Conal Fowkes on piano, Tom Bartlett on trombone, Baker on tuba and Kevin Dorn on drums. Gill and Fowkes also are members of the Woody Allen Jazz Band.
The predecessor of the Stompers was the Yerba Buena Jazz Band of the 1940s and ‘50s. The following quote is from an LP in the 1942 series on the Good Time Jazz label: “Lu Watters is undoubtedly one of the key figures in the world-wide jazz revival, which began in the early Forties. As leader, cornetist, composer, and moving force of the great YBJB, he played a major role in influencing the development of the revival and the creation of what was to be known as ‘the San Francisco style.’ ”
In 1940, when the YBJB first opened at the Dawn Club on Annie Street in San Francisco, the great folk tradition of American jazz was all but dead. Paradoxically, Americans found music that was as native as the Mississippi River to be totally unfamiliar. King Oliver, with many another pioneer, was dead. Jelly Roll Morton was living in his memories, which he was then transcribing for the Library of Congress as a record of a music of the past. Louis Armstrong and other surviving originators were playing with big swing groups, completely removed from the classic jazz tradition.
It was against this background that Lu Watters returned to the principle of ensemble jazz, abandoning both extremes of arranged swing and disorganized “every man for himself” jam sessions. Ensemble jazz is the practice of the full band, usually seven or eight pieces, playing improvisationally and producing polyphony and counterpoint, sometimes in successive choruses.
The instrumentation of the YBJB was based on that of the Oliver Band, and the repertoire of the YBJB was in the main from the recordings of Oliver, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, and Armstrong’s small groups of the mid-‘20s.
But Watters was too original a talent to be merely a repetition of what had been done before. In the process of returning to basic principles, the YBJY developed its own highly individual style. Trombonist Turk Murphy left the band in 1949 to form his own band, in which we met Leon Oakley in 1969, his second of several years with Murphy.
When Denver’s Queen City Jazz Band was formed in 1958, the band and their advisers were highly influenced by Watters and the ensemble style.
Jim Cullum, leader of his own band in San Antonio, had this to say about the YBJB on his NPR broadcast series “Riverwalk”: “Like the Oliver band, the basis of the YBJB was ensemble playing. The band itself was a cooperative, but it was Lu’s vision, his strong cornet playing, his composing and his arranging that drove the band sound and created his style. At his side was the exciting trombonist Turk Murphy, and it was Turk Murphy who went on to keep the flame alive after Lu retired from the music business in 1950. I was 20 years old when I first came across Lu Watters’ records on the Jazz Man label and was thrilled by what I heard.”
Turk Murphy died in 1987 and Lu Watters in 1989.
Ensemble playing is still alive, and may it grow stronger. Evergreen fan Bob Meade opines: “In the history of music, original New Orleans Jazz contains the best counterpoint since Johann Sebastian Bach.”
Don’t miss this band if you can help it. Happily, we are part of the revival that started some 70 years ago.
Sterling Nelson of Evergreen is a founder of the Evergreen Jazz Festival.
• Visit www.evergreenjazz.org for the schedule and venues of this year’s edition of the Evergreen Jazz Festival.
• Visit www.yerbabuenastompers.com for more information on this featured group.