Have you ever found yourself in public proclaiming your love of the jazz, and your proclamation draws the question, “What kind of jazz?” Or, similarly, you’re extolling the virtues of the Southside Aces—as many are wont to do—and your acquaintance asks, “What kind of music do they play?” Have you ever used the word “Dixieland” to describe what goes on?
As with most attempts to categorize jazz, “Dixieland” is the touching off point for a never-ending argument that can often make normal folk uneasy around the Jazz Kooks engaged in the debate. Most of the musicians I know who’ve put one or both feet into this music of New Orleans consider the word a pejorative. When someone asks me to tell him or her just what I do, I never use the D-word. I will start by saying, “New Orleans jazz,” or “1920s and 30s jazz.” If a blank stare is my response, I might list the instruments, “You know, with a trumpet, trombone and clarinet?” I consider these words to be evocative. If that fails, however, to evoke, I pull out the two most powerful words in the jazz lexicon: “Louis Armstrong.” That’s usually as far as I will take it.
Now ask me why the word rankles me so. Tonight while I pondered that, I found a thread online of people having a good old-fashioned back-and-forth on the subject. One writer stepped into the fray to theorize that Europeans say “New Orleans,” or “Traditional,” and that it’s only Americans who say, “Dixieland.” Another posits that when white people appropriated black people’s jazz, the various permutations fell under the label. The funniest of the bunch discussed an alternate: “I would favor the term “Traditional Jazz” had it not been usurped and demeaned by the banjo chug, funny hat, clarinetitised disease that festered under the shortened form of that name.” This last comment devolved the thread into a fight between attackers and defenders of the banjo. Wow! “Clarinetitised?” I’m glad to be informed that my clarinet could be an instrument of disease. From now on I will take precautions. Perhaps regular inoculations of Jimmie Noone.
I have to be honest. It may be said that I am a tithing member of the Jazz Kooks congregation. I can be just as passionate about the Dixieland question, and sound equally bonkers. As the above example demonstrates, however, any universality on the subject will likely never be achieved. The only possible resolution that can happen will be within the confines of your own experience or sensibilities. For me there is an image—straw boaters, striped vests, armbands, etc.—that accompanies music played at tempos silly fast with a lot of jangly pizzazz. These things do not describe me; therefore I do not play Dixieland.
I’m trying not to look you in the eye, you with the wise-ass grin, because you are thinking, “Hmm. Same repertoire. Same instrumentation. Aren’t you just one straw boater—a mere accessory—away from Dixieland?” You’ll have to trust me; I am, unequivocally, not. It’s at this moment, however, when I set up camp on the other side of Jazz Kook Lake. I won’t castigate you for use of the word. Recently, I was interviewed for a segment on KUOM, Radio K. My interviewer dropped the D-word a couple of times throughout the segment. And it’s not infrequent that people look to me to clarify what jazz I play by asking if it’s Dixieland. By now I am resigned to the very real fact that that one word, more than any other, much more speedily directs a person toward a nearby neighborhood of where I want them to be. Amazon.com, after all, has a Bestsellers In Dixieland Jazz section which lists everything from The Firehouse Five and Pete Fountain
all the way up to Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. That being said, I still won’t use it myself. By my reckoning, it would be like if you asked me to drop you off at Murray’s and I pulled up in front of McDonald’s. But go ahead yourself and sling it around willy-nilly. Especially now that you know it makes me wince just a little on the inside and take deep, peaceful breaths. If it’s important to me in the moment, and on occasion it still is, I will dispense unasked-for lessons in Jazz P.C. But it’s pretty rare these days that I can be bothered to do that. What's the point? I have several other ways I can proselytize from the First Book of the Jazz Kook, some of which might even be interesting. In regards to that radio segment there were much more important things to talk about than my distaste for the word. Frankly, that’s usually the case. Take, for instance, this night from last winter at Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse:
Bennett’s can boast of a horseshoe-shaped bar. One night on break Chuck DeVore, drummer for the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band, and I sat there refreshing ourselves with the beverage of the barley grain. The guys on the other side of the horseshoe, well into the process of testing the strength of their livers, yelled variations of, “You guys rocked!” We accepted this with aplomb, as if to say, “Well, naturally.” “What do YOU play?” one of them yelled at me. I brought the word “clarinet” into the conversation, to which our interviewer blinked, unable to relate. He interrupted the sound of crickets and shifted his attention to Chuck: “What do YOU play?” As soon as Chuck replied, “Drums,” our new pals erupted. Multiplying shouts of, “Yeah!!” and “More cowbell!” tumbled our way, as if Chuck saying, “Drums,” was the echo that caused an avalanche. One of the guys had enough wherewithal to locate the word “Dixieland” from among his beer-shrunken vocabulary, and informed us with the seriousness of a professor that the cowbell was essential to the genre. Chuck congenially replied, “Yep. Dixieland without cowbell is like crackers without cheese.” This was just odd enough to distract our new friends from further conversation. But I still felt something important wasn’t being addressed. “What if you have crackers with herring?” I asked Chuck. Thoughtfully he shrugged, “Well, then you don’t need a cowbell.”
When that man called what we do at Bennett’s “Dixieland,” we could have alerted him to his oh-so-egregious violation of jazz etiquette. But we didn't ruin the scene. It was a hell of lot more fun and funny to roll with it. I’ll repeat, though, that you won’t hear it fall out of my mouth anytime soon. Like calling the Ritz a flophouse. Dom Perignon a grape fizz. Chief Justice Roberts an ambulance chaser. Perhaps I am being a bit la-di-da? I recently heard a story of a nationally known jazz musician who will not allow any advertising of his concerts to contain the D-word. La-di-da or not, I say, “Amen, brother!” But I also might suggest that none of us lose any friendships over semantics.