During this week's rehearsal with Fullerton College's Lemon Street Stompers Dixieland band, music instructor Richard Cruz interrupted the young musicians as they debated who should be the next soloist on a particular number.
As he helped the nationally recognized Stompers prepare for Saturday's Dixieland Jazz Parade in Fullerton, a 10-hour mini-festival of early jazz, Cruz had an important point to make to the six student instrumentalists:
"I think you should be more concerned about knowing the tune and the chord changes than who is going to play the next solo. Know what kind of intro you're going to do and what kind of ending you'll play, if you've got something special in mind. If you know that, you can do anything you want," said Cruz, who is temporarily playing trumpet with the Stompers. The group, which changes personnel each school year, has been the only group in the nation to finish among the top three in the National Collegiate Dixieland Jazz contest for each of the past three years.
Cruz's suggestion is a reflection of his philosophy that in Dixieland jazz, the spirit of the music should never be subordinated to program structure, musical technique or anything else.
A great soloist is one who "can play something that comes from here," Cruz said, putting his hand to his heart, "instead of just manipulating fingers and doing something that is technically convenient but doesn't say anything."
That spirit is what keeps Dixieland a vital, exciting American musical form to Cruz--although it may not dominate record sales charts or radio station play lists. But Cruz is hoping that Saturday's Dixieland Jazz Parade will at least help bolster enthusiasm for the music as played by several local groups and a few celebrity guest musicians.
The festival begins at noon with performances at the Villa Del Sol and Panache restaurants by the Fullertowne Strutters, Cruz's professional Dixieland band that performs frequently in and around Orange County, and the Sweet Orange Blues band, consisting of Lemon Street Stompers alumni.
The local bands will be joined by guest soloists from the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band, the Dixieland group led by trombonist and actor Conrad Janis that turns up periodically on "The Tonight Show" and other television programs. Over the years, guest members of the group have included George Segal, Buddy Rich, Milton Berle and Steve Allen, among others.
Janis, who emcees the annual collegiate Dixieland jazz contest, praised student musicians in general and the Lemon Street Stompers in particular, saying, "These kids today can play anything. They have technique we never dreamed of when I was getting started."
Also featured during daylong performances at the two sites will be the recently formed Dixie Spooners band from Sunny Hills High School, with ragtime piano player Jerry Rothschild. Although a Dixieland parade through Fullerton was originally planned, Cruz said, organizers were unable to win the city's approval. The title was retained, however, because it reflects the parade of music that will be offered, he said.
The day's events will be capped with an 8 p.m. concert at the Fullerton College Campus Theatre that will feature the Lemon Street Stompers and Conrad Janis & the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band. Daytime performances will be free, and the evening concert will have a $3 admission charge.
As chief designer of the event, Cruz said the festival is a pilot for a more ambitious festival he hopes to stage next year with top-name traditional jazz groups.
"These things tend to go in cycles, but I think there is a growing appreciation for traditional jazz," Cruz said. "We played yesterday here on the quad for the students, and there were kids in new wave and punk haircuts who were really grooving on the music."
Ironically, the members of the Stompers, who range in age from 19 to 21, said some of their toughest critics are fellow musicians.
"A lot of them like to listen to (Dixieland), but they say they would never play it," said group leader and trombonist Trish McCarty, the lone returnee from last year's Stompers. "They think it's kind of hokey."
Said clarinetist-saxophonist Russell Burt, "A lot of jazz musicians are so caught up in progressive jazz that they disregard how much they have learned from the old stuff."
Janis, however, feels there is an upswing in public interest in early jazz thanks largely to increased exposure on television.
"I don't think it's ever going to be a Top 40 kind of thing, just because the big corporations don't put the money into it," Janis said. "But I think there is a tremendous interest in this music. Teens and college-age people are becoming more aware of the roots of all popular music, including rock 'n' roll, and it all goes back to jazz and early jazz.
"It's good-time music that should be played as hot and as enthusiastically as possible. You have to put everything you have into it," Janis said. "When you do, audiences will feel it."