SACRAMENTO — Pardon the paraphrase, but I have seen the past, and it works.
The statistics for the 13th annual Memorial Day Dixieland Jubilee were startling. As its sponsors, the nonprofit Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, proudly point out, it is now the world's largest jazz festival, involving 40 locations indoors and out, close to 800 musicians, 100,000 patrons and bands from 14 countries. Typically, at noon on Saturday there was a choice of 28 places to visit and groups to check out.
The longstanding assumption that Dixieland is happy music was borne out during these four fun-directed days. As one observer said, "Even the cops are smiling." Seldom have so many derived so much pleasure from a very simple, old-fashioned musical genre, played with widely varying degrees of technique, artistry and showmanship.
According to Bill Gunter, who has led a hard life handling publicity for the festival and playing washboard drums in the Black Diamond Jazz Band, 90% of the participants play jazz only avocationally. The pros, he says, are icing on the cake. After 24 hours here, it became very clear how badly this icing was needed, in view of an often indisputably crumby cake.
The most serious problem by far was the almost total exclusion of black musicians, a policy unaltered since the jubilee began. Since this is a music of Afro-American origin and nearly all of its greatest creative artists have been black, it was shocking almost beyond belief that only about 1% of the players were black. In fact, the only black band was Joe Liggins' out of place, out of tune rhythm and blues group. Maxine Sullivan was heard briefly with one band and the Voices of Faith, a black choir, sang spirituals in a moving Sunday morning service.
The argument that black instrumentalists don't care to play early jazz just doesn't wash. Instead of spending thousands to fly over the English band that sang "Lambeth Walk," or the feeble groups from Australia, Israel and Scotland, the promoters could have improved the festival musically by hiring the black Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans, Jimmy & Geannie Cheatham's band from San Diego and the Los Angeles Legends of Jazz (soon to be seen at the Playboy Festival). They could also have dropped the dainty "Ace in the Hole" ladies in favor of such show-stopping black blues giants as Carrie Smith, Linda Hopkins or Koko Taylor.
Obviously, it was impossible to pass judgment on all the 102 bands, but a few examples should suffice.
After the 80-year-old cornetist Wild Bill Davison had been crowned this year's festival emperor in ceremonies held Friday amid much pomp, speech-making, ethnic costuming, parading and clowning, the following groups took part (I later heard most of them again in individual sets):
An Australian band played "Waltzing Matilda," but not, God forbid, as a waltz. The Louisiana Jazz Band (hailing from Denmark) wore T-shirts reading "Danish Dynamite" and sang "Ace in the Hole" with a Danish accent. A band from Guatemala, Paco Gatsby, mixed Latin and even rock rhythms with the Dixie essence.
The New Orleans Jazz Band of Hawaii, whose appearance was preceded by a six-pack of hula dancers, strummed its way through "Hawaiian War Chant." A trumpet-less band from Jerusalem fielded the weirdest rhythm section of the weekend: banjo, electric bass, drums and no piano, except when the trombonist put down his horn. They did not play "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen," an assignment that was left, oddly, to Sandro Benko's band from Budapest.
The Jazz Band All Orchestra from Krakow, Poland, long a popular Sacramento feature, had a few exotic, offbeat moments but indulged in group comedy vocals and wore feathered red caps. Visual values are rarely overlooked here: the Scottish Society Syncopators from Edinburgh was heralded by flags, bagpipes and dancers in a Highland Fling. The sidemen wore kilts.
Whether the groups played themes indigenous to their countries, an inevitable similarity pervaded the performances. Some aficionados of old-time jazz make much out of minor distinctions: This group has two trumpets rather than one, that combo has a sax instead of a clarinet, a banjo or tuba instead of a guitar or bass. But "Sweet Georgia Brown" or "South Rampart Street Parade" played by one band is likely to be largely indistinguishable from the same tune served up by another. The differences were mainly those of competence, and of the extent to which a few groups deviated from the classic improvised sounds.
Wild Bill Davison, the emperor, with his wife, Anne as empress, at his side, blew enough horn to show those pesky 50-and 60-year-old kids how it's done. Peanuts Hucko, the Benny Goodman-style clarinetist, offered the most sophisticated music of all, aided by the incredibly virtuosic pianist Dick Hyman, a vibraphonist from Canada named Peter Appleyard, the bassist Bob Haggart and Gene Estes on drums.