A unique brand of Dixieland will come to the Los Angeles Festival on Friday via an unusually circuitous route.
The Paco Gatsby Band, which hails from Guatemala City, Guatemala's capital, will perform its blend of ragtime, traditional Guatemalan music and Latin salsa during the festival's "Evening of Classic Jazz."
Don't look for Paco Gatsby; the band's name is entirely fictitious. Paco is a common nickname for Francisco in Spanish; Gatsby alludes to Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1920's novel, "The Great Gatsby."
With seven of the eight-piece band composed of professional Guatemalan musicians, it's not hard to understand the Latin half of Gatsby's pedigree. Typically Latin flavors of the merengue and son rhythms are laced throughout Gatsby's music. But how did these musicians become interested in early jazz music the first place?
The catalyst for the band was Bob Porter, a trumpet player who left his Los Angeles studio career 15 years ago with his wife and children for a new life as members of a Bahai religious community in Guatemala.
Soon after arriving and launching a new studio recording career in Guatemala, Porter said he was intrigued by the compatibility of Guatelmala's march-like marimba music with Dixieland rhythms, instrumentation and improvisation.
But it would take him about 10 years before Porter would get the courage to test his idea by arranging some Guatemala marimba tunes in a Dixieland style for a handpicked group of musicians he met while working in the capital's recording industry.
"When I did some arrangement of some of these Guatemalan songs, I thought they'd throw rocks at me," he said. "But they (his fellow musicians) liked it . . . they liked hearing their music in another style."
Since 1984, Paco Gatsby has recorded four old-style jazz albums and become a regular fixture each spring at the 14-year-old Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee.
But even with albums and acclaim under their belts, Porter said, his fellow band members were initially intimidated by the idea of performing before well-established U.S. bands.
To begin with, Porter said, "None of the guys speak English. When they came up to the Jubilee, they were scared stiff. They were afraid they weren't going to come across.
"But they were an immediate hit," he added. "Suddenly, they felt they weren't so far away, that they weren't so backward after all."
Some of the "guys" Porter refers to represent a cross section of Guatemala's music world. Cesar Sazo, Gatsby's clarinet player, plays first chair clarinet for Guatemala's National Symphony Orchestra. Trombonist Ernesto Ramirez plays with the army's concert band. Pianist Roberto Vidal is former choral director of the University of San Carlos. Edgar Solis is bassist with several rock and salsa bands.
Despite their popularity at home, being the only Dixieland band in Guatemala City has its drawbacks. "We don't have anything to compare ourselves to," Porter said. "We are already the best show in town," which explains the band's eagerness to come to the Los Angeles Festival: "It's really a terrific experience for them. It gives them a reason to start practicing."