More than 30 years after it was mothballed, the Riverboat Five is once again afloat, churning the waters of nostalgia with the sweetest strains of Dixieland this side of New Orleans.
Clarinetist Ed Reed, a Vista resident since 1974, said he recently decided to resurrect the fabled Dixieland group he led in the 1950s because the early form of jazz, which originated in the smoke-filled barrooms of New Orleans around the turn of the century, is enjoying a strong resurgence.
"All over the country, wherever you go, people are once again demanding the happy music of Dixieland," Reed said. "For so long, it was dead and buried, because you couldn't hear it on the radio.
"But now, people are bringing it back on their own, by organizing festivals. It's gotten to the point where everytime you look, there's another festival starting up somewhere, and all these festivals are giving Dixieland more exposure than it's gotten in years."
Since reforming the Riverboat Five earlier this year, Reed said, the group's ports of call have been limited to San Diego County nightclubs like the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
"I don't really want to go back out on the road," he said. "I've done it way too long. In the future, we might go out of town for a festival or two, but in the meantime, there's plenty of work down here."
The original Riverboat Five was formed in the early 1950s in Atlanta after Reed, now 66, belatedly decided to make music his career.
Born and raised in Berkeley, Reed had taken up the clarinet when he was 13. He played in his junior and senior high-school bands, and in 1939 took first place in a music contest at a World's Fair in San Franciscofor a solo performance of "Rigoletto."
Then World War II broke out, and Reed did a three-year hitch in the Navy, as a "helldiver" pilot.
"I had to kiss the clarinet goodby for a while there, during the war," he recalled. "I started to get back into it when I returned home to my family, who in the meantime had moved to Atlanta, but then I went back to school and didn't have much time to do anything else except study."
At Atlanta's Emory University, Reed majored in philosophy, only to find, upon graduating, "that there weren't many jobs out there for philosophers," he recalled with a laugh.
"So I decided I might as well give music a shot, because Atlanta was a growing town and there was plenty of work for musicians," Reed said. "I started playing here and there with various jazz bands, and then I went to New Orleans a couple of times, and I really liked the Dixieland I heard down there.
"I ended up putting together my own Dixieland band in Atlanta, the Riverboat Five, in a little place called the Hideaway, and it really went over.'
Throughout the early 1950s, Reed recalled, the Riverboat Five continued to play the Atlanta nightclub circuit, drawing bigger and bigger crowds. He began sending out promotional packages to booking agents all over the country, and in 1956 the Riverboat Five landed a lucrative 13-week engagement at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas.
"One night, Joe Glazer walked in," Reed said. "He was a very famous New York agent who handled Louie Armstrong, and after the show, he came up to us and said, 'In one year, I can get this band right up there with the Dukes of Dixieland.' "
"We signed a contract with him that same night, and all of a sudden, things really began to happen."
Glazer promptly secured the group a recording contract with Mercury Records, and the Riverboat Five subsequently recorded six critically acclaimed albums. Their third, 1960's "Take the Train," received a glowing, five-star review from Downbeat, the most widely read jazz magazine in the country.
None of these albums, however, was a band effort. The original Riverboat Five, Reed said, was mothballed shortly before their first scheduled recording session.
"The umbilical cord was awfully tight and didn't stretch that far with the raw talent I had gotten out of Atlanta," Reed recalled. "The guys didn't believe everything that was happening; they thought it was all a big con.
"So just before we made our first album, the group broke up--and I recorded that album, and the five other albums, myself, with a bunch of different musicians.'
Between trips to the recording studio, Reed said, he kept busy playing live. In 1959, he signed on with a band led by swing-era veteran Ray Bauduc for a two-year stint at Ben Pollack's jazz nightclub in Los Angeles. Then in 1961, he hit the road with wah-wah trumpeter Clyde McCoy, best known for his 1931 mega-hit, "Sugar Blues."
"I was with Clyde for 13 years, all through the rock 'n' roll era, and I was lucky, because all I had to do was play clarinet," Reed said. "We were on the road constantly; I couldn't even get off for Christmas, sometimes. That one record, people remembered it, and they'd always go nuts when we played it during our show."
By 1974, Reed said, he had tired of the road. He settled down in Vista and has since gigged sporadically around the county. He's played Dixieland with the Chicago 6 and swing music with the Chicago 15.
Last summer, Reed briefly returned to the road; a two-month tour of Brazil with veteran Big Band leader, and fellow North County resident, Bob Crosby.
But now that he's reformed the Riverboat Five, Reed said, he's back in San Diego to stay--as long as the demand is there.
"I especially love playing the Belly Up Tavern," he said. "It's got a wonderful hardwood dance floor, a big elevated stage to perform on, and a great crowd of regulars who come to see us over and over again."
ED REED & THE RIVERBOAT FIVE
History: In the 1950s, Ed Reed and the Riverboat Five recorded five hit albums on the Mercury label.
Today: Reed, 66, lives in Vista. Has reformed band.
Appearing Next: Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, June 16 and June 30.