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Devoted to an Old Sound : An eclectic circle of aging performers keeps Dixieland jazz alive.

April 23, 1993|DAVID S. BARRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; David Barry is a North Hollywood writer.

Saxophonist Don Nelson, eyes half shut in the reverie of jazz improvisation, weaves a passionate lament over the chords of the New Orleans jazz classic "Wolverine Blues."

Joined briefly by trumpet and trombone for a soft, three-horn passage of melody, Nelson then takes the lead again, working his fluid, lyrical way from haunting lows to soaring high notes.

His fellow band members--graying, balding or white-haired like Nelson--pay close attention to his solo, which he finishes to warm applause from the 20 or so listeners at the Cinnamon Cinder, a Burbank bar that features Dixieland by the band Jazz Holiday at lunchtime Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Dixieland, created 90 years ago in New Orleans, is played today at a handful of places in the Valley for a loyal corps of fans who follow the music from spot to spot.

At the Cinnamon Cinder, three couples are dancing--all six dancers are well over 60--as trumpeter Bill Vogel takes the melody and Nelson joins trombonist Steve Hope in playing harmony behind him. After one chorus, Vogel kicks the band into high gear, and sax and trombone break into full-tilt, all-out ensemble improvisation.

This is the joyous magic of Dixieland that brings people to their feet. It's the excitement of pre-World War I New Orleans jazz, where the legends--King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory--created a new American art form that spawned all the styles and schools of jazz that followed.

"We play just for the sheer fun of playing," says Hope, a trombonist and the leader of Jazz Holiday, after the set is finished. "It's a kind of music that just can't help making you feel good."

Although the six band members (playing trumpet, trombone, soprano sax, drums, guitar and bass sax) seem relaxed on stage, their approach to the music is serious. The players know the repertoire and know each other's styles.

"We're basically a quiet band," said Hope, 61, of Hollywood. "You can hear the changes happen. Everybody respects what the other guy is doing."

Hope is a musician by avocation, a film music editor by profession. So is bass saxophonist Jack Wadsworth. Soprano saxophonist Nelson, brother of the late TV star and bandleader Ozzie Nelson, is a TV writer and story editor. Although all three have played jazz for a living, they now do it for love in a band that evolved out of a long-running tradition of lunchtime Dixieland jam sessions at Disney Studios.

In the 1950s, those jam sessions led to a band called the Firehouse Five Plus Two, one of America's most commercially successful Dixieland bands. Led by trombonist and Disney head animator Ward Kimball, the band made album after album, and it is said that some Disney personnel were scouted for their Dixieland playing ability and taught basic animation skills to justify their employment.

The lunch-hour jams continued long after the Firehouse Five was gone, and Jazz Holiday is one of several bands playing today that was born at Disney.

"Disney kicked the band off the lot quite a few years ago, and they looked for a place to play," said Hope, who recently worked as a music editor with Henry Mancini on the latest "Pink Panther" movie.

Years later, the band, changed in personnel but not in spirit, has a lunch-hour home at the Cinnamon Cinder, one of several Valley spots where Dixieland can be heard by those who know where to find it.

"Dixieland is addictive," Hope said. "Even though you start out just playing lunch hours to keep in practice, after a while you start juggling your schedule, and keeping it clear of meetings so you can be here at noon. It's like a narcotic."

Hope and other longtime Los Angeles residents remember when Dixieland was featured every night in nightspots in Hollywood and the Valley. Local fans and musicians could hear, and in some cases, play with, the greats: Kid Ory, Barny Bigard, Bunk Johnson, Johnny St. Cyr.

That was in the 1950s, when jazz had evolved several generations from its New Orleans roots. Swing in the 1930s, be-bop in the late 1940s, and cool jazz and hard bop in the '50s had pushed Dixieland far out of fashion by the Dwight D. Eisenhower-Joe DiMaggio years.

But while Dixieland in the '50s was no longer hip, it had wide popular appeal with the crew-cut and white-bucks set. It was good-time music.

"Dixieland is the only kind of music I've ever liked," said John Reasoner of Sherman Oaks, a regular at the Cinnamon Cinder's Dixieland lunch hours.

"It's a happy sound," said Jean Griffin, another Cinnamon Cinder regular. "If they're playing the blues, it has a lot of feeling, and much of it is upbeat. And it's very danceable."

Dixieland fans, like Dixieland musicians, are dedicated people who go from spot to spot. Sunday is Dixieland night at the Mission Hills bar LGT (Let's Go To) Vegas, where three Jazz Holiday players--Nelson, Wadsworth and guitarist Dick Braxhoofden--play in the Great Pacific Jazz Band led by pianist Bob Ringwald.

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