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Locals Only: : paddlewheelin' and dealin' dixieland

Thanks to the Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band, Dixieland Jazz has a home in Cincinnati

By Elizabeth Wu · October 4th, 2006 · Locals Only
  Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band
Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band

Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band

I've never been to Tall Stacks. Boats, even old boats, are not really my thing. When I hear the word steamboat, the mental image is vague. But listening to the opening track on the Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band's new CD, Paddlewheelin' Jazz, I can't help but visualize a guy with a top hat and cane shuffling down the riverbanks with a Cheshire cat grin. I see women in fancy dresses followed by children eating ice cream and foam bubbling up under a giant wheel as it churns through the not-yet polluted Ohio River. And then, for the first time in my life, I feel the urge to go to the riverfront, look at boats and wax nostalgic about an era even my grandparents never knew.

"It's infectious," says Joe Lukasik, Buffalo Ridge's clarinetist. "It really is all those cliché's people call it -- it's toe-tapping."

Sally Lukasik, the band's trumpeter, adds, "It's happy music. It gives you hope and a sense of joy ... and in today's world, it's nice to take a few minutes to enjoy the spontaneity of the music."

They're talking about their brand of traditional Jazz, also known as Dixieland and "Hot Jazz," originally born in New Orleans in the late 1800s when brass bands mixed Ragtime and Blues to meet a burgeoning demand for dance music.

To fill out their sound, members of the small bands (generally composed of a "frontline" of trumpet, clarinet and trombone and a "backline" rhythm section of drums and/or banjo, piano and stand-up bass), would improvise collectively. As they experimented, taking liberties on melodies and altering their tones and pitches to imitate the human voice, Jazz evolved and matured, exploding across the country when musicians began to record in the 1920s.

How does this relate to Tall Stacks? During the heyday of river trade, musicians would travel and perform on paddleboats, including legends like Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. Cincinnati, a bustling trade port, was a main stop on the river circuit.

The Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band, a local group that plays in the traditional Dixieland style, re-creates the sound and moods one might have heard traveling down the river in those bygone days. Sally describes what they do as "putting music in a historical perspective, making it a part of today's musical choices."

After listening to their 17-track Dixieland romp, I'd say they are pretty faithful to the tradition. They learned the melodies and lyrics by listening to original recordings, but Joe says they aren't purists.

"We are not one of those groups who will copy scratches on a record," he says. "There are some bands, if you play anything after 1928, they won't speak to you or your children."

He tells of how some musicians, imitating a recording, will even reproduce the mistakes in a performance, players who "die for that wrong note that Louis Armstrong played. We cover the same time as the purists, but we bring our own life experience with respect to the song and its original arrangement."

They also write their own tunes. Sally, who developed her love for Dixieland while working as a waitress in New Orleans, wrote the band's opening track "When the Tall Stacks Come to Town," and dedicated it to the Belle of Cincinnati.

"We wanted some way to tribute Cincinnati's Tall Stacks tradition," she says.

The six-piece band-made up of trumpet, clarinet, trombone, banjo, tuba and drums -- will be paying homage to the paddleboats in person. They're the house band on the Tall Stacks dinner cruises on the Belle of Louisville. They also perform at 1 p.m. on Friday at the Great American Insurance Group Stage.

Even if you're not a big Jazz fan, I recommend giving the Buffalo Ridge Jazz Band a listen. This stuff had me dancing in the kitchen and improvising tap routines in the living room (and a dancer I am not). Sally says that they always get a great response when they play.

"The best indication (of enjoyment) is the children -- they can't stay still for a second when they hear our music," she says. "It evokes that response, to join in. It's an inclusive music."

Call me a big kid, but you just might see me down by the boats this weekend.

THE BUFFALO RIDGE JAZZ BAND's new CD and performance schedule are available at jazztrek.com.


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