HAPPINESS IS A HOT BANJO by Dave Trecker
When was the last time you grinned non-stop for an hour? Hard to remember, right? I did when I heard the Naples Jazzmasters Dixieland Band for the first time. Tapped my feet and grinned nonstop.
I wasn’t alone. The audience at the Norris Center, a sea of bobbing white hair, applauded every break and obviously loved every minute of it. And what’s not to like? “Bourbon Street Parade,” “Bill Bailey,” “Back Home in Indiana,” “Avalon,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” Classics performed by oldtimers for oldtimers. It was hard to tell who was having more fun – the audience or the musicians. The clarinet player tapped both feet at the same time during his breaks.
Although new to me, it turns out the band has been around for some time. It’s part of the Naples Jazz Society, which was founded in 1995, disbanded, then formed again in 2012. According to Dr. Jim Gover, cofounder and guiding light of the group, the purpose was and is “to promote jazz music by providing free concerts to local audiences and performance opportunities to young musicians.”
Dr. Jim, who was a dentist in his former life, is joined by an array of performers – some professional, but most retired from day jobs. The guys on stage used to be lawyers, salesmen, machinists, teachers who honed their craft at night playing with bands around the country. In retirement they roam Southwest Florida, sitting in with this group and that, performing with various ensembles. They’re terrific musicians.
The Naples Jazz Society provides a focus, a gathering place for playing Dixieland, show tunes and the blues. The Society fields five bands – the Happy Jazz Band, the Naples Traditional Jazz Band, the Jazzmasters, the Country & Western Sunshine Jazz Band and the Happy Marching Band, which performs on a float (the performers are too old to do much marching).
The bands are defined by the size and type of audience and, most importantly, by the music offered. The performers are mixed and matched
according to their skills and availability. Some bands have three performers, some as many as ten. The Jazzmasters, when fully turned out, feature piano, trombone, one or two trumpets, clarinet, banjo, tuba, percussion and often a vocalist. In the old jazz tradition most performers play more than one instrument – Dr. Jim plays piano, trombone and tuba – and everybody sings. Sort of. The male vocals recall the Louis Armstrong era when growling replaced singing. The Jazzmasters are no threat to Opera Naples.
Age is an issue. Dr. Jim says the average age of the musicians is mid-70s. As the players retire or pass away, their younger replacements can’t do the songs of the 1920s and 1930s or, at least, do them as well. A repertoire of 230 pieces five years ago has dwindled to 180 or so today. “We’re regressing toward our second childhood,” Jim says. The other issue is funding, coming up with enough money to pay the bills.
The band passes the hat – actually a donation bucket – at every concert and counts on personal checks from jazz fans. Although the Naples Daily News helps with publicity, there are no corporate sponsors, grants or big donors. But so far, so good. The music keeps coming. You can hear it everywhere. The bands play in halls, parks, schools, even on riverboats. They play for concert audiences, private parties, political events (both parties), festivals, military remembrances. There’s even an occasional jam session. It’s a labor of love. Dr. Jim says, “Our music is happy music, and we love to play it. Dixieland may be out of style, but it still makes people feel good.” It certainly does.
FEATURED PHOTO Marc Gerber on trumpet
Upcoming concerts are scheduled in the River Park Community Center at 2:00 pm on November 13; December 11; January 15, 2022; February 19; March 26; and April 16.
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