I lived in Davenport, Iowa from 1971-73, earning a living drumming and singing with the Millard Cowan Trio, first at the Holiday Inn in Bettendorf, Iowa, and later, at Millard’s own Davenport club, The Steamboat Lounge.
Davenport hosts the annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival on the banks of the Mississippi River. Davenport is hometown and burial place for legendary jazz cornetist, pianist, composer Bix Beiderbecke. The Festival is a gathering of traditional jazz bands – what some might call Dixieland jazz bands.
One year I spent as much time as I could at the Bix Festival, wanting to learn more about playing traditional jazz. To me, age 21, it was mostly guys in straw hats, white pants, and red-and-white striped shirts playing old-timey tunes.
But, I was awestruck by a band of Australians and Brits – Max Collie & the Rhythm Aces – playing one morning on the back of a flatbed truck parked on a street in downtown Davenport. These guys looked like a rock band. But they played traditional jazz with authenticity and heart, in my opinion, far better than any other band at that year’s Beiderbecke Festival.
The Rhythm Aces drummer, Ron McKay, played the traditional snare press roll dominant style as if it was brand new. He swung like mad. Here’s the same group in Germany. On this tune, McKay is relying on his ride cymbal. My memory of him at the Bix Beiderbecke Fest is more his brilliant snare drumming.
The bassist shown in the video above soloed with a slap bass style much like Milt Hinton with Cab Calloway’s big band. This old music was new to me, and I loved it!
One night, Davenport’s famed Hotel Blackhawk held a jam session in huge room – which was really a giant dance floor, packed with Festival goers. Max Collie, a trombone player, was leading the session. Drummers were using a white pearl Rogers four-piece drumset.
One song ended. Musicians were talking about what to play next. No one was stepping up to play drums. I turned to a friend, a tuba player, and asked, “Is it okay if I play drums?” “Yeah. Go for it,” he said.
Sitting on the drum throne, looking on the side of the snare drum for the snare strainer, I found a gold plaque engraved: Custom Built for Louie Bellson by Bob Grauso. Bellson grew up and started his career in Moline, Illinois, right across the Mississippi River from Davenport. So, I’m thinking, “I’m playing Louie Bellson’s drumset?” Yikes!
I decided, whatever song they chose, I was going to play straight-ahead, supportive of the front line musicians. I was going to play nothing meant purely to attract attention to myself.
Max Collie counted off the tempo and away we went. I don’t remember the song, but I remember keeping my eyes and ears on the front line horn players. At one point, Max Collie turned, looked at me, and motioned me with his hand. “Oh no,” I thought. “He wants me to take a solo when the next chorus comes around.”
Sure enough, at the start of the next chorus all musicians stopped playing. I broke into a floor tom solo, my best traditional jazz impression of Gene Krupa. A few measures in, I looked up. Max Collie and several horn players were looking at me, shaking their heads in disgust and/or disbelief.
Collie, it turned out, was motioning for me to stop playing when the chorus came around so he could solo on his trombone. I stepped all over him!
I felt miserable. Now, I look back on that night and smile. I was there to learn how to play traditional jazz — and that’s exactly what happened.