Front Porch

The Uptown Rhythm Makers Get Down

The Uptown Rhythm Makers at Panama 66.

The cars lurch along University Avenue. Light rain glistens on the tarmac and reflects the neon signs of blue, red, and green. As my friend and I make our way around the corner, the basso profundo of a car’s audio system assaults our ears and shakes our innards. Our destination: the Black Cat Bar.

The car’s reverberations fade as we enter the spacious nightspot. With the high ceiling, old-style rail bar, and transoms over the doorways, we’re thrown back in time. Past the pool table, the band starts up. The clarinet ornaments around the trumpet’s melody, and the trombone offers a baritone counterpoint. The banjo strikes out a steady chunk-chunk, and the drums, bass, and piano fill in on “Somebody Stole My Gal,” a gem from the 1920s. Dancers gather by the bandstand to swing and sway to the rhythm.

Taking us back musically in time are the Uptown Rhythm Makers, one of the most authentic traditional New Orleans-style jazz bands in Southern California. For the rest of the night we are treated to hits that great grandma cut a rug to back in the day.

The ringleader for the band is Bob Andersen, the trombonist for the group. “I inherited the leadership of the band,” says Andersen. “I chose the stylistic direction. The band plays in the four-beat rhythm that swing music evolved from. It’s about the same as the older styles of jazz music but has the bass instead of the tuba.” Andersen identifies the music as traditional New Orleans-style jazz. He goes on to say that a lot of folks refer to this type of music as Dixieland. “But Dixieland can refer to a lot more styles besides New Orleans, like Chicago style and San Francisco style.”

During the 1970s, as everyone else boogied down at the disco, Andersen wound up getting turned onto traditional jazz. “A friend, his father-in-law had a bar where they played old-style jazz. I heard it and knew that this music was in me,” he says.

His previous musical experiences were piano lessons when he was in grade school; so, newly inspired, the 26-year-old Andersen picked up the trombone. He took lessons and performed with the Fox Lake, Illinois Community Symphony. He says, “I learned a lot performing with the symphony. I learned how to perform in a section. I learned how to follow a conductor.”

For sources for the band’s repertoire Andersen points to two large “fakebooks,” large encyclopedic collections of tunes and songs. He also listens to old recordings and newer revivalist recordings to find new tunes for the ensemble. Andersen explains that the Uptown Rhythm Makers use the arrangements of the old-style bands. The usual approach to this is for the band to play the verse, then the chorus. If there is a vocalist, the singing is introduced later. This standardized approach lets the band know what to do with a tune as soon as they first perform it. Andersen has handed out new charts to the band members to be performed on the spot without a rehearsal.

The band’s first gig was at Claire de Lune, the now-defunct coffeehouse of North Park. The Rhythm Makers have a regular performance at Panama 66 on the first Sunday of the month. They fill a five until seven o’clock evening time slot that will advance to six until eight o’clock with the arrival of warmer weather. “We’ve been getting a great turnout. The spot is big with the swing dance community in San Diego. And there are young people seeking it out,” says Andersen. Other folks to come out for the band are jazz fans and fans of instrumental music. There are, as well, the occasional curiosity seekers.

Besides their regular gig at Panama 66, the band plays at swing dances, private parties, even some weddings. Andersen says, “There was a couple who met while we were playing at Clare de Lune. They made a point of having the band play at their wedding.”

Despite having a repertoire of music that is over 80 years old, there are always songs that are new to the band. Andersen makes sure to introduce a new tune at least once a month. He and the band also leave out the visual aides that announce “This is an old-time jazz band.” He says, “There are bands that go out of their way to be corny.” The Uptown Rhythm Makers will not be seen in straw hats and suspenders. Nor will you see them wearing vests. “You don’t need that kind of stuff. The music speaks for itself.”

I’ve known Andersen for quite a few years now, having been his neighbor in University Heights for over 15 years. On more than one occasion, as I walked by his apartment, he stopped me to show me his latest trombone acquisition, always a horn that is decades old. Scouring Ebay and other sources, he buys trombones that were made in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. These ancient instruments retain the old-time sound that is lacking in newer instruments.

As a port city, with the mixing of many people from different places and backgrounds, New Orleans became the Liverpool of jazz. Few places in the United States have such a varied history and legacy. The city went from French rule to Spanish, then back to French again before Napoleon, strapped with war debt, sold Louisiana to a fledgling former confederacy, the United States.

African and Afro-Caribbean songs and rhythms mixed with European marches, opera, and folk tunes. And, keep in mind that all the while people wanted to dance. As these musical forms mixed, dancing changed as well. More formal and staid dancing, such as mazurkas and waltzes, gave way to more physically engaging dances, such as the two step and the foxtrot. Folks wanted more stimulating music for the more engaging dances.

What developed was jazz, a music that, through its developments over the decades of swing, bebop, cool, and even fusion, retained the characteristics that first distinguished the music at the end of the 19th century: a strong beat, instrumental improvisations, and the use of musical scales that are the result of the admixture of African scales and European scales.

Some of the first musicians to be identified with the music known as jazz were King Oliver and Jellyroll Morton. Coming along a generation or two later was Louis Armstrong, who was the great popularizer of New Orleans traditional jazz. He introduced this music to the United States and the rest of the world as well.

Playing trumpet for the Uptown Rhythm Makers is Bruce Vermazen. A retired philosophy professor, Vermazen talks of some of the technicalities of what defines New Orleans traditional jazz, describing the band’s approach to eighth notes and rhythm. He explains that much of the authenticity of the band rests on the experience of the individual musicians. “Our drummer, Ed Ducharme, has been a professional musician since 1944! He’ll be 92 this year, and he’s one of the best around,” he says.

Diana Brownson, who plays piano and banjolele, is another long-time experienced musician who also works professionally in Los Angeles. Bob Bowman, who is in his 80s, served as a musician in the Navy for 20 years. Clarinetist Jim Fielder and banjoist Armand Frigon also bring years of musicianship to the band.

Trumpeter Vermazen grew up with his mother playing old-time music on the family piano. He has played cornet and trumpet since he was 12, and a friend introduced him to New Orleans jazz greats such as Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong when he was in high school. “I can play all kinds of jazz up to 1940,” he says. Later developments of bebop and cool and fusion are off his plate. “I try to sound like someone from the 20s, I keep the lead fairly simple and pretty close to the melody. I don’t do advanced harmonies and keep to simpler intervals.”

Vermazen, who has written a book on jazz history, as well as a number of published articles on jazz, emphasizes that all the members of the Uptown Rhythm Makers are involved with the band for the simple enjoyment of the music. “We’re all part-time. This is not our profession,” he says. “We play for the fun of it. We do it for the smile we put on people’s faces. At Panama 66 we get a lot of people there 7pm.with their little kids. The kids don’t really know how to, but they get up and dance. I love that!”

See the Uptown Rhythm Makers at Panama 66 on May 5,

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