Hal Smith of Swing Central at the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival

Bix Lives! at the 2017 Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival

The 46th annual Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival took place August 3-6 in Davenport, Iowa, hometown of the famous cornet jazz player. The festival offered the opportunity to hear world-class music from some of the best bands in the US and attracted jazz afficianados from foreign countries and most US states. A special highlight of my visit to Davenport was the chance to visit the recently opened Bix Beiderbecke Museum.

The festival opened with a free concert Thursday afternoon at the Putnam Museum by the Fat Babies Classic Jazz Band from Chicago. The large room was completely packed with fans enjoying the music of this eight-member group. The band’s Andy Schumm played Bix’s cornet during the set as a special treat.

This video (taken from the back of the deep room) shows an excerpt of one of the Fat Babies’ pieces:


On my way out of the building after the concert, I saw this drum set from the Museum’s “Magical History Tour: A Beatles Exhibition.”

The Beatles' drumset on exhibit at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa
The Beatles’ drumset on exhibit at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa

This was my fifth year to experience the Bix Jazz Festival in this city nestled on the eastern border of Iowa on the banks of the Mississippi River separating Iowa and Illinois. Davenport is one of the Quad Cities located in this area: Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois. Last year’s festival was held inside the Isle of Capri Casino in Bettendorf, and prior years played in the Adler Theatre and River City Convention Center near the river.  I really liked the Adler Theatre/Convention Center venue, because of its history and location down the street from restaurants and other city attractions, but this year’s venue of the Rhythm City Casino was pretty nice too. I stayed at the casino’s hotel which was nice as the music didn’t end until close to midnght both Friday and Saturday nights. The casino/hotel is only about a year old, so rooms are like new and spacious.

Now for the music: the festival featured five bands and all were outstanding!

The Dave Bennett Quartet. Dave is a fabulous clarinetist who is equally proficient on guitar, piano, and vocals. His quartet plays traditional jazz selections made famous by Benny Goodman (“Dizzy Spells”), Louis Prima (“Sing Sing Sing”), and other jazz legends, and they also entertain audiences with unique interpretations of more modern tunes including rockabilly favorites a la Jerry Lee Lewis (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), and beautifully lyrical songs such as “Wichita Lineman”, “Earth Angel”, and “Eleanor Rigby.” In addition to Dave Bennett, the quartet includes Michigan-based musicians Doug Cobb on drums, Ed Fedewa on double bass and electric bass, and Jeff Kressler on piano. Visit Dave’s website for information on the Quartet’s upcoming tour dates and check out my reviews of prior Quartet performances in April, 2017 and October, 2016.

The Dave Bennett Quartet also performed Sunday morning during the 8:30 and 10:30 morning services at Davenport’s First Presbyterian Church. I attended the first service and really enjoyed the group’s playing inside the beautiful sanctuary which had interesting architecture and stained glass windows.

Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band. This group is based in New York City and is led by Dan Levinson, a gifted clarinet and saxophone player who is very knowledgeable and passionate about the roots of jazz (initially spelled “jass” thus the group’s name). Many of the band’s tunes come from transcriptions Dan made from records of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which made the first jazz recordings in 1917. I’ve heard Dan play in other ensembles, sometimes with his wife, talented vocalist Molly Ryan. At this festival, Dan was joined by New York City-based musicians Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Mike Davis on cornet, Matt Musselman on trombone, and Kevin Dorn on drums. Visit Dan’s website for more information.

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Swing Central. Led by drummer Hal Smith of Arkansas, this newly-formed group features seasoned professionals all living in the Central Time Zone. Jonathan Doyle of Chicago on clarinet wrote or arranged many of the numbers, and he and Hal were joined by Austin-based Dan Walton on piano and vocals, Jamey Cummins of the Quad Cities on guitar, and Steve Pikal of Minneapolis-Saint Paul on double bass. I really enjoyed this quintet’s interpretation of traditional jazz numbers as well as Jonathan Doyle’s original compositions. For more information see Hal’s website.

The Fat Babies Classic Jazz Band. A crowd favorite, the Fat Babies are an eight-member combo interpreting classic music of the 1920s and ’30s made famous by legends such as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. Founded in 2010 by string bass payer Beau Sample, the group plays weekly gigs at Chicago’s Green Mill Lounge. Beau is joined by musicians Andy Schumm on cornet and reeds, John Otto on reeds, Jonathan Doyle (also of Swing Central) on reeds, John Donatowicz on banjo and guitar, Alex Hall on drums, and Paul Asaro on piano and vocals. Check out the band’s schedule here.

Josh Duffee & His Graystone Monarchs. This group is led by Josh Duffee, a famed percussionist and former longtime member of the festival’s board of directors. The group’s name pays tribute to the bands that performed at the Monarch Ballroom in Detroit and the repertoire comes from dance music popular in the 20’s and 30’s. Josh was joined by David Bodenhouse, piano; Beau Sample, string bass; John Donatowicz, guitar; Andy Schumm, cornet; Mike Davis, cornet; Matt Musselman, trombone; Alex Hall, drums; Dave Bock, tuba; Dan Levinson, reeds; Lynne Hart, reeds; and John Otto, reeds. An audience favorite was the performance of “The Song of Happiness” featuring Josh Duffee on xylophone. Several individuals from the UK brought over the particular xylophone so it could be used at the festival. More information about the Graystone Monarchs can be found at the group’s Facebook page.

Other bands. The festival provided the opportunity to hear local bands, including the Youth Jazz Band, which offers area junior high and high schooler students the chance to learn improvisation and receive scholarships from the festival.

Other local bands which performed during the festival included the Locust Street Boys, who played at the Bix graveside service on Saturday morning, the Tony Hamilton Orchestra, and River City 6. These groups performed free concerts at the bandshell at Davenport’s LeClaire Park along the river on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Final thoughts

A jazz festival such as the Bix Beiderbecke festival is a great opportunity for music lovers, especially those (like me) living in a small, rural town to experience several days of performances by world-class musicians. It also offers the chance to meet fellow music lovers from all over the world, who are usually friendly and open to talking to strangers about music or other topics. In just the last year I’ve met several far-flung friends whom I correspond with via email or text, and it’s fun to reconnect with them at festivals around the country. It’s also much easier to approach the musicians in this setting versus a formal concert hall performance venue.

These festivals depend on volunteers and sponsors to keep going, so consider volunteering (I’ve done it; it’s fun!) and/or donating money to help keep the festivals going. Donations to the Bix Memorial Society may be made online through Paypal or by mail.

Please visit my youtube channel if you’d like to watch more videos of the bands at the festival.

And stay tuned for my in-depth review of the Bix Beiderbecke Museum which I visited during the festival!

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