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The roll of vivacious laughter spills out every time the door opens, and in exchange a puff of smoke sneaks inside. The boys in black tidily pack away another evening’s earnings in the shape of high hat, trumpet, trombone and a few other little ditties. Tuggin’ on their cigarettes the faces seemed an anachronism in the electric world they now call home.
“It all started with Cullum, man without him this wouldn’t be possible.”
Keep it tight keep it hot, play it cool. The Dirty River Dixie Band runs by the rules of the tradition they hail from, and they do so with ease. It Don’t Mean a Thing uptempo, St. James Infirmary down then up, a little St. Louis Blues. It’s vocalized by Alvarado on drums, trumpet man taking it home the way he should, inspired in the Satchmo order, King Oliver lineage of marching horns into the jazz clubs of the late 20s early 30s, Nawlins found Chicago bound.
Chris Vargas, the trumpet man, waxed sentimental in the moonlight hours of a Luna Thursday evening, where the band humbly and nonchalantly set the stage for the esteemed Rebirth Brass Band of NOLA.
“A lot of us came from TLU, halfway between here and Austin, he came in and did a concerto with our wind ensemble,” Vargas said, referring to Alamo City jazz legend Jim Cullum. “So I got a bunch of Dixieland charts and said ‘Hey, it’s freezing, but you guys wanna jam in the square?’”
What started out as a 12-year-old playing for $10 and sausage on a stick, has kept Vargas going, and kept him playing with the likes of bandleader Chris Alvarado in the “trad” (traditional) jazz outfit of the Dirty River Dixie Band.
“SA doesn’t have a lot of this kind of music going on, we try to emulate Cullum, we get to spend a lot of time with him,” Alvarado said as we sat down on the back patio, his bandmates mulling around. “Just trying to keep that style of music alive.”
That style of music for Alvarado and crew was born in the Crescent City at the turn of the 20th century, hanging around in tenderloins and alleyways of Creole stomps and Black romps, and was the going trend in the roaring 20s, which seems to be making a comeback as we approach the roaring 20s of the 21st century here in San Antonio.
Joints like Bar 1919 (where these boys were first spotted by the Rivard Report), the Brooklynite, Bohanan’s, and more, give credence to the fact that not only is jazz alive in the Countdown City, but people are counting on it to get their kicks. Swingin’ out with Cullum at the Landing may not be possible any longer, but man does it feel real to sit within cornet’s reach of his weathered sound at Tucker’s Kozy Korner on Monday evenings. The Trad Jazz sound is alive and kickin’, and so are the people dancing to it.
Alvarado is the steady hand of the group, cool and composed, he speaks true to the nature of the music and his desire to keep it going. “People know of it, we wanna rejuvenate it,” he said. “It’s easy to dance to, move to, that’s the main draw to it, that you may have heard it before and it brings you back.”
The danger sometimes is falling flat with an audience that doesn’t get it, or feels tired of the same trite rendition. Performance is far from perfunctory with this group as Alvarado makes sure of it.
“We stay as traditional as possible, but put our little spin on it, stretch it a little bit,” Alvarado said. And when they stretch out, you stretch out (your arms) and wave ‘em in the air as your dancing shoes hit the floor.”
Energy is a buzzin’, foots are a tappin’, people are called left and right up and down by the all-encompassing rhythm and shoes (walking blues). Can’t deny the vivacity in the New Orleans roll and tide, feel that great Mississippi Riverboat carrying the people to and fro and watch ‘em go. Don’t you know. Feel that flow, it never shows unless you let em blow, all night and alright by me gollee gee it’s a feeling that you don’t describe you just sing and let your hands up in the air in a little twirl and whirl and your head a boppin’ and you move in time the drums, and flying with trumpet, trombone keeping you on the ground, the whole shebang really going, “roll the line” the trumpet man shouts, the band keeps it down Royal Street for one more go round!
If you’ve been swinging to the two and four along the Riverwalk in the past month or so, good chance you’ve already been infected by the spirit this group incites in any soul that’s open. Got lucky to catch ‘em again serendipitously at the birthday party for Esquire Tavern, where they quite literally transformed Texas’ oldest bar location into a veritable scene from the burlesque haunts of the ’20s and ’30s. Sensual and sonorous sounds lay next to sublime and soul-shaking to bring people down to their knees and up on their feet again before the next downbeat.
The Dirty River Dixie Band will once again treat Esquire patrons to their tight trad jazz renditions on Feb. 11, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Don’t wanna wait? Then get out to Sam’s Burger Joint on Monday, Jan. 25, from 8:30p.m. to 10:30 p.m. as the boys play for Swing Nite, where bands like this shine their shoes the brightest and bring the noise as the energetic interplay brings out the best in everyone. Definitely don’t miss that.
With all of this, Alvarado is keeping something even more exciting in the works. “Our first ‘Silver Center Swing’ on February 20,” Alvarado said. “We are partnering with the San Antonio Swing Dance Society for lessons and an open dance night in our hometown of Seguin, TX.”
These young gentlemen, all in their 20s and 30s, are setting a high bar for the new entourage of jazz musicians, and your jazz experience won’t be complete in San Antonio unless you share an evening with them. They’re not just keeping this tradition alive, but helping it thrive.