Rant’n’Roll: High School Heroes, Prohibition Jazz, New Orleans Tradition And A Free Concert Series

There’s a reason they called it “The Roaring Twenties.” Those who watch HBO’s Boardwalk Empire know the feeling. Jazz in the era of prohibition [1920-1933] was tinged by the illegality of alcohol consumption so—in this pre-rock ‘n’ roll era where folks still had to get wild to something—there was always the sense that the police could raid the joint and everyone would be hauled off to jail. That very sense of danger shared by revelers and band alike when the booze still copiously flowed worked its way into the music itself. That’s why there seems to be a frenetic energy within Prohibition Era Jazz that fell to the wayside once this country came to its senses.

Enter Cherry Popping Daddies.

They burst out of Oregon in 1990 with their Ferociously Stoned debut. Twelve albums later they remain solid arbiters of all things swing, be it ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s. But it’s that strong connection to when America lapped up the booze, danced like crazy and, so they say, hooked up at hello. My grandma told me all about it. They called those crazy, drunken women flappers and she was one of them. She wore a lot of beads, smoked cigarettes in public and danced the Charleston.

The music was so strong that its essence survives in 2017 due to artists like Vince Giordano, Leon Redbone, Cherry Popping Daddies, Svetlana & The Delancey Five and a very few others.

CPD brought that exact sensibility to the Musikfest Café on the Steel Stacks campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Creeping into Rat Pack territory (they closed with Sinatra’s “That’s Life”), the ultra-talented septet blew the house down with righteous indignation. So did the Upper Moreland High School Jazz Band from Willow Grove, PA who opened with a 20-minute set that, if you closed your eyes, you’d think you were experiencing the Duke Ellington Orchestra…but with a difference. Those popular ‘30s orchestras played swing, not the harder bebop. This high school big-band took what Charlie “Bird” Parker wrought and, with amazing syncopation and stop-on-a-dime acrobatics, did, indeed, play some straight-up bop that even the big-bands back then eschewed. It is not surprising that schools with the biggest arts budgets have the best jazz bands. Thus, it is heartbreaking that such funding, at least on a federal level, is destined to dry up with the current poor excuse of an administration.

Just days later, at the same venue, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band went even further in infiltrating the music of their opening act into their set. This time it was the North Penn High School Jazz Band of Lansdale, PA who blew us away with their precision, chops and overall presentation. And when the headliners came on, they even got to solo. I can’t even imagine what a thrill that must have been for these kids, who ultimately formed a second line that snaked around the venue to a 20-minute “Liza Jane” and an even longer “When The Saints Go Marching In.” One student even went into a wild free-form improvisational dance.

Kudos to ArtsQuest to host a competition for these high school bands where winners would get the experience of opening at this most prestigious Lehigh Valley venue for such great headliners. Continued kudos also to ArtsQuest for hosting this season’s series of free outdoor shows at the Levitt Pavilion right outside the Café: 50 free shows almost every night of the week including the reggae hip-hop of Jakubi (June 25), Low Cut Connie’s rock ‘n’ roll (June 30), the blues of Sugar Ray & The Bluetones (July 1), The Coasters (“Charlie Brown” and so many more great old hits) on July 2, Americana Hero Randall Bramblett (July 7), the worldbeat of Briga (July 15) as well as solid exemplars of swing, folk-rock, pop, funk, Celtic, more oldies (The Platters on August 26), soul, country, classical and alternative. For more information, go to http://www.steelstacks.org/events/concerts/concerts-free/.