Review by Brad Walseth
35th and Calumet, on Chicago's South Side, was once one of the most famous locations in the history of jazz. Decried by moralists as a hotbed of sin, this corner was once the location of several of early jazz era nightclubs like The Apex, The Plantation, and The Peerless serving bootleg liquor and hot jazz music. This notorious intersection was so that famous for the great sounds coming from the area's artists like King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Johnny Dodds and Louis Armstrong, that the comedian Eddie Condon wrote in his autobiography that you could hold a horn into the air at the corner and it would play itself.
The great nightclubs of the past are gone now, but the corner still draws tourists from around the world, year after year, who flock to the only remaining building from that era to have survived - Meyers Ace Hardware - the site of the Sunset Cafe and later the Grand Terrace. The Sunset Cafe is perhaps most famous for being the location where Louis Armstrong was playing (with Carroll Dickerson) when he recorded his best work - the records with the Hot Five and Hot Seven that would bring him to the attention of the world and change the history of music forever. The Sunset later became the Grand Ballroom, where Earl "Fatha" Hines held court, and in even more modern times even featured the likes of Sun Ra - leading Delmark Records founder Bob Koester to say of the building, "You have a history of jazz, under one roof."
Phil Pospychala's annual Tribute to Bix, held in Racine, Wisconsin, always includes a bus tour of legendary jazz sites, and Meyers Hardware is always on the agenda. Owner David Meyers has thankfully preserved the original murals that graced the wall behind the bandstand (now used as an office), and has saved many of the posters from the history of the location. This year's Bix festival included the Jazz O'Maniacs, a Dixieland band from Germany, who were allowed to perform several songs inside the hardware store - an event captured (along with their Racine concert) on DVD.
The Jazz O'Maniacs are one of the longest running bands in the world, having been formed by trumpeter Roland Pilz in 1966. Two other original members are still with the band, while the others have all been members for over ten years, except for "fill-in" clarinetist Claus Moeller, who sounds anything like a last replacement. In fact, his energetic clarinet solos are one of the highlights of this disk.
The entire band is first rate and the Dixieland sounds presented are hot and tasty. The players are all exceptional players, from Owe Hansen on banjo to Dietrich Klein-Horst on tuba. Ullo Blea on trombone, Cristoph Ditting on saxes and Andrea Clement on piano also deliver wonderful solos. Leader Pilz is a stellar trumpeter, and also surprisingly does a credible Armstrong imitation on vocals, while the presence of washboard player Gunther Andernach - considered perhaps the best in the world at this instrument - only adds to the fun.
The repertoire is mostly pulled from the Hot-Five/Hot-Seven output, but refreshingly steers more toward the lesser known, but equally rewarding sides from Armstrong's early work. The band is so consistently good that it is hard to pick out only a few highlights, but I will say it is a pleasure to hear such tunes, as Lil Hardin's 'Heah Me Talking," and "Lonesome Blues," Armstrong's "Gully Low Blues' and "Drop That Sack," and other great songs like 'Georgia Bobo," "Low Down Dirty Shame Blues," and 'Willie the Weeper" played with such energy, love and skill.
The added bonus of this DVD is an interview with David Meyers and Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Samuelson provides some of the fascinating history of the club (the Condon story from the first paragraph is from him). Other interesting stories involve Cab Calloway working as a fill-in entertainer while perfecting his act, and a young Nat King Cole sneaking in to listen to Earl Hines. For both the musical content, as well as the historical information presented, you can't go wrong with this fine DVD release from Delmark - a must for jazz fans of this genre.