It is late on a Sunday afternoon, and I am walking down Ashley Street in Ann Arbor when someone in my periphery exits a storefront. The door swings open, and I hear something strange and obscurely familiar tumbling out over the waves of sound.
“Turn on the heat, start in to strut. Wiggle and wobble and warm up the hut, oh, oh, it’s 40 below.”
It’s a solitary voice accompanied by a pounding beat and a powerful reed section. Without thinking twice, I grab the swinging glass door and walk into an exciting, and unexpected, meeting with Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings (PORK).
Now, there’s certainly no shortage of blues, rock and modern jazz bands in the area, and while many of them may well be among the best in the country, there are some genres seldom heard in this region. Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings provide a rare opportunity to sample one of these genres — first-generation big-band jazz of the 1920s.
Featured every Sunday at the Firefly Club in Ann Arbor, the 10-piece unit packs more pizzazz than anyone could reasonably expect. Bedecked in tuxedo shirts and bow ties, the group rolls out some of the finest and most authentic renditions of jazz masterpieces, both known and unknown, that you can find today.
This is music seldom heard in America, the very country where it was created. For aficionados, the reaction is sheer joy — echoes of such forgotten giants as Frankie Trumbauer and Luis Russell. But there is more here than the obscure — King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and the earliest Duke Ellington.
The Firefly is obligingly dark, and that helps with the visual transformation the band creates. As they ply into jazz standards like “West End Blues” or obscure songs like “Waitin’ for Katie,” no one could help but feel that they had somehow been swept back in time.
For those who have ever crawled between the covers of such great jazz books as Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, or Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road, the transformation is even more complete. Suddenly we find ourselves among the crowd at the Lincoln Gardens in 1923 Chicago, or better still, swaying to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra at Detroit’s own Graystone Ballroom, where Prohibition-era jazz babies made eyes at our grandfathers (or their fathers) along a Woodward Avenue lost to time.
Named after a Florida businessman and band supporter, PORK boasts a lineup of fine musicians. For this genre, they must fill many roles. Certainly, they must be accomplished — but to pull off authentic music of this style they must also be historians and improvisers. These charts feature intricate ensemble work, but when the arrangement calls for a solo, the mastery of the historical improviser is quickly revealed. The solos are wild and authentic.
PORK was organized three years ago by noted U-M music professor and historian Jim Dapogny and tuba and trombone player Chris Smith. Dapogny and Smith have managed to amass a large collection of rare band arrangements through purchase, trade and even by painstakingly transcribing them directly from the records.
Dapogny, who most recently achieved critical acclaim for his reconstruction of a long-lost opera by James P. Johnson and Langston Hughes, is certainly no stranger to this arduous practice. For a 1976 commission by the Smithsonian Institution, he transcribed a nearly complete body of Jelly Roll Morton piano solos directly from original recordings. He is easily one of those most responsible for ensuring that some of America’s greatest music is preserved and performed regularly.
Attempts at re-creating this type of music typically fail for a number of reasons. More often than not, the pianist takes far too modern an approach; the drummer is usually unable or unwilling to play the cymbal breaks and press rolls necessary for making this type of music sizzle. That’s not a problem with PORK. The piano is manned by Dapogny himself and the drummer, Steve Fentriss, is top-notch and amazingly authentic — amazing because he is only 16.
The musicians share in the vocal duties, and the inclusion of the often clever and humorous lyrics adds to the fun. At one point, the band sings together as a group, impishly smirking while rendering the chorus to the “Call of the Freaks”: “Stick out your can, here comes the garbage man.” Today, it’s perfectly innocent, but the once-risqué lyric recalls a time when music was peppered with fabulous double-entendres carefully constructed to sneak in something mildly “filthy.”
History, yes, but this is no long-winded lecture. There’s no semblance here of anything creaky, dainty or antiquarian. This is living, breathing hot, sweet and powerful music — this is entertainment.
Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings perform every Sunday, 5-8 p.m. at the Firefly Club, 207 S. Ashley, Ann Arbor. Cover is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students. Call 734-665-9090 for information.E-mail Jon Milan at [email protected]