Jazz, that great American music genre, has morphed into so many sub categories over the past hundred years or so that it's easy to be neglectful of some of the earliest forms. I love all kinds of jazz, but one of my favorites has always been Dixieland, sometimes called New Orleans or Chicago jazz. Defining it by region is hard and has always been part of the enigma of the music.
The great Louis Armstrong once said: "At one time they were calling it levee camp music, then in my day it was ragtime. When I got up North I commenced to hear about jazz, Chicago style, Dixieland, swing. All refinements of what we played in New Orleans... There ain't nothing new." Jazz musician J. J. Johnson put it this way in a 1988 interview: "Jazz is restless. It won't stay put and it never will." Or as Duke Ellington said when asked to define the various forms of jazz he played, "It's all music."
Even as a kid I loved the upbeat happy sound of Dixieland, which was having a revival of popularity in the 1950's. I remember Bing Crosby, Louie Armstrong, Dean Martin, Pete Fountain, and so many others performing Dixieland on television in those days. Rock and Roll was fun, but Dixieland jazz was joyous and, to me, more exciting. Later I discovered Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, Johnny Dodds, and a bunch called The Firehouse Five Plus Two, comprised of artists and others who worked at the Walt Disney Studio.
I thought I died and went to Heaven when I first arrived to work at the Disney Studio in 1970. For a kid who grew up wanting to draw cartoons for Walt Disney it was like a dream come true. Working side by side with my idols at the place where the greatest animated cartoons were produced was tremendously heady, but there was more. I soon learned that every Tuesday afternoon at lunch time a bunch of studio guys would gather in one of the recording stages for impromptu Dixieland jazz jam seasons.
Anyone at the studio who wanted to come by and watch these wonderful musicians play were welcome, and that's where I you'd find me every Tuesday. The men in the group held a variety of jobs with the company. Some were in animation, some in editing, and some in the music department. Some were older guys, some were younger, but all were terrific.
Several Firehouse Five members joined in the Tuesday jam sessions, including Danny Alguire and George Probert, who almost always were there. Every now and then animator Frank Thomas sat in as well as other assorted Disney staff. I'd grab a quick lunch then run over to the stage to enjoy the music. What a treat!
The leader of the Firehouse Five was animator/director Ward Kimball, who spoke about the group in a 1986 interview: "The roots of the band germinated in the early 1940's when some of us at the Disney Studio used to gather in my office at lunchtime to listen to my records of such jazz legends as King Oliver, Baby Dodds, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong.
"Since most of our little nucleus of old-time jazz lovers had played various musical instruments back in school, we decided to really get into the spirit of the music by playing along with the records. Then one day the phonograph broke down right in the middle of "Royal Garden Blues." Undaunted, we kept right on playing and found to our amazement that we sounded pretty good all by ourselves!
"Here we were, a bunch of artists, writers, and technicians who worked together for Walt Disney by day, turning out those wonderful animation films of the Golden Age and, on weekends, playing our raucous style of New Orleans jazz, all dressed up in red shirts, white suspenders, and genuine leather firehats."
" Les Koenig, a Paramount Studio film writer and jazz fan, happened to hear the band playing for a local high school dance and asked us if we would like to make some recordsÉwe recorded our first four record sides in 1949. Our highly original versions of jazz of the Twenties caught on instantly and we sort of became an overnight sensation, spearheading the Great Dixieland Revival . .. "
So there you have it. First there was New Orleans jazz, Chicago style jazz, St. Louis jazz, and finally, thanks to the Firehouse Five Plus Two, Burbank jazz. Even now, some 45 years later, whenever I need a pick-me-up I'll throw on one of their albums. It's impossible to feel sad when you listen to the Firehouse Five playing Dixieland jazz.