On a frigid Presidents’ Day eve, New Yorkers young and old turned out at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a night of early jazz and ragtime. Leading that evening’s program, entitled “From Ragtime to Jazz” and one of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s many events, was pianist, composer, and world expert on traditional jazz Terry Waldo. Waldo was accompanied by his Gotham City Band, which featured eight of the city’s best traditional jazz musicians on trumpet, clarinet, trombone, drums, banjo, guitar, bass, and tuba (some doubled up on instruments). Introduced as “the A-Team of ragtime music,” the men, clad in tuxedos, played a medley of rich, boppin’, early-twentieth-century tunes, set to a backdrop of New York’s lights and skyline.
Asked why a generation of younger folks — represented both onstage with him and in the audience — might be interested in this music, Waldo, sitting at a diner in the West Village after a Fat Cat gig the night before, said, “just ’cause it’s great music.” And the excitement on and off the stage followed suit.
The band played a series of smooth, happy songs from the early 1900s, Waldo explaining that ragtime itself lasted from about 1897 to 1917, when the term “jazz” was coined and took over for the music. Songs played included jazz bandleader King Oliver’s “Snake Rag,” fun and warm; selections from icons Jelly Roll Morton (“I think the guy who really started jazz,” said Waldo to the audience) and Louis Armstrong’s repertoires; and quintessential rag song the “Maple Leaf Rag,” published in 1899 by Scott Joplin. Each musician an expert in his own right, trumpet player Mike Davis and clarinet and saxophone player Evan Arntzen both soloed beautifully. Waldo played piano with the mastery and artistry brought forth by a career spanning half a century, dancing in his seat and watching the audience react. People wow-ed and yeah-ed, cheered and clapped, all while smiling to each other throughout the hour-long set.
Catherine and Laurent Schinckus, in town from Belgium for a week with kids Victor and Henry, fifteen and twelve, respectively, sat in the audience, touched by the magic of the experience. They’d caught Waldo and the band the night before at Fat Cat but decided to try the calmer, classier atmosphere at Dizzy’s as well.
“It’s the roots of jazz and blues music, and rock ‘n’ roll,” said Mr. Schinckus about the importance of sharing this type of music with his kids. He added that the saxophone was, in fact, invented in Belgium.
“I like improvised music where lots of people play together and communicate with each other through the music,” said Gotham City Band trumpet player Davis. “Nothing really went off the rails, and little things — like lyric mistakes or two guys coming in at the same time — I think are kind of cute [for an audience].”
Early jazz can be found playing throughout the city, featured at venues like Barbès and the Fat Cat, with impromptu late-night shows at the Rum House on Mondays and Mona’s on Tuesdays. Waldo plays at many of these venues regularly, and will be teaching classes at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Swing University about Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson in the coming months.
The evening at Dizzy’s ended with King Oliver’s fast, hoppin’ rendition of “Cake Walking Babies From Home.” Its lyrics, sung by clarinet player Arntzen, eventually scored a standing ovation from the audience and punctuated the feel of the evening: “Dancin’ fools, ain’t they syncopatin’…You may tie ’em but you’ll never beat ’em!”
Terry Waldo will be playing at Chez Josephine on Saturday, February 21, and begins his Jelly Roll Morton course at Jazz at Lincoln Center on February 24. For more information and additional performance dates, visit his performance calendar.