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Saturday, January 20, 1996

Dukes of Dixieland with My Dad

                                                                                                                       January, 1996


Dear G.U.C.I. Staff:


As far back as I can remember, I have been a fan of a particular band, the
Dukes of Dixieland.  I liked Dixieland, but I really fell in love with the
Dukes.  The original Dukes of Dixieland (other groups have used the name) began
in 1947 when brothers Frank and Fred Assunto formed their first highschool jazz
band and began playing their native New Orleans music.  They later turned pro,
were joined by their father, Papa Jac Assunto and the Dukes of Dixieland were
born.  Somehow, when I was about twelve years old, I became a fan.  It seems
funny to me now, looking back on it.  I had never been to New Orleans, never
seen the group on TV, new nothing of that form of jazz.  Must have heard them
on the radio and became an instant admirer.  I bought several of their records,
knew their names, absolutely adored Fred's trombone playing along with Papa
Jac's (he doubled on banjo).  Their music was alive.


In 1960, out for Sunday dinner with my family, I spied a poster on the
restaurant wall advertising a show the Dukes were performing that night at an
American Legion hall way out in Maywood, Illinois.  I begged my father to take
me.  My Dad was anything but a music lover (cars and the Cubs were his
passions), but after many words he caved in.  So, on that cold and snowy,
February night we were off to the far West side.  We found it to be a small
gathering, mostly Legion members, mostly interested in the open bar.  There was
a tiny portable stage set up in the social hall.  An audience of about one
hundred adults, and one kid, me, bubbling over with excitement, holding record
covers in my hand for possible autographs.


And then they appeared.  It was really them.  Fred on trumpet, Frank and Papa
Jac on trombones, backed by a bass/tuba player, clarinet, drums, and piano.  I
was psyched!  After their first set I got them to sign my album covers.  I felt
that they understood that I was there because I was a fan, not just someone out
for a nice evening; and so, we had a special relationship (now I'm sure that
thought never crossed their minds.  But hey, I was a kid).  Toward the end of
the evening Papa Jac stepped up to the mike to ask for requests.  My hand went
up like a shot.  They were used to people asking for well known Dixieland
numbers like, "When The Saints Go Marching In," or "Basin Street Blues," but
were surprised when Papa Jac said, "Let's hear what the kid wants," and I
requested an old New Orleans funeral tune (Woody Allen would have been proud of
me) called, "Oh Didn't He Ramble."  It's the tune played on the way back from
the cemetery when a New Orleans jazzman dies.  Its tempo starts out slow and
steadily gains speed.  It is at first a dirge, then a march, and finally it
breaks into a swinging Dixieland romp.  It celebrates the life that was.  They
began playing.  When the tempo picked up to a march, they began marching around
the room.  When they approached my seat, they paused, pulled me up and made me
the "Grand marshal" of that tiny New Orleans parade.  As silly as it sounds
now, it was quite a thrill for a fourteen year old fan. 

                                      
Yesterday, thirty-five years later, I was walking on my treadmill, listening to
the intricate blend of harmonies from one of those old albums taken from a
jacket with the Assuntos names scrawled on the back.  My mind wandered.  I
began thinking of how similar our camp Leadership Staff is to a Dixieland band
(I know, a mind is a terrible thing to waste).  No, but really, the Program
Director is the lead, like Frank Assunto with that brassy, high-toned trumpet. 
Closely follow the second leads, the Shoresh, Gezah, and Anaf Unit Heads on
clarinet and trombones.  All are supported by the Avodah-Unit-Head-Assistant-
Unit-Head-rhythm-section on bass/tuba, piano, and drums.  It's perfect.  Like
the Dukes, this Leadership Dixieland band plays in harmony (usually), with the
second leads blending behind the lead, playing the intros and the fills, the
rhythm section supporting them all.  And like the Dukes, each player has
his/her opportunity to take a solo or two and lead the group.  All are aiming
toward a common goal and bringing their own talents to its achievement.

Sometimes members of the band play in contrast to each other, against one
another, and tensions arise.  That's when Papa Jac raises his old trombone, and
blows a sweet solo bringing everyone back to the melody and to the realization
that, ultimately the tune's more important than any one part of it.  The
harmonies return and all blend together, swinging toward the final stanza

.
But this is more than just a musical analysis and a thought about camp.  It's a
memory of a snowy, February evening, my Dad and I out for an adventure
together, my chance to lead the parade for a moment or two.  It's the emotional
impression made by melodies gone by, and the anticipation of those yet to be
played; of slow tempos steadily gaining speed.

Ron

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