If Paris is renowned as the City of Light, early 20th century New Orleans is the eternal City of Music. Music marked every occasion from baptisms and weddings to funerals. Live music elevated every day events, making a celebration out of fish fries and ice cream socials, picnics, parades and excursion boat rides on Lake Ponchartrain.
Early jazz bands proliferated to meet the need. Competition between the bands was fierce. As part of any promotion (or "ballyhoo" as it was called) to attract attention to a performance, bands piled onto horse-drawn wagons displaying handmade signs advertising the night's venue. Each band fought it out, trying to out do the other with their musicianship, their choice of hot tunes —and their even hotter volume. Eventually one band would be forced to concede the fight. It often came down to which had the hottest trumpet king. The ensemble that attracted the biggest crowd in the street encounter won the "battle" and fans would follow them to the dance hall.
Since then, battles and 'cutting contests' have been part of the lore of jazz. Usually, the competition is of a friendly nature, as in this radio broadcast. Based in New Orleans, Banu Gibson has led one of the most popular traditional jazz bands in the country for decades--her New Orleans Hot Jazz with trumpeter Duke Heitger, trombonist David Sager, Tom Fischer on clarinet and tenor saxophone, David Boeddinghaus on piano, drummer Jeff Hamilton and Evan Dain on bass. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band has been playing it hot on the Riverwalk in San Antonio since the early 1960s. It was inevitable that the two should eventually meet for the title of "Heavyweight Champion Jazz Band of the World."
The battle, captured live for our broadcast, took place in 1994 at the Zaragoza Theater at the Fiesta Texas Theme Park in San Antonio. Set with microphones for two 7-piece jazz bands, the stage was filled with musicians. They battled it out before a full house with hot jazz numbers "Weary Blues" and "She's Crying for Me."
Stage legend William Warfield acted as referee. Tap dance sensation Savion Glover performed with both bands—with Banu Gibson on "Wrap Your Cares in Rhythm and Dance," and with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on the 1930s tap legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's song "Doin' the New Low Down." Hot jazz pianist David Boeddinghaus faced "single combat" with Cullum Band pianist John Sheridan with a rousing boogie woogie on "Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis.
Photo credit for home page teaser image:
Actor William Warfield with bandleaders Banu Gibson and Jim Cullum. Photo Riverwalk Jazz
Text based on a Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2011