Thirty-two years ago, trombonist and vocalist Steve Berndt heard an album which changed his life – and inspired one of Ottawa's longest-lasting jazz bands.
It was 1981, and musician Joe Jackson had just released Jumpin' Jive, an album of swing and jump blues songs from the 1940s and 50s by artists like Cab Calloway. It was a radical departure for Jackson, who had been known for New Wave pop – and it was like nothing Berndt had ever heard before.
At the time, “I was studying jazz and becoming a musician, and I really liked that music. And so I began thinking about it when I got out of college and thought to myself, “What kind of music could I do that has a jazz influence but also is rooted in more popular styles?”, and I thought, “Well, I could do this kind of thing.”
“I liked the idea that the lyrics tend to be satirical or humorous and I enjoyed that part of it. And of course it's a genre that typically has horns in it, and I'm a horn player. And there's room for improvisation in it as well. So I thought that it would be a fun project.”
Berndt got together with bassist Kurt Walther, wrote some songs, and in 1989 they formed the Jivewires – a band which is still going strong 24 years later. They're currently working on their sixth album, and on Saturday they will be performing most of the songs from that album – plus old favourites – at the NAC Fourth Stage.
What the Jivewires play is swing and jive jazz with a bit of blues dropped in – intensely danceable and mostly upbeat, music that grabs you and puts a smile on your face. That style of music had its initial heyday from about 1945 to 1955, and became popular again in the mid-1990s.
And the Jivewires were on the early edge of that trend – at least partially by accident.
For their first album, they wrote a song called “I Hate T.O.”, about the city that Canadians notoriously love to disparage. “And we did this thinking that nobody outside of Ottawa would ever hear it. And it was just a joke, right? and we were just trying to get more gigs. Next thing we know it's being played across the country on CBC and we do an interview on [Peter] Gzowski, and suddenly the band was being taken seriously.”
Then followed four more albums (in 1991, 1995, 2003, and 2011), festival dates in Europe and all over the US., and concerts, including many previous gigs at the National Arts Centre.
In 1991, the Jivewires played the Montreal Jazz Festival, and Cab Calloway “actually saw us [there] just before he died. That was a treat. I don't know what he thought of us, but I know he was there.”
But in the last decade the group went on hiatus, after Walther hurt his hand in a work accident with a power tool. They ended up restarting in 2010.
“And so now we've reformed with some new members and we're getting it back. We're coming back to where we were. We've played some festivals last year and we've a few more this year and hopefully we'll get some more.”
The band has kept the same direction and overall concept over the decades, Berndt said, but “there's been a lot of different players who have come and gone. The only two original players from the band that was formed in '89 are Kurt and I. We're on our third drummer. We're on our third trumpet player. Lots of different sax players have come and gone. We're on our fourth rhythm player.”
“The guys who have gone through this band are some of the best musicians that have come out of Ottawa in the last 25 years. It's a very impressive roster. The Jivewires alumni is made up of some great musicians: people like Peter Kiesewalter, Petr Cancura, Ross Murray was in the band. Wild Bill Rowat, the legendary trumpet player, was the original trumpet player. A lot of great people have been through the band and that's really the way it's evolved. Aside from that, we're still doing the same crazy stuff and having a good time.”
Current band members, including saxophonist Brian Asselin, drummer Jeff Asselin and trumpeter Kelly Craig, have played in and led local jazz ensembles like Search Engine and the Kelly Craig Sextet. Guitarist Dr. Dave Foster hosts the weekly jazz and blues jam at the Rainbow.
The newest Jivewire is alto saxophonist Tyler Cyr, known for his work with the Mash Potato Mashers and the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra. He replaces Zakari Frantz, who had to drop out because of increasing commitments with the Souljazz Orchestra.
Berndt and Walther write almost all the band's material, combined with covers of some of the tunes that Joe Jackson did. The band also covers tunes by musicians popular in the jive era, such as Calloway, Louis Prima, and Louis Jordan. Their 2011 album, Jives Do Jordan, was their first cover album and consisted of tunes made popular by Jordan: songs like “Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “Let the Good Times Roll”.
“It's amazing: because Louis Jordan was very, very well-known – I mean he was huge – and he seems to be a largely forgotten name by popular audiences. Most people know who Cab Calloway was, but you say “Louis Jordan”, and they go, “Who?” And then you go, “He wrote 'Caldonia'”, and they say, “Oh I love that song!”. But they don't know it was him.”
Covering songs by Prima, an Italian-American singer, trumpeter, and composer who was one of the top artists in the jive era, has also given the Jivewires an intro into a less-expected audience: Ottawa's Italian community, many of whom love that music, and are delighted “there's somebody who can actually come out and do a pretty good job of doing some Louis Prima.”
The group regularly plays at Italian Week, and for that “we got a few more Louis Prima tunes together. I mean I even do 'Angelina Zooma Zooma', where I sing in Italian a little bit which I put together phonetically.”
As with Jordan, though, “we're just covering. We're not going to try to redo the masters. We're just going to do their tunes and have fun with it, because we do our own stuff. We know we're not a cover band, so we can go ahead and we can cover all the people that inspired us, without having to mess with it.”
“This era between swing and rock&roll” which inspires the Jivewires' music arose as much from economic necessity as anything else.
“After the Second World War it really wasn't economically feasible anymore to tour around with a big band. People still did it if they were famous and had enough money to pull it off: everybody knows that Duke Ellington just used his royalties to pay for the band because he wanted to keep touring with a full band. But it was a lot harder to tour with a swing band, just as a normal, unknown band, and make enough money to do it.
“From the 20s through the 30s in the Depression, ironically, you could. But after the Second World War that just didn't become possible anymore really, and so people started streamlining their bands and this is a sound that came out of the juke joints [black-only speakeasies] and the chitlin' circuit [venues which welcomed black musicians during racial segregation in the U.S.] . It took off with people like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris and the style just became really quite popular.
“And then of course when rock&roll hit in 1955, it changed everything. And Louis Jordan actually did redo an album of his hits using an electric guitar, and he called it Rock&Roll. So there's the early original 45s of Louis Jordan's hits, and then there's the rock&roll redo of them in the late 1950s, when he was trying to revamp his career.”
Saturday's NAC show will showcase nine or ten new songs which the band has written and arranged recently, which they want to record this summer and release on CD by the end of the year. “We're going to do all our new tunes and some of our other stuff. And we're going to have a ball doing it!”
One song they will play on Saturday was unexpectedly inspired by the Ottawa film premiere in 2010 of Barney's Version. The Jivewires were hired to play at the reception before and after the NAC premiere, and were asked to cover the songs that were in the movie, including 'I'm Your Man' and 'Dance Me to the End of Love' by Leonard Cohen.
Cohen has said that “Dance Me to the End of Love” is about the Holocaust, Berndt said, and Kurt Walther happens to be a huge fan of the music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht from that 20s/30s era. So Walther decided to arrange the song in a Bauhaus style as though it would be sung in Berlin in the 1920s.
“We have the right instrumentation, and Kurt's a big fan of that and he knew that this was Cohen's intention with the song. And it went over really well at Barney's Version.”
The band doesn't yet have a name for the album, but they have lots of choices.
“We have a song on the new album called “Blues 101”. It's basically, if you're tired of studying math and science, maybe you should sign up for Blues 101 and have some fun. And so that's what the tune is about, and we were thinking of maybe all of us dressed up in suits and sunglasses and being in some sort of grade school thing stuffed into in those little chairs.
“There's another song on it called “Drive Me Sane”, basically 'All these other lovers and people I've been with drove me crazy, but you keep lovin' me this way, you're gonna drive me sane'. So we were thinking maybe that was another possibility [and] we might be in a car … but we're not sure yet.”
And the audience reaction on Saturday may affect that choice. “We'll see what their reactions are to these songs. And the ones that they really like will go to the top of the pile.”
Two new songs got a good reaction at a gig a few weeks ago. “'Dog with a Broken Heart” is not about any … no members of the canine genus were hurt in the writing of that song. It's about a guy who's broken a whole lot of hearts and he finally got his broken, but nobody cares because he's a dog. It's a great song. It went over like a million bucks.
“The other one is called 'Fine, Fine, Fine' – because we do 'Sing, Sing, Sing' [by Louis Prima and best known in its version by Benny Goodman]. And everybody loves it, but everybody else in the world does it. And so I thought, “Well, I'm going to write an instrumental which has a drum feature just like 'Sing, Sing, Sing', and then we can stop bothering to do 'Sing, Sing, Sing'.” And so I did put some lyrics in it – it's not completely instrumental – but it's a barn-burner, boy. We love it! So we're looking forward to that one too.”
And the audience on Saturday isn't likely to be just from Ottawa's jazz fans.
“We draw everybody. We don't get a lot of people who want to hear formula blues, because there's a jazz element, and we don't get a lot of people who are basically jazz snobs because it's not Coltrane. So ironically these are the groups that tend to be too prejudicial against the element they don't like in the music to accept it.
“But when we do get up in front of the jazz crowd, they go crazy. When we do get up in front of a blues crowd, they love it. We get older people, we get kids, we get anybody and everybody who just come out and have a good time, and go, 'Wow, that was a really fun band, and really good musically, too.' So we get everybody under the sun.”
– Alayne McGregor