The pressure to tour has led some musicians to give full reign to the entertainer side of their personality, as I witnessed this week at B.B. Kings in NYC when I caught a set by The New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band. To its great credit, this quintet uses the correct spelling of “jass,” has a tuba player and plays a book of tunes that leans heavily on the Louis Armstrong canon. There’s nothing wrong with having fun on stage and making your show fun for those who come to see it. And judging by the twentysomething crowd that trekked to Times Square on a weeknight, these Donkeys are doing a valuable service by keeping this music alive and passing it on to a younger generation.
But after a night listening to frontman James Williams endlessly growling in a pale imitation of Louis Armstrong (who could actually sing unlike Williams), it became obvious that this collection of music school grads are a bit too canny and calculating for their own good. They are making a living using all the mannerisms that made Armstrong such a star. Williams, who has obviously made a study of all of Armstrong’s jokes, between song patter, trumpet solos and most of all, the growls he ended the lines of songs with, plays it to the hilt, to the point that he inserted Pops famous solo from “West End Blues” into the Swamp Donkey theme song.
The big problem with all this is that not once did anyone in the band mention Armstrong by name. And when after a couple of shots of whiskey the band launched into the “dirge” of a New Orleans funeral march, they seemed to making very light, inappropriately so purists would say, of a very old New Orleans tradition. As a fan of Armstrong and his work, these scamps (he says shaking his cane at those pesky kids), tread perilously close to being downright offensive. I give them credit for realizing that what Armstrong built a career out of still works onstage, but at least give the man a shout out! Now maybe I just happened to catch an extra riproaring show, and the attached video does seem to hint that these guys can be a tad more serious when the occasion or the venue calls for it, but it’s hard to imagine them getting away with not even mentioning Armstrong when they play in their and his hometown.