New Liberty Jazz Band: A Family Band

I suppose this is stretching it a bit, but playing trombone in a Dixieland jazz band while riding on a 1941 fire engine is a kind of travel. Anyway, it is the kind I like. I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said that playing in a jazz band is a bit like being married. When it is your turn to solo, the business of the others is to make you sound as good as possible. And vice versa. About 25 times a year—mostly in the summertime—the members of the New Liberty Jazz Band try to make me sound as good as possible. A Herculean effort on their part. When they solo, I try to do likewise. Much easier.

The members of the band have drifted in and out over the years, sometimes because of differences in how the music ought to be played and sometimes because of death. Last year our clarinetist for well over a decade died of pancreatic cancer. We went through that death with him as he complained of stomach pains during a gig and of the doctors not being able to diagnose whatever it was. We watched as he drank from tiny little bottles of an energy drink while we wolfed down Italian subs. When the diagnosis came, death followed quickly. We all went into mourning. In other words we behaved the way Marsalis saw people behaving in a jazz band. We behaved like a family.

The band has played together in one form or another for over 30 years. There are eight musicians, four of whom have been with the band since the beginning. I came along about 20 years ago. Our singer joined ten years later. Like any family we have had to adapt to aging. Our piano player’s wife has become severely demented. Because he is who he is, he takes care of her himself, something he is well suited to do. He was a doctor before he retired some 25 years ago, an ob-gynecologist. He has found a wonderful caregiver with the apt name of Lulu. Lulu helps him keep his sanity. She frees him up to play with the band. She is a Seventh Day Adventist. Saturday she cannot work. When members of his family can’t spell him, he forgoes the Saturday gigs. We get substitutes. They are excellent players. The music doesn’t suffer, but the family does. Somehow it is not the same thing.

Our banjo player’s wife is similarly afflicted. So he is similarly constrained. We used to rehearse once a week. Now it is once a year. The family is changing, but it isn’t breaking down.

My mind has drifted to the New Liberty Jazz Band because we have just come off our busiest day of the year, the 4th of July. We played three parades; the first in Needham, the second in Sudbury and the third in Wakefield. The temperature during the day was incredibly hot, over 90ยบ in the middle of the day. Everyone was doing his level best to make everyone else sound good. And sometimes we did. How can I tell? The people who lined the streets as we passed by stopped looking at us and started to dance. Or else they applauded. Or else they mouthed “good job” and give us the thumb’s up sign.

Yesterday, in Sudbury, MA we were playing a tune that featured the trombone. It is called Kid Ory’s Creole Trombone. We passed a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. She aimed her blue vuvuzela at me and started blowing it at the top of her lungs. I aimed my trombone at her and started playing. As I swung into the solo she stopped blowing and started listening. Thus we were engaged, she and I, for the entire song. Not once did I look away. Not once did she.

As the fire truck moved on, she waved goodbye. It’s moments like this that make traveling on the fire truck pure joy.