The Gotham Jazz Festival Celebrates the Early Days

The Down Town Association building on Pine Street in lower Manhattan dates to 1887, and the club to 1859. The three-story space is mere steps from Wall Street and the wood-paneled, Persian carpeted first-floor lounge, with its comfortable couches, retains its air of a quiet, men-only getaway for the traders. Well, maybe it wasn’t men only back in the day, but even today the men’s room is much bigger than the women’s room.

Bria Skonberg in full cry. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s an appropriate location, then, for the Gotham Jazz Festival, which was back in 2023 after a four-year absence. The festival is a truly wonderful event, celebrating the early years of the music, especially the 1920s and 1930s. All three of the producers—Molly Ryan (vocalist), Bria Skonberg (trumpet and vocals) and Patrick Soluri (drummer, composer)—are performers themselves and the more than 100 musicians performing were also a big part of the appreciative audience.

Soluri’s Prohibition Productions puts on 120 shows a year around the city, and the experience shows. Spread across the floors were dozens of performances, all with excellent sound and enthusiastic audiences.

Many of the musicians performed in multiple bands, including Dalton Ridenhour, who was playing sprightly solo stride piano in the first-floor lounge when we arrived, then turned up later with the epochal Mike Davis and the New Wonders.

Our Band with Sasha Papernik and Justin Poindexter. Plus bass player Jared Engel! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Our Band is Justin Poindexter on guitar and Sasha Papernik on accordion, and they both sing and write songs that reflect ultra-wide listening. Poindexter is also in Saluri’s Hot Toddies.

The repertoire ranged from Brazilian and Romanian songs to the ancient “Lay Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor” to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” They added gypsy flavor to the latter, and it’s a reminder of how flexible are the Bard of Montreal’s songs. Check out the tribute to Cohen that works wonders with jazz band backing.

Upstairs there were performances by students of the New York Hot Jazz Camp that Skonberg and Ryan run. They didn’t sound like students. The Barrow Street Basement Jazz Band (named after their rehearsal space) was in fine form with seven pieces plus vocalist Gia Maulbeck (also an actress and director). More will be heard from her.

The Free Lunch Jazz Band had three talented women in the front line, something not seen much back when this music was new. Women were “thrushes” and “canaries” and not players. It took World War II for women to be allowed on the bandstand—see the Sweethearts of Rhythm.

The Trad-gedy Jazz Band was lovely, and included hot solos from Danielle Westbrook on trumpet and Casey Thomas-Burns on trombone. Ezra Martinez Mara channeled Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano. Or maybe it was Eubie Blake. Vocalist Rich Markow came out to vocalize on “Singing the Blues (Until My Baby Comes Home).” This was one of several bands that, true to the period, used tuba instead of bass—banjos were also much in evidence.

Nine of the students got scholarships this year, Skonberg said. Bravo.

Stephane Seva Swing Ondule 4tet from France essay “Jitterbug Waltz.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Stephane Seva Swing Ondule 4tet from France used violin, accordion, bass and a very peculiar persuasion setup. Their swing had a strong Gallic flavor. Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” was the best.

By far the most authentic 1920s Jazz I heard was Mike Davis and the New Wonders. Davis, who plays trumpet, sings in period style, writes the arrangements, and just looks the part, is a wunderkind.

Mike Davis (center, with old microphone) with the New Wonders. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Everything he played and sang felt true to the period. He’s obviously a huge Bix Beiderbecke fan, but that’s a pretty good role model. Everyone in the band is masterful on their instruments, including the trumpet, clarinet and trombone front line, and Ridenhour on piano. The latter is also in the awesome Lovestruck Balladeers, which is no less virtuous. What a double bill those two groups would make.

Although some of the bands playing added a modern gloss—strings of solos, not usual back then—Davis’ work is more closely the tight arrangements, played for dancing, that dominated the era. Davis is also adept at finding little-known tunes and polishing them up.

Finally, I saw the New York Hot Jazz Camp Faculty All Stars. Many of the players are well known and much-recorded figures on the old jazz scene, including Dan Levinson on sax and clarinet, Rossana Sportiello on piano, Cynthia Sayer on banjo and—a revelation—Ron Wilkins on trombone. Sportiello, no less good than Ridenhour, was decidedly more modern in approach—a touch of Bill Evans perhaps?

The New York Hot Jazz Camp faculty with, from left Cynthia Sayer, Dan Levinson, Bria Skonberg and Ron Wilkins. The unseen bassist is Tal Ronen and the drummer Kevin Dorn. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They were joined by star vocalist Catherine Russell, by Molly Ryan, and by Skonberg, who was in hot trumpet mode. She’s also a fine singer. If I had one regret for the day, it’s that I didn’t hear Skonberg vocalize.

The band started with what seemed like 10 minutes of “Limehouse Blues” and went right into “Fidgety Feet” (formerly “War Cloud”). “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” with Skonberg using a mute and Levinson on tenor, was superb. Sportiello is a real find, playing very pretty on this one. His “Shoeshine Boy” solo was quite busy, out of Art Tatum maybe.

The serial solos never show up on record from that era, but time per song was quite limited on disc. Maybe they played that way live? We do know that Robert Johnson played the hits of the day at the juke joints, but never recorded them.

Catherine Russell, fully committed. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The roof really came off when Catherine Russell came out and took us through “St. Louis Blues,” “Hello Central, Give Me Dr. Jazz” (which I hadn’t heard in decades), and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Russell, who I wrote about here, is fully committed to her performances and just has it all as a singer. Plus she’s a great music historian.

Catherine Russell with Molly Ryan on “Goody Goody.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

It was great to hear Cynthia Sayer’s banjo feature, “Linger Awhile,” which beautifully illustrated what the instrument could do in jazz—today we mostly think of it as a folk instrument. Sayer has a book/CD combo called You’re in the Band that lets you play along with the greats. Then organizer Molly Ryan came out and did “Goody Goody” with Russell, a lovely way to end the first half—a whole second program was coming up, but alas I had to leave.

In the second half, organizer Soluri’s Hot Toddies with Poindexter and the wonderful Queen Esther were going to perform, the great guitarist Frank Vignola (with Vinny Raniolo), Mimi and the Podd Brothers Trio, Miss Maybel, the Eyal Vilner Big Band, and on and on. What an event!

Gotham is online here. There’s always next year. And don’t forget the New York Hot Jazz Camp.