The Buck Creek Jazz Band

Buck Creek Jazz Band
The Buck Creek Jazz Band – Jim Ritter, cornet; John Skillman, clarinet; Frank Mesich, trombone; Bill Richards, piano; Jerry Addicott, banjo; Tom Holtz, tuba; Gil Brown, drums

This was the band that I heard musicians in DC talking about, but I never got to actually hear the band. By the time I arrived in town, many of the members of the Buck Creek Jazz Band had moved to their homes across the U.S., and only got together at the big jazz festivals, which were usually out on the west coast. I only knew about them through a few borrowed recordings and what I heard from other guys on gigs. I knew they were really good, their arrangements were tight, and they had a huge book of obscure stuff from the ’20s and ’30s that nobody else had.

I first played with Buck Creek at a local event hosted by the Potomac River Jazz Club. The tuba player, John Wood, got stuck in Fresno, CA due to the airlines being shut down during the days after 9/11. I sight-read a slew of tunes I had never even heard of before, and was hanging on for dear life. It was the first time I ever worked with their drummer, Johnny Roulet, and holy smokes, could that guy lay it down.

I joined Buck Creek in 2004 after John Wood passed away, and I had to learn a whole slew of tunes in one big hurry. It took me that entire first year to grow into the core songs that Buck Creek played, and we barely scratched the surface of that book. I also had to get used to a new style of playing. John Wood had been a bass player, and he played four-beat walking bass all the time, unlike all the bandleaders in DC who wanted tuba players to stick to two-beat bass. I was playing a lot harder than I was used to, and it was a serious workout. That last set on Sunday, after three days of pounding… Oy vey.

Buck Creek Jazz Band
The Buck Creek Jazz Band in Port Angeles, WA.

What I wasn’t prepared for, in any way, were the fans of the band. Yes, the Buck Creek Jazz Band had fans, and lots of them. They had a loyal fan base out on the west coast, two thousand miles from the Springfield Hilton where the band cut it’s teeth and developed it’s style and it’s repertoire. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just responsible for playing tuba, I was responsible for getting out there between sets, talking to people who wanted to meet me, learning names, listening to stories, telling people about me, my family, the Marine Band, the Marine Band some more because people were really interested in that… You tend to miss some meal time, some nap time, some quiet time, because there’s chatting and socializing to be done. That’s part of the gig, a really important part where you have to give of your self. Sure, I would yap with people when I’m playing at a restaurant or a bar, but I’d never really been personally invested on that scale before.

That’s what “social networking” used to mean. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all this stuff is easy compared to getting out there in a crowd, and earning fans that you keep forever.

There was this one elderly gentleman who could tell I was reeling on the bandstand from all the new songs and reeling off the bandstand from all the new faces. He saw me at a souvenir stand at whatever festival we were playing. He told me, “You need one of these,” pointing at a button, with a smirk on his face. I laughed out loud, and promptly bought it.

It read, “HELLO! I DONT REMEMBER YOUR NAME, EITHER.

The real privilege of the festivals and cruises is hearing all these other great bands and musicians, and occasionally getting to play with them. The jam sessions, whether organized or impromptu, were some of the most rewarding music I’ve ever been lucky enough to play. I’ll always be grateful for the years traveling with Buck Creek for allowing me to meet so many great players. There’s some really crazy talent out there. The thing is, if you’re at a classical event, you’re not going to just bust out the horns and jam unless you’ve got a duffel bag full of folders and music stands with you. At a jazz festival, you just pull out your axes and play. When that happens, and people stop to listen because it’s good and they enjoy it, few things in life feel finer.

The Last Chance Jazz Band

The Last Chance Jazz Band
The Last Chance Jazz Band

After I started in the Marine Band, I freelanced for years around D.C. and Baltimore with any of the Dixieland or trad jazz guys who would give me a call. Duo and trio gigs in parking lots and grocery stores, picnics and funerals, you name it, I played it. Totally worth it just for the experience, with the added bonus that I was actually making side money doing these gigs. It was all for building up the chops and the tools of the trade. I was happy being a sideman, although I was eventually itching to get a group together so I could play regularly with good musicians.

Then, all of a sudden, my good friend and mentor, Marty Erickson, retired from the U. S. Navy Band, and headed to the Midwest to continue his teaching career. Marty was plenty happy to be out of D.C., but not so much about leaving behind two jazz bands for whom he was the regular tuba player. I had subbed in both groups before, Marty pimped me to the bandleaders, and there I was playing several times a month with guys I really liked and from whom I was learning a bunch each night.

Alex dancing
Alex dancing

It was one of those golden opportunities, just as I was getting married, to wind up playing in two bands, one of which worked a restaurant just a few miles from our house. The Last Chance Jazz Band was led by Bob Thulman, a clarinetist and inventor, and I was in the rhythm section with banjo player Jimmy Riley and drummer Tylden Streett. It was a big, 7-piece group, lots of arrangements, and I made a point of sticking to Jimmy and Tylden like glue. The three of us were also the rhythm section for Big Bertha’s Rhythm Kings in Baltimore, so I saw plenty of those guys, and it didn’t take long to get locked in. They were both of the “less is more” school of rhythm section, and to this day, I’m reaping the benefits of following their example.

Jimmy lives in North Carolina now, and Tylden is out in California, and I miss those guys. It was a sad day when the Last Chance Saloon finally closed it’s doors and the band was no more. We used to take the kids to the gig so they could hear Daddy play tuba. We would let them run around on the dance floor swinging napkins during the fast songs, and teach them to come sit down when people got up to dance during the slow songs.

That’s a good day.

Beltway Brass Quintet
Beltway Brass Quintet

I love those days where you have a change of clothes for the next gig hanging in the back seat of the car. That means there’s a next gig. That’s a good day. Two gigs in one day. Let me tell you, that’s pretty rare for the tuba players. Maybe the New Orleans guys get the two-a-day hookup more often, but it doesn’t happen that often for me. I look forward to Christmas Eve day every year for the brass quintet action.

Back row
Back row

When you start your day at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, it’s a good day. No, I wasn’t in one of the big rooms, this was the stage out at the end of the foyer, the Millennium Stage, where people get to hear live music courtesy of the Kennedy Center before heading into the Concert Hall or the Opera House for whatever show is playing that day. That means your audience is in the hundreds and growing steadily during your performance, and they’re at least somewhat musically and artistically inclined, because they came to a show at the Kennedy Center. Yeah, that’s a good day.

Clowning around with the Beltway BQ
Clowning around with the Beltway BQ

The best part about the Beltway Brass Quintet show is that we’ve been working on it during the entire holiday season, playing the charts indoors and out, and it’s all money in the bank by the time we get on stage on the 24th. Hard work is much more fun when it pays off for you. We play some of my arrangements, some of Charlie Peterson’s arrangements, and mostly Zack Smith’s charts, which are solid and fun. Charlie and Zack are the classical and jazz trumpet players who met at the University of North Texas and both wound up near Washington, D.C.  It’s not the usual quintet. I met Zack filling in with one of his other groups, the New Line Brass Band. That connection led to a fair bit of work with this group, and they’re great musicians and great people. It’s funny to look back on that… Even though that brass band gig was kind of a goofy job, and we were really sweating it out that day in the hot July sun, it turns out that that was a good day.

It's a helicon. It's like a tuba. Okay, it's a tuba.