The Easy Street Jazz Band
Deep jazz roots
When you think of Ann Arbor's music scene, classic jazz bands might not be the first thing to come to mind. But by any measure we'd have to rank as some kind of stronghold. You can hear jazz in styles ranging from Dixieland to jump blues several nights a week in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, and rare indeed is the city of 100,000 where that's true. The players do it mostly for love.
Recently I dropped in at the Zal Gaz Grotto Club on West Stadium to hear Paul Klinger's Easy Street Jazz Band, which has some of the deepest roots of this whole set of groups. They're marking their fortieth anniversary, and veteran local jazzman Paul Keller, who plays bass, lamented to me that leader Klinger was so modest that he had done little to make a point about it. Not many bands, in Ann Arbor or anywhere, have lasted so long.
What's more, the band's sources go back to close to the beginnings of the Dixieland and 1930s jazz they play. Klinger, who lived for many years on Easy Street in southeast Ann Arbor, started performing in the 1950s, during the first revival of traditional jazz styles. In the 1970s he joined the New McKinney's Cotton Pickers, which had direct connections to the original McKinney's Cotton Pickers that spawned the career of jazz arrangement pioneer Don Redman. He led that band for seven years, played at Newport and in Europe, and honed his own arranger's art. He's been part of many Ann Arbor jazz ensembles, including the Bird of Paradise Orchestra, and his Easy Street Jazz Band--trumpet, trombone, clarinet, keyboard, banjo, bass, and percussion--was a weekly fixture at the late Bird of Paradise and Firefly clubs.
The group, which features stalwarts like Keller and U-M professor James Dapogny on keyboards, brings perfect ease to whatever it plays. On top of that, Klinger is the type of presenter who can draw you into the depths of a tradition.
The word "encyclopedic" is too dry, but it applies. "In the old Easy Street book, this was Q-51," Klinger says in introducing a piece, and his comments broaden out into observations on composers and repertory that you'd be hard pressed to find in a book or online. At one point in the night the band is joined by a vocalist for an excursion into the female-centered classic blues of the 1920s. Jill Hunsberger sang Mamie Smith's "My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)," which is not well known even though it's a possible source for the term "rock and roll," and she did it right.
If you heard this music on Bourbon Street in New Orleans you'd marvel at the authenticity. But it's no less authentic for being played at the Zal Gaz Grotto Club, a Masonic social hall with a made-up Persian name where a member of the crowd may call up to Klinger, in red suspenders, that he's going home to watch the basketball game. In fact, maybe the music is more authentic in such a place, where it's woven into the fabric of a community, our community. Paul Klinger and the Easy Street Jazz Band appear at the Grotto Club every Tuesday, from 6 to 9 p.m.
[Originally published in May, 2010.]