Jim Dapogny is well known to music lovers all over the globe for his deep knowledge of early jazz, for his piano playing, and for his arranging skills. In addition to his many other projects, he has been co-leading Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings in regular Sunday late-­afternoon performances for the last ten years, first at the Firefly Club, and now at PJ’s on First Street.
Dapogny is both a scholar and a performer in love with the early history of American jazz and popular music. His passions are not well hidden, and as bandleader he dishes out droll commentary from behind the piano, replete with delightful arcana but without a trace of pedantry. The Rhythm Kings replicate the makeup of the standard 1920s or early 1930s dance orchestra, with three saxophonists doubling on clarinets, three brass instruments, and a rhythm section of piano, drums, guitar or banjo, and tuba.
Sharing the direction is ­multi-instrumentalist Chris Smith. Known to many as a fabulous trombonist, he learned how to play the tuba and the cornet just to work with Dapogny. He’s now a fine tubaist; his nimble control of the big horn gives a particular idiomatic weight to the rhythm section, so that on evenings when he has to take over trombone duties and is replaced by a string bass player, the sound of the band just does not seem the same.
The Rhythm Kings’ repertoire covers a wide range of early dance band material, from corny novelty numbers to the sophisticated arrangements of Duke Ellington from his Cotton Club days. Some come with surprises, such as a vocal chorus by the whole band on the well-known standard “Crazy Rhythm”—I have heard this piece countless times, but had no idea that it had lyrics. The sum total of their repertoire is close to 380 items, although new pieces constantly replace those that have outlived their usefulness. The leaders and band members have transcribed some from original recordings, while others are stock arrangements from Dapogny’s extensive archives. But the notes on the page are of little use if they are not played correctly, and the strength of the Kings resides in the musicians’ unforced idiomatic interpretations. Even within the time period that they cover, there were competing styles of playing, from the saccharine straight vibrato of certain society dance bands to the moaning, bluesy playing of Ellington’s sidemen or the majestic flights of Louis Armstrong’s early style. Whether playing in section or improvising a solo, all ten band members play idiomatically, without falling into soulless antiquarianism.
While many come to PJ’s to listen, have a drink or two, and a bite to eat, the Rhythm Kings, true to their art, are above all a dance band. Fortunately, the lounge has a nice dance floor that is put to good use by Sunday patrons of all ages. The leaders plan the sets accordingly, alternating tunes with different tempos and dance styles, sometimes even obliging with a waltz medley. For dancing or listening, the Rhythm Kings offer a unique way of spending an early Sunday evening.