The “roaring” twenties and thirties of the last century were a golden age of popular dance and dance bands. The new record industry was working overtime, but canned music did not permeate all public spaces as it does today, and all dance venues featured actual live musicians. It is estimated that almost a thousand such ensembles worked in ballrooms, restaurants, social clubs and lodges throughout the country. More prosperous venues had their own orchestras, while others featured touring “territory bands” that traveled along regular routes. Dance music, sweet and hot, was a big business, and the leaders were true stars. The French-born Jean Goldkette, working out of the Detroit Athletic Club, the Book Cadillac Hotel, and the Graystone Ballroom, had more than twenty bands, and Paul Whiteman lent his name to more than eighty.
Social, economic, and aesthetic changes have assigned this lively entertainment era to history. Here and there, however, dedicated musicians keep it alive. In Ann Arbor, Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings, known to their friends as PORK, have migrated with the seasons from club to club for almost twelve years, and are now ensconced on Sunday afternoons from 5 to 8 at the Zal Gaz Grotto social club.
The ten-piece band, led by pianist/composer/arranger James Dapogny and sousaphonist/cornetist Chris Smith, is patterned after the 1920s and early ’30s dance bands, with a four-piece rhythm section, three saxophonists doubling on clarinet, two trumpets, and one trombone. Their constantly growing repertoire consists of published “stock” arrangements from Dapogny’s vast personal collection, charts transcribed from recordings, and the pianist’s own compositions. Each set is well organized, and you never know what treasures will surface on any Sunday from the books of Bennie Moten, Duke Ellington, Goldkette, or Fud Livingstone, or lovely forgotten tunes from the territory band stock arrangements. Dapogny and Smith provide introductions in a highly idiosyncratic fashion, often weaving in anecdotes and historical information with droll humor that hardly conceals the affection they have for this music.
The leaders are perfectionists and have brought together some of the finest jazz musicians in the area, but since they are often in demand elsewhere, you never know who will turn up each Sunday. The rhythm section is the hardest to replace; Dapogny is naturally essential, but few players anywhere can play as idiomatically on sousaphone as Chris Smith, on acoustic rhythm guitar as Rod McDonald, or preside over the old-fashioned drum and percussion set as Van Hunsberger does.
PORK’s music is sublime, but this is, after all, a dance band, and each Sunday afternoon the Zal Gaz Grotto once again becomes a dance club, with a lively mixture of generations on the floor. Watching this, I am reminded how fortunate we are to have PORK. There are very few regular bands still playing this music; indeed I can think of only two: Vince Giordano’s orchestra in New York and a similar one on the West Coast. Chris Smith likes to say that PORK is the true chance-taking avant-garde in jazz, and he may be right.