In his decades as a working Tulsa-area musician and bandleader, trombonist Steve Ham has learned a great deal about making audiences happy.
And, quite naturally, some of the things he’s learned have come from other area music figures, including a couple who have achieved national fame: drummer David Teegarden and singer-songwriter Steve Ripley.
“I remember being in Dave Teegarden’s studio one day, years ago, and after we’d played a song he took me aside and said, `Hambone, all those notes were great and everything, but it just didn’t feel good,’” Ham says. “He told me, `Music’s got to feel good. Cut out all those notes, put some soul into it, and forget about everything else.’ And that advice really changed my life. Ripley’s comments came more recently, but they made just as big of an impression.
“When I was talking to Ripley about making an album, he told me that we were all in the tomato business,” explains Ham. “He said, `Some make gourmet stuff out of tomatoes, and that’s for maybe five percent of the people. Other people make tomato sauce, and maybe 60 percent like tomato sauce. But I try to make catsup, because everybody likes catsup.’”
Ham, of course, knows that everybody’s not going to like the Dixieland music played by the Jambalaya Jass Band. But he and the rest of the band work hard to make sure whoever comes to see them is consistently entertained.
“Part of it is reading the crowd, and other parts are pretty simple,” he says. “When you program a concert, you want to make sure each tune has a difference tempo, and the tunes are in different keys. I always like to mix the solos up and arrange things right there on the stage. We just call a tune and play it. That’s what we’ve always done. The only song it seems like we have to play every time is `When the Saints Go Marching In.’ It’s probably the most famous New Orleans tune that ever was, and the people like it.
“Did Bob Wills play `San Antonio Rose’ every night?” he asks. “Sure he did. Why? Because the people loved it.”
The Jambalaya Jass Band is one of the longest-lived musical outfits in the area, having begun sometime in the mid-‘80s when Ham left a Dixieland band he’d been playing in and decided to start one of his own.
“I really don’t remember exactly when it was, but I can tell you who it was for,” he says. “It was for people from Ken’s Pizza. We played a Kentucky Derby party for them at the old Fountains restaurant out on Lewis. I booked it first, and then got the band together. As [the late Tulsa pianist] Ron Chandler used to say, `Hitch up that wagon. We’ll load it later.’”
Because of his stature as one of the town’s top working musicians for many years, Ham has been able to attract some of the best talent around to the outfit he calls “that little old band from Creek County.” At the current time, he says, “I have a nucleus of about nine people that I use. They know the material, and they’ve got good ears and can improvise.”
For Sunday’s show, the group will include, in addition to Ham, Scott McQuade on piano, Mike Bennett on trumpet, Bill Crosby on bass, and Tony Yohe on drums.
“We’re just going to shoot from the hip,” says Ham, “like we always do,”
But, he adds, when he goes on stage or into the recording studio, he usually thinks back to those long-ago words of David Teegarden.
“I know that it’s all about emotion and feeling and soul,” Ham says. “I’ve always been into emotional playing and that kind of stuff. It’s like that old TV show M*A*S*H. I can see certain episodes and they’ll still make me cry. That’s what television should be, and that’s what music should be, too. If it doesn’t have emotion, then I don’t want anything to do with it.”
The Jambalaya Jass Band is set to begin Sunday, Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St. Tickets can be purchased at the Depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5. Refreshments will be available for purchase.
The show is a part of the Jazz Hall’s 2012 Autumn Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form