Long-Lived Jambalaya Jass Band Begins Jazz Depot’s Winter Concert Series
If you’ve ever wondered why trombonist Steve “Hambone” Ham and trumpeter Mike Bennett play so uncannily well together, it’s because they’ve had plenty of practice. As Ham recalls it, the two played their first job as a duo back in 1976 – on a stage light-years away from the listening-room atmosphere of the Jazz Depot, where they’re performing with Ham’s Jambalaya Jass Band on Sunday.
“It was over at the Golden Hurricane Lounge, that old strip joint,” Ham says with a chuckle. “I was 19 and he was 18; I was playing sousaphone and he was playing trumpet. We’d go in there and play blues and some old Dixieland tunes, New Orleans tunes. I think they paid us ten dollars a night and all the beer we could drink. The first weekend we were there, somebody got stabbed. The second weekend, there was a gunshot. And we left and never went back.”
They may have left that gig for good, but, individually and together, they never left the music. Students in the University of Tulsa’s music program at the time, they both went on to carve out careers as two of Tulsa’s top instrumentalists, positions they still hold today.
Among his other musical jobs, Bennett has been the trumpeter for Ham’s group from the beginning, which came about not all that long after the duo’s debut at the Golden Hurricane Lounge.
As Ham remembers it, he was playing in a Dixieland band run by “a businessman who just cracked whips on guys.” After a blowup over a job that Ham had helped book for the group, the leader suggested that it might be better if Ham went off and formed his own band.
“I said, `That ain’t no problem,’ and that’s when we named the band,” he says. “It was sometime in the early ’80s.”
Ham’s Jambalaya Jass Band has been entertaining audiences ever since, with a lineup that fluctuates somewhat but usually includes, in addition to Ham and Bennett, the veterans Bill Crosby on bass and Tony Yohe on drums, both of whom are set to be a part of things on Sunday. Ham’s son Heath Ham, heard most recently on the Diffident Rebel CD Red Dirt Reggae, plays guitar.
It may be because he chafed under the leadership of a “whip-cracker” all those years ago, but Ham has made sure from the beginning to allow the musicians in his group plenty of freedom. In fact, he pretty much insists on it.
“In most gigs, there’s a box you’ve got to kind of stay in,” he explains. “In myband, I could care less. Just play whatever you want to play. I mean, I don’t want to play stuff that’s above an audience’s head. I don’t want to sound like Coltrane. But we just never know what we’re going to do when we play. I may change tunes right in the middle of a song, and I’ll expect my guys to go with me. Or they may change the tune. We just
He doesn’t even quite know how to label the music performed by the group, which many would describe as Dixieland jazz.
“I guess I call mine more New Orleans stuff,” he says. “I don’t really know what Dixieland is. I like [Louis] Armstrong, and I like the Olympia Brass Band, those brass bands down in New Orleans. We’ve got some of that happening.”
Still, he adds, there’s at least one classic Dixieland tune that the Jambalaya Jass Band ends up doing at just about every appearance.
“We usually play `When the Saints Go Marching In,'” he says. “I get asked a lot to do `Rosetta,’ too. I’ll have a list of tunes in front of me, just in case I can’t remember the names of some of ’em. But sometimes, I’ll just start playing, and the band’ll follow me. Or Bennett’ll go, `You’re putting them to sleep. Let’s play this.'”
Ham laughs. “What that means is, `Let’s play something that features me, `Bone. Let’s play something I can show off on.’
“And why not?” Ham adds with another laugh. “He’s a hell of a trumpet player.”
Steve Ham’s Jambalaya Jass Band is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, December 1, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the depot, fromwww.myticketoffice.com, 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.
The show is the first in the Jazz Hall’s 2013-14 Winter Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fameis 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.