Swingin' Tribute Bands

Jazz tribute bands pay homage to the music of jazz legends from Bix Beiderbecke to Miles Davis
  • Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
    Branford Marsalis
  • Photo: Courtesy of Dan Levinson
    Dan Levinson
  • Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
    Jimmy Cobb
  • Photo: Mark Venema/Getty Images
    Randy Brecker
  • Photo: Steve Thorne/Redferns/Getty Images
    Mike Stern
  • Photo: Philip Ryalis/Redferns
    Renee Rosnes
  • Photo: Courtesy of Don Sickler
    Don Sickler performs with bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Jimmy Heath
July 28, 2014 -- 2:31 pm PDT
By Dave Helland / GRAMMY.com

Ever wonder what the Beatles sounded like in a small club? Too young to have seen Led Zeppelin with original drummer John Bonham? Can't afford a ticket to see the Rolling Stones? Tribute bands to these rock legends, among others, offer fans a viable entertainment alternative. The musicians dress like the original members, adopt a name that references the band's history and typically perform, note-for-note, a set list of greatest hits. But the tribute band concept isn't limited to the rock genre.

Jazz, with its emphasis on individual expression and improvisation, may be the last genre one would expect to spawn tribute bands. But in cities from Los Angeles to New York, and in between spots such as Asheville, N.C., seasoned musicians in jazz tribute bands are faithfully reproducing the music of greats from Bix Beiderbecke and Joe Henderson to Miles Davis.

In 2009 drummer Jimmy Cobb celebrated the 50th anniversary of Davis' classic album Kind Of Blue — he's the last surviving musician featured on the album — by putting together Jimmy Cobb's So What Band and touring internationally. Cobb also fronts 4 Generations Of Miles, a quartet featuring one member from each of Davis' bands stretching from the late '50s to the '80s, including GRAMMY-nominated guitarist Mike Stern.

Cobb says that jazz tribute bands offer music fans a window into jazz history.

"The original guys aren't here anymore so there are guys who try to keep their legend alive.  Also, it could be people want to know what these legends sounded like live," says Cobb.

Aside from his career as a GRAMMY-winning artist, Randy Brecker has played in the Charles Mingus tributes Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Big Band, in addition to Electric Miles, another Davis tribute band, with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. This fall he will play in a Henderson tribute organized by the saxist's former pianist Renee Rosnes.

"[Paying tribute to] guys who were giants in the business, who really made an impact while a lot of younger players haven't had that strong an impact, is kind of [a] natural thing," explains Brecker, who notes fun is also part of the equation. "We have a great time doing Electric Miles. The arrangements are really open so we can do what we want. It's also fun playing in a big band; you're likely to see friends you haven't played with in a while."

Don Sickler, trumpeter, producer and jazz publisher via Second Floor Music, has broad experience producing tribute bands, including the Monk All-Star Orchestra Reunion for the 1986 Chicago Jazz Festival. The Thelonious Monk tribute collective subsequently became a popular draw at European jazz festivals for more than a decade. Sickler has also overseen nightclub "festivals" devoted to single artists such as pianists Tadd Dameron and Elmo Hope, and trumpeter Kenny Dorham.

"There was a lot of really strong music that was written by these artists," explains Sickler. "As a result it makes for a strong program to play their music."

Playing a set list ripe with a jazz legend's standards can be artistically fulfilling. GRAMMY winner Branford Marsalis says that participating in one of Sickler's festivals devoted to saxist Hank Mobley gave him an opportunity to play "this style of music that I learned in order to get where I am. And it gave me a chance to play with Don, who has done a lot of great things for the music and a lot of great things for musicians individually over the years. There's a lot of people who remember those songs and they like to see people whose names they know play those songs."

Marsalis' brother, fellow GRAMMY winner Wynton Marsalis, is also a fixture on the jazz tribute scene. Since 1988, he has led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a 15-piece big band that has performed entire concerts focusing on the music of artists such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Monk, among others.

With regard to interpreting the music, there are various approaches tribute bands can employ. Some bands prefer to stay true to a song's original arrangement and structure while allowing the soloists the freedom to improvise.

Clarinetist Dan Levinson leads multiple tribute bands that play the music of the late "teens to mid-'30s." For Three Benny Opera he arranged Benny Goodman's original orchestra and small group recordings for three clarinets. The arrangements for his Beiderbecke tribute, the Bix Centennial All Stars, which feature three cornets for Beiderbecke's solos and three C-melody saxophones for Frankie Trumbauer's solos, allow band members plenty of opportunities to improvise.

"We're not going to be able improve on what [Goodman and Beiderbecke] did," explains Levinson, who points out another approach. Conversely, his Roof Garden Jass Band, celebrating the music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, copy the recordings note for note so an audience can hear what this acoustically recorded jazz band, with its attendant snap, crackle and pop, sounded like live.

In Indianapolis trumpeter Clifford Ratliff leads the Blue Note Tribute Band, which rotates a small pool of musicians who can be performance-ready with only a half-hour rehearsal. The band has a regular gig playing tunes by artists such as Henderson, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, or Indianapolis native Freddie Hubbard at the local Jazz Kitchen where Ratliff also leads a jam session.

"People were saying [jazz is] dying," adds Ratliff.  "It's not dying; we just weren't playing it enough."

(Dave Helland is a Chicago-based freelancer who writes primarily about jazz and country music.)

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