Feb 13, 2012 - Mardi Gras with Steve Ham's Jambalaya Jass Band


Mardi Gras with Steve Ham's Jambalaya Jass Band - Sunday, February 19 at the Jazz Depot

            Although those familiar with Tulsa’s music scene know that Steve Ham’s Jambalaya Jass Band is probably the longest-lived Dixieland outfit in the area – and certainly the best-known -- it’s hard to put a date on exactly when it got underway.

            Even for its originator and namesake.

            “Gary Linde and I started playing together in ’74, and [Mike] Bennett and I in ’77,” says the veteran trombonist and vocalist Steve Ham. “But I really don’t exactly know how long it’s been since we’ve been doing this. I’ll say 25 or 30 years – I’m sure we’ve had the band at least that long.”

            Ham isn’t only unsure about the exact date his band played its first gig; he’s also not at all certain that it’s a traditional Dixieland band. “To tell you the truth, I’m not real sure what to call our music,” he admits. “I’ve always kind of thought it was a blend of early, early swing and late Dixieland. We do a lot of Count Basie, and we do a lot of Louie Armstrong. But we’ll do all kinds of requests, too. If we know a tune, we’ll play it, no matter what kind of music it’s supposed to be.

            “People always label music, but I really don’t,” he adds. “”I mean, how would you describe what Louie Armstrong did? I remember reading a quote from [Duke] Ellington. He said there were only two kinds of music, good and bad. All I know about our music is that it swings.”

            Over the years, the Jambalaya Jass Band has played all sorts of jobs, from outdoor festivals to concert halls, school auditoriums to hep-cat nightclubs. Ham says he’s proud of the fact that the group has been able to play everywhere and for all ages, noting, “We’ve always been a family-oriented group. We’re going to have fun, but we’re not going to say or do anything inappropriate from the stage.”

            For Sunday’s performance at the Jazz Depot, the band will consist of Ham, trumpeter Bennett, clarinetist Linde, bassist Bill Crosby, drummer Tony Yohe, and Frank Brown on tenor banjo, most of whom have been working together in the band for many years.

            Known primarily for his smooth and distinctive jazz guitar work, Brown joined the group following the 2008 death of Mike Chittom, the group’s original banjoist. Earlier, longtime Ham associate Linde had replaced the late clarinetist Don Pugh.

            “We miss them both, and the guys who took over for them loved them,” says Ham. “Don Pugh was an awesome clarinetist, and Mike Chittom was the Mohammed Ali of Dixieland. Frank actually bought Mike’s banjo; he plays it in the band. So Mike Chittom lives on.”

            For this Mardi Gras show, chances are good that Ham and the boys will trot out some of their time-tested Dixieland-style numbers, such as “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and “Basin Street Blues,” which Ham has sung in his Satchmo Armstrong-Jack Teagarden vocal style for years.  Don’t be surprised to hear other group favorites as well, including “South,” an instrument from the repertoires of both jazz figure Bennie Moten and western-swing giant Bob Wills; the Armstrong ballad “What A Wonderful World”; and the evergreen “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Whatever kind of tune they’re tackling, Ham says, the band members approach it the same way. 

            “We just get up there and play hard and entertain people; that’s what we always try to do,” he explains. “One of the things I like about this band is that I can kick off a tune and I won’t know what’s going to happen after that. As we go along, I’ll point at a player and he’ll take a solo, and we’ll all try to end up at the same place at the same time. That’s about all I can promise. This band is as spontaneous as a grass fire on the Osage.”                    You can experience the roar and crackle of the Jambalaya Jass Band live on Sunday 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 918-281-1008. 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.  A selection of refreshments will be on sale.

            Mardi Gras with Steve Ham’s Jambalaya Jass Band is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Winter 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.