Rico Coffee presented the Royale Garden Dixieland Jazz Band led by band leader Alan Shelton on the coronet, Bob Waner, left, and Gordon Hirsch on the drums. The group of seven began playing in 1997, each member having already 40 to 50 years of experience with his instrument. The band plays at Rico Coffee on the first and third Fridays of every month.
“It sounds like original Dixieland music; it’s so good, you’d think you were in Preservation Hall on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.”
Listeners slapped their knees, tapped their toes and bobbed their heads in unison to the music, while sipping various caffeinated drinks.
The band began its two and a half hour set with “Tiger Rag,” the first of a variety of Dixie tunes from the early 1900s-1920s, including several Louie Armstrong and Lu Waters hits.
Each musician played his instrument with quick-fingered skill; the band began as an ensemble and then broke off into improvised solos with nothing more than a point of a finger from bandleader Alan Shelton.
As the band continued to play, one song rolled into the next.
Several songs such as “At the Jazz Band Ball” and “Muskrat Ramble” were lively and buoyant, encouraging two women in the audience to get up and dance, while others such as “Blue Turning Gray Over You” and “Black and Blue” were melancholy and melodious.
The RGDB’s performance conjured up images of flappers dancing in the roaring twenties, of hot, steamy nights on the infamous streets of New Orleans where Dixieland was born, and of brass bands marching to the beats of their own drums.
The band formed in 1997 and since then has been no stranger to the jazz scene. They have played at all of the biggest traditional jazz haunts in the Los Angeles area as the featured band. The group has also played at civic events, private parties, dances, grand openings, political rallies and festivals.
Shelton summed up the band’s current sound in one word: loud.
“It is another interpretation of West Coast Revival, which refers mainly to the Firehouse Five + Two Band, Lu Waters and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, both of which redirected jazz from its path to modern jazz and redefined its roots in New Orleans,” Shelton said.
The RGDB was lead by John Sobott in its early days and remained comparatively steady for six years.
During this time, the band gained regular stints at Yesteryears in Pomona and Warehouse Pizza in La Verne.
The fate of the RGDB was placed in Shelton’s capable hands when Sobott moved to Colorado indefinitely.
Shelton was forced to start from scratch when two additional members left.
After trying out several musicians who simply did not meet his expectations for the band, he replaced them with members who were able to meet his views eye-to-eye.
“The first assemblage included one member who saw our mission as a 1920s hot jazz band, another who wanted to play 1940s swing style and a third who played everything as an early be-bop exercise,” Shelton said. “Our current group shares a common vision of Dixieland music.”
The RGDB’s present seven-member line-up consists of Mike Olsen on clarinet, Kees DeKluyver on banjo, Gordon Hirsch on drums, Rudy Eleff on tuba, Bob Waner on trombone, Frank Greco on keyboard and bandleader Shelton on coronet.
The band recorded its first album, titled “The Doctor is in,” in November 2001.
The group has played as the feature band in all the major traditional jazz clubs in the Los Angeles area, as well as civic events, private parties, dances, grand openings, political rallies and festivals.
Although none of RGDB’s members are from New Orleans, the bonafide and time-honored Dixieland jazz most often associated with the city is evident in the band’s music.
The band proved that the notorious sound of the Red Light District would live on forever, even if never restored to its original glory following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“When I see pictures of New Orleans on TV and in the newspaper, I don’t think of it as ‘Where my jazz was born.’ I think of it as another partially preventable tragedy in the hubris of mankind,” Shelton said. “By contrast, I have a small sense of fantasy based nostalgia when I see street name signs that are the same as the names of tunes we play: ‘Canal Street,’ ‘Bourbon Street.’”
Many of the band’s members have diverse backgrounds in the music field, professional training with their instruments, and associations with the Society for the Preservation of Dixieland Jazz.
Though the band has no plans for fame or jazz stardom, it has humble aspirations for its future.
“My vision for the band includes continued regular venues, continued private parties, expanded public appearances, especially at events such as summer concerts in the public parks, and playing on the traditional jazz festival circuit,” Shelton said.
Carol Payne, a member of the Board of Directors for the Society for the Preservation of Dixieland Jazz, said she enjoyed regular RGDB shows.
“(Dixieland) is the only original American music; it’s just lively and wonderful, and also very inventive,” Payne said. “It gives the musician the latitude to do what he feels.”
Jack Hale, a long-time friend of Eleff, also said the band was true to its traditional roots.
“I think these old guys are pretty talented,” Hale said.
The band plays regularly at Rico Coffee, with shows scheduled on the first and third Friday of every month, and at Danny’s Kosher Pickle & Deli in Covina, with shows scheduled on the second and fourth Saturday of every month.
Jessica Bell can be reached at email@example.com.