The audible echo of bass-heavy hip-hop from a nearby Washington Avenue bar threatened to infringe upon Boomtown Brass Band’s outdoor gig one recent Sunday night at Holler Brewing. The band kept the infiltration at bay with a lively set that did what it was designed to do – lift spirits and lift people, up from their seats and onto the dance floor.
Afterwards, the band’s founder and spokesman, Thomas Helton, told us that Boomtown and the booming beat from that nearby venue have a lot in common, actually.
“You have to understand, what’s going on over there…this music? It’s the same thing, from 1920 or 1925. We’re doing what they are doing, just from a different era,” Helton said. “They’re the modern version of what we’re doing. Louis Armstrong was Kanye.”
That’s maybe the first time Yeezy’s been likened to Satchmo, but the comparison says a lot about the music Boomtown Brass Band is playing for local music fans. It’s 1920s Dixieland jazz, sometimes called “hot jazz” or “trad jazz.”
“If you say brass band, people instantly go to the second-line thing with the beads and the umbrellas and stuff, and I’m like, well, that’s not really what we do,” Helton said.
What they do is jazz from a specific era, from maybe 1917 or so to 1929.
“If I see a tune that was written in 1930, I might not play it ’cause I want it to stay in a very specific era,” Helton says. As a frame of reference, think about music from Boardwalk Empire, if you’ve seen the HBO series. It’s Gatsby-era music, the kind of jazz that preceded swing or big band forms. Stop by 8th Wonder Brewery tonight or the Lake Houston Crawfish Cars & Community Festival Saturday to hear Boomtown Brass Band introducing it to new generations of listeners.
Helton is a professional musician whose work has included artist residency at DiverseWorks and maybe his best-known project, his free improv group, The Core Trio. He said this old-school music is something new for many audiences.
“I’ve never known a band that this is all they do. I’m not saying one didn’t exist, I’m just not aware of it. The guys that have kinda sorta played this thing, they never really did it the way it was done back in the ’20s. Maybe they’ll play some of the material from that era, but I never really felt like they tried to capture that energy.”
Helton says he has played in Dixieland jazz groups before, but this particular band goes where those did not. He says he came across a YouTube video of a band called Tuba Skinny that piqued his interest in trad jazz. While performing his day hobby – stand-up bass repair and restoration at Quantum Bass Center in Midtown – he’d listen to the music and began thinking about replicating it here in Houston. He started researching the genre and delving deeper into its catalog.
“I don’t really want to play the tunes — there’s a handful of tunes that are required. ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ ‘Basin Street Blues.’ Maybe ‘Just a Closer Walk’ or ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’ Standard fare. I want to get into the deep cuts of the 1920s.”
He assembled some friends for jam sessions at his house and they hashed out tunes, but never expected their labor of love to morph into paid gigs all over town.
“We just did it and people kind of dug it. And then it just sort of snowballed,” he said. “It’s not what we had in mind, but people started getting wind of it and agencies started getting wind of it and the next thing you know, we’re playing five to ten times a month.”
During the set at Holler Brewing, one couple danced the entire time. Many others joined them. We saw a familiar face among them, Jose Figueroa, a live-music and dance aficionado whose efforts to encourage others to dance to live, local music have been chronicled by Houston Press and are detailed on his Facebook page, Dance to Live Music. We’d seen Figueroa and some friends at places like MKT Bar and Nightingale Room, which both host Boomtown with regularity.
“If you think you know jazz, you’re going to hear something that’s totally different,” Figueroa said, partially describing the music and partially encouraging listeners to take in a Boomtown set. “You want to snap your fingers, you want to jump up and down – you just want to have fun with it.”
For Helton, seeing people dance to the music means it’s being presented correctly. Unlike jazz by Miles, Mingus or Monk, this music encourages listeners to get up and move.
“It’s all about that energy. When you watch videos of this era of music, there’s always dancing, it’s rarely concert music. This is not really concert music,” he said.
Of the dancers who seem to follow Boomtown, he said, “We are amazed…we are so about it. We have actually been talking about hiring dancers because it changes the way we play and it changes the way people perceive us. This music, it’s designed for that, that’s what it’s created for. This is dance music.”
And, though he considers it fun with friends, the music is being offered by some serious musicians. Its core of six members shares dozens of years of professional playing experience. Guitarist Mike Viteri is a guitar maker and is steeped in Django Reinhardt, gypsy-styled jazz. Morris Moon, the band’s banjo player, is a lawyer, Helton said. The band allows him to pursue his interest in the instrument. Trombonist Ryan Gabbart is a Moores School of Music grad who was a TA at the University of Houston college for many years and has played in bands of nearly every genre, Helton noted. Johan Keus is a trumpeter who is playing cornet in Boomtown to keep things “period-proper,” Helton said. He too has years of experience in live music, most notably directing a big band. The band’s “utility guy” is Doug Wright, Helton said. He and Helton are San Jacinto College pals who’ve played in bands together over the years. Wright’s a sax player, a “Charlie Parker clone,” Helton said, but he’s generally on clarinet for Boomtown.
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Everyone in the band works a day job, save Helton. They have other gigs. For instance, Helton’s nonprofit organization, Houston Composers Salon, is bringing New York’s Steve Swell to Houston in July to present a commissioned work. But they all are also committed to watching Boomtown boom. They’re penciled in to perform at The Menil Collection’s 30th anniversary in June and will keep playing wherever dancers can find them up till then.
The fact that those audiences are going to hear a new spin on old dance music is just a bonus for a bunch of friends having fun playing it.
“I love doing the things that are not common, the stuff that’s just a little outside the norm, and the trad thing just caught me off guard,” Helton said. “Kids love it, old people love it, everybody loves it. And when the dancers started showing up, it was like, okay, now I’m really into it.”
Boomtown Brass Band performs at 8th Wonder Brewery's 8 Track Sessions Thursday, April 27, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., free; and, at the Lake Houston Crawfish Cars & Community Festival Saturday, April 29.