Before there was rap, rock, punk or folk music, before swing and big band tunes made their appearance on the American musical landscape, there was jazz.
Old-time, toe-tapping, loose, swanky Dixieland jazz.
It’s been more than a century since one of America’s most iconic music styles boiled up from the hot, humid bayou of New Orleans, but since then it’s slowly faded away and nearly disappeared.
But not in Peru, thanks to a band called the Swampwater Stompers.
For the last 20 years, a group of local musicians have kept traditional Dixieland jazz alive, and made a name for themselves in the process.
“There are very, very few groups who are dedicated to this kind of music,” said Jason Gornto, who plays piano in the band. “People play it, but there are very few actual Dixieland bands anymore. We’re preserving traditional jazz, and sharing it with as many people as we can.”
That was the case earlier this month, when the group played a three-hour show in Peru to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Friends, family and old band members packed into a local club to swing along with classic Dixieland tunes like “Basin Street Blues” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Different band members playing trumpets, trombones and clarinets slipped, slid and wailed, passing around the melody of the tunes. Banjo players clunked out rhythmic chords along with the drums. A large, silver tuba thumped out the bass like a swaggering elephant.
During most of the show, the group stuck with the traditional seven-piece band setup of Dixieland jazz ensembles, but here and there past band members would double up on an instrument for a double dose of swing.
The Swampwater Stompers preserve a dying style of American music, but band-founder Dan Roberts said preservation wasn’t his main goal when he formed the group in 1993.
The real goal? Playing fun music with good musicians.
Roberts, a retired surgeon who plays trombone, said he formed a short-lived jazz band in high school, but stopped playing when he left for Indiana University in 1956 and his trombone failed to arrive on the bus.
It wasn’t until 1987 when Roberts moved back to Peru that he picked up the instrument again and joined the Circus City Band playing at the annual circus festival.
During that time, he said he started traveling to New Orleans for surgical conventions and hit it off with some jazz musicians there.
“That sort of whetted my appetite for starting another band,” he said.
Roberts eventually approached other musicians in the Circus City Band about getting together a jazz group. He found a handful of players who were interested, and they started rehearsing.
But for rehearsals, you need music, and Roberts said finding written music for the group to play from was more difficult than he expected. Why?
“It’s all about improvisation for these guys playing down in New Orleans. As soon as they could walk, they had an instrument in their hands. So I asked them down there where I could get some music for this stuff. They said, ‘Music? There ain’t no music. You just play it.’”
That’s because one of the defining features of Dixieland jazz is improvisation — making the music up off the cuff as you go along.
Gornto explained jazz tunes have an overlying structure, but within that framework you’ve got the freedom to put in your own personality. In essence, the freedom to do your own thing.
“Just like in a conversation, where there’s up and downs and twists and turns and sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow — the same thing happens when you’re playing jazz.”
That may be true, but Roberts said they still needed music. He eventually tracked some down in San Francisco, and the group started rehearsing in earnest.
But the more the band played together, the less they relied on the written music. Eventually, they were improvising the songs just like the first jazz players in the early 1900s.
“We’ve been playing together so long now that you just get a feeling for what everybody’s going to do,” said trumpet player Randy Thrush.
Tuba player Dean McKamey agreed.
“You get to where you feel it,” he said. “You listen to the other guys, and then you start improvising when it feels right.”
“Sometimes we’re playing exactly what’s on the page, and sometimes we’re completely making it up as we go along,” Gornto added. “But when we play a song, it’s never the same twice.”
A motley crew of musicians has made up the Swampwater Stompers over the years. There’ve been music teachers, mailmen and farmers. There’ve been professors and engineers.
Roberts said dozens of musicians have played in the band since it first started. Some have been around since the beginning, like Roberts. Others have played just for a few years, and some fill in when a drummer or bassist can’t make a gig.
And you’ll find the group playing all over the place.
“We’ll play anywhere — bars, nightclubs, regular clubs, golf clubs, funerals, receptions, birthdays,” Roberts said. “You name it, we play it.”
For as long as they’ve been around, the group has played in the annual circus parade, often winning awards in the musical performance category. They won first place in this year’s parade.
But the most memorable gig for the band was back in 2005, when the group traveled to New Orleans to play a show on Bourbon Street — the birthplace of Dixieland jazz.
Roberts had friends in the city, and he landed them a show at Fritzel’s Jazz Pub.
The band made such an impression that New Orleans jazz musicians asked them back again the following year to play in the French Quarter Fest with other jazz groups.
“Playing Dixieland in Indiana is great, but to play on Bourbon Street, the birthplace of jazz, with other groups and really hold our own sealed it that, yeah, we’re a great Dixieland jazz band,” Gornto said. “We have a real legacy not just in Peru, but everyplace we play.”
If you travel to Fritzel’s today, you’ll find a photo of the band labeled “Swampwater Stompers from Peru, Indiana” on the old fireplace mantel.
Although Dixieland jazz plays a unique historical role in America’s musical past, banjo player Tom Gustin said that doesn’t mean it can’t connect with people today. Quite the opposite, he said.
“Dixieland is happy music,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s fast, slow or if you’re playing at a funeral. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s happy music, and it’s a celebration of life. That’s why I like it.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.