New Music Festival Debuting Today! Performers, Supporters Reflect On Its Importance, Thrills
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When bassist Dan Martin moved with his wife in 2007 to a quiet Queens neighborhood in New York City, he knew next to nothing about legendary jazz cornetist, pianist and composer Bix Beiderbecke.
Martin – now 52, with a 12-year-old son — moved within eight blocks of the Sunnyside apartment building where the Davenport native died of pneumonia Aug. 6, 1931, at just 28, and his life soon changed forever. A few years later, Martin founded his band, The Creswell Club (specializing in Dixieland music of the ‘20s), which performs tonight (Saturday) at a new festival, The Heights of the Era, in Lindsay Park, Village of East Davenport.
“I’ve been a musician for a long time, and at that point, I never really listened to this kind of music,” Martin said recently of his pre-2007 life and traditional jazz from the heights of Bix’s era. “I was doing everything else in New York, because New York has every kind of music. It was that moment that I really discovered there’s this whole other world. New York is like the epicenter to me of this kind of music, we call ‘trad jazz.’”
“I met the guitar player for the Creswell Club and he kind of turned me on to what’s going on with that scene and it’s sort of turned a light bulb on in my head and it reinvigorated my musical life,” he said. “This whole kind of music that I never really listened to, and it’s a kind of music modern jazz players don’t play that much.”
Soon after Martin moved from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen to Sunnyside, Queens, he happened upon Bix’s old building (at 46th Street and Queens Boulevard), with the plaque out front in his memory. “I thought, that’s crazy – I just moved to the neighborhood where Bix Beiderbecke lived,” he said. Martin wasn’t as familiar with Bix like he was Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), who moved to Corona, Queens (less than five miles east from Bix’s building) 12 years after Bix’s death, in 1943.
“When I first started learning about trad jazz, if you want to hear a definitive recording of every great song done at that time, you should listen to his recordings,” Martin said of Bix. “I’m sort of devoting my life to this music of the ‘20s. I think that the bias against it, people say that it’s a simpler form of music and the advancements that came around with swing and with bebop were making it a more sophisticated art form, but that’s absolutely not true. It has the added bonus of being really fun and you could dance to it.”
“It expresses a pure joy that I wasn’t really feeling until I got into this kind of music,” he said.
Of Bix, Martin said: “I’d like to understand what made him the brilliant musician he was, because I would try to do the same thing, but I mean, he was a prodigy and I think he is a blindingly beautiful trumpeter. His interpretations of tunes you could say, run-of-the-mill pop tunes of the day, and he would bring a kind of magic to it…It brings the hair up on your arm, and Bix had it.”
For the past two decades, there’s been an annual Bix memorial concert in early August at Bliss Plaza, under the 7 train tracks at 46th Street and Queens Boulevard, near his former apartment, where period-themed musicians and dancers perform for free.
“Besides that, nobody in my neighborhood knows who Bix Beiderbecke is,” Martin said, noting it’s very meaningful for his band to play together in Davenport for the first time.
“It’s pretty amazing — when I told everyone that there was a chance that we were going to do this, because I know that’s what it means to them,” he said. “It’s a chance for us to play in front of people, but the fact that it’s Davenport, that’s awesome.”
On Saturday night (7:50 p.m. to 9 p.m.), the six-piece band will include Bix’s famous composition, “Singin’ the Blues,” in their set, played by trumpeter Charlie Caranicas.
“I think when you play this kind of music, especially if you’re a trumpeter, everybody learns that solo, everybody learns that recording so he could do that. But the challenge is to make it your own,” Martin said. In addition to himself and Caranicas, Creswell Club is comprised of Betina Hershey (vocals/guitar), Nick Russo (guitar/banjo), Jay Rattman (sax/clarinet), and Dan Monaghan (drums). They’ve played with Cécile McLorin, Jon Batiste, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, among others.
Bringing some Bix back to Bix 7 day
For the first time in 11 years, the Dixieland jazz of the 1920s will be part of Bix 7 race weekend, with the FREE music festival – The Heights of the Era, all day Saturday, July 24.
“We really miss Bix Beiderbecke music being part of Bix weekend,” said event organizer Michelle Solis Russell, partner in Russell Group (the Davenport-based construction and development firm). The aim is to offer a feeling of taking a step back in time to the roaring 1920s, while stepping forward into the rip-roaring 2020s’ future.
“Steve Trainor of the Bix Society has been wonderful to work with,” Russell said recently, noting the 50th anniversary of the Bix jazz festival, Aug. 5-7 at Rhythm City Casino Event Center, Davenport. “He understands we’re not trying to encroach on anything. We’re just trying to bring something back to that weekend, and give some awareness to what they are doing. We knew we wanted that feeling of nostalgia and sound.”
The Bix 7 race (which attracts thousands of runners, like Russell) began in 1975 and until 2011, the two events were held on the same weekend. 2011 was the first year the jazz fest was separated into its own weekend, to create more tourism opportunities for the Q-C area (since people come from around the world for the race and jazz), and to honor the anniversary of Bix’s death date, on Aug. 6.
Russell’s first memory of the Bix is the jazz festival at LeClaire Park, back in the ‘80s.
“Those are great memories for me,” she said. “I watched my dad run it. He’s not a runner, but when he turned 40, he said ‘I’m gonna run
this,’ like a lot of people do. I’m a runner and I’ve run it many, many times. In 2019, the last time they held the race, I watched as a spectator down here.”
Russell went to what they thought would be the jazz fest, but it was the Street Fest (which is being replaced this weekend with several smaller block parties). “We were just really sad,” she said. “We said, what a shame. Where did this music go and when did this become not a thing? We talked at that time, we should really try to do something.”
After 2020, she and her husband Jim (CEO of Russell) wanted to do something near where they live, off River Drive, at Lindsay Park. “It’s a tremendous park that doesn’t flood, and it was time to put together a great event that hopefully will be well-received by the community,” Russell said. “It was perfect timing, we felt just had to do it.”
“Heights of the Era” is named in part for McClellan Heights, the nearby neighborhood. “A big part of why we were motivated to put this together and bring Bix music back to Bix weekend is make it a wider purpose of a day,” Russell said. “The race is awesome, but it’s one part of the day. What seems to be lacking is, where do you land for the rest of the day?”
The Heights of the Era will start with the race at 8 a.m., presenting 14 ½ hours of live music in the genres of 1910s – 1920s Dixieland; “O Brother Where Art Thou” style Bluegrass; Traditional Irish, Barbershop Quartet, and a cappella.
The lineup of live music (until 10:30 p.m.) will be broadcast on WVIK Quad Cities NPR (90.3 FM), from the race course stages (until 9:30 a.m.) and then Lindsay Park.
Russell said it was a lot less difficult to gather financial support than she thought it might be, to ensure it would be a free event.
“Our first reach out was to Jim,” she said of Jim Huiskamp, president of Blackhawk Bank & Trust. “He’s in the neighborhood,” Russell said of her friend. “They’re great partners in business, Blackhawk Bank & Trust. It just seemed like a totally natural thing. His boat is called the Music Man.”
“The fact that you did reach out to me first shows you how odd the world is,” Huiskamp said to Russell. “Did you know that Bix Beiderbecke spent time in my current house? I found that out from Kathy Wine’s son-in-law. He used to have jam sessions in the area.”
When Bix died, two of the Von Maur boys were pallbearers at his funeral, and one of them grew up in Huiskamp’s house, he said. “My grandfather knew Bix,” he added, noting they both were at University of Iowa together, in the same fraternity.
Huiskamp’s earliest memories of the Bix jazz fest were from his maternal grandmother, who loved that era.
“She was in Keokuk, Iowa, and she’d come up for a week and always stay with us during that week,” he said of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s.
“For me, that music I started to appreciate it when we went to Chicago and the clubs,” Huiskamp said. “I didn’t have appreciation for the music when I was younger. It’s been something that’s more acquired later in life.”
A former history teacher in Keokuk, he takes pride in the fact Bix was from Davenport and he made such a big mark on the jazz world.
“My grandpa Huiskamp knew Bix and my grandma Fallon loved the music. It’s just kind of – that history – Bix Beiderbecke, nobody around here really understands how amazing he was,” Huiskamp said. He marveled at an interview with trumpeter Louis Armstrong about Bix. “Bix could never turn it off; he’d want to keep going, keep going,” he said, paraphrasing Armstrong. “He didn’t want to sleep. He’d keep drinking and keep playing.”
“That stuff to me is fascinating,” Huiskamp said.
“We at the Bix Jazz Society, like other entities in the Quad-City region, are thrilled at the popularity of Bix 7 race and wish the organizers continued success,” Bix Society president Steve Trainor said. “Society Board members years ago decided it was best for the annual jazz festival to be on the weekend closest to Aug. 6th, the date of Bix’s passing vs. the 4th Saturday in July when the race is run.
“Two, our festival garners more attention and attendance (imperative to our own future) when we’re not competing with the publicity for and crowds of the race,” he said. “Three, while many of us miss the LeClaire Park ambiance, our core fans didn’t like the heat, humidity, bugs, rain, trains, and flooding that caused logistical nightmares.
“Security at the park was costly, as was the liquor license,” Trainor said. “In 2014, when we moved indoors (at that time, the RiverCenter), the rain blew horizontal down 3rd Street, and with it would have been what little profit we made. Being indoors at the Rhythm City Casino affords us the air conditioning people prefer, a reliable location with free parking, and a food and drink support staff.”
The Heights billboard headliner
The face of Heights of the Era (used in advertising) is not Bix, but 36-year-old Dallas native Matt Tolentino, a bandleader now based in Cincinnati and the last act Saturday.
When he was 8, he got a compilation of recordings from the 1920s and early ‘30s, his first exposure to this niche music. “It just kind of stuck
with me in a way that music I had heard at the time, had not,” Tolentino said recently. “So it just kind of left an impression on me. And so, I’ve been chasing it ever since.”
At 11, he started playing clarinet in elementary school band; in high school he added saxophone, tuba, piano, and accordion to the ranks. Much of high school was spent playing in jazz band, and on weekends playing gigs at private parties and in German restaurants. Contrary to his generation, “The Lawrence Welk Show” was part of Tolentino’s TV viewing, and he became enamored of music from 1895 to 1935.
A true multi-instrumentalist, he’s equally at home on accordion, clarinet, tuba, piano, tenor guitar, banjo, and saxophones, specializing in baritone and bass sax. Some of his influences include Vince Giordano, The New Leviathan Oriental Fox Trot Orchestra, Paul Whiteman and Scott Joplin.
Tolentino heads several bands, and on Saturday he’ll lead a 10-piece, authentic ‘20s dance band, playing banjo and singing.
“I find the music to be very genuine – the 1920s and the early ‘30s for that matter too, were the only period in time really where jazz music and pop music were interchangeable,” he said. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, there became a great divide between what was jazz and what was pop. The jazz music, I feel became overly cerebral, and the pop music became anything but jazz, you know? So they kind of grew apart but in the
‘20s, the popular music was jazz. So it’s a very exciting time for me — I just find that a very sincere time. I find it a very honest time.”
Tolentino first heard of Bix when he saw the 2001 Ken Burns “Jazz” documentary, which came out when he was in high school.
“I was aware of 1920s pop music, but not to the level of knowing much about Bix, because sadly, everyone talks about Louis Armstrong and names like that, but guys like Bix are kind of left out of the greater circle of things,” he said. “I thought the documentary did a great job of serving as an introduction.”
“That’s another reason I love this music, because it’s a never-ending study,” Tolentino said. Armstrong and Bix were contemporaries, but “Satchmo” lived for another 40 years after Bix.
“Bix didn’t get the chance to live into the swing era and stretch his wings a bit, and explore the other styles of music that were to come, the way that Louis Armstrong did,” he said. “Bix was kind of robbed of being more well-known in jazz.”
It will be special for them to perform in Davenport. “Like Chicago and New York, it’s sort of the cradle of jazz,” Tolentino said.
It’s important to continue to honor Bix’s legacy, especially for young musicians, he said, noting he visited Davenport 15 years ago, but has never played here before.
“To let them know who Bix was, who his contemporaries were. Without things like the Bix Society spreading his legacy, that would be a lot farther down the pike, and a lot harder to spread the word,” Tolentino said. “You’ve got to be somebody special to have a whole festival named for you.”
He also was shocked to see his dashing mug used on the new festival billboards and promotional material.
“I saw the billboard and everything and I’m pretty blown away,” Tolentiono said. “I was surprised they didn’t use a picture of Bix or somebody else from the actual area. But you know, hey, I’ll take it.” His band – the Singapore Slingers — will be featured 9:20 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
On their website, it says they strive to “faithfully recreate the music of the ragtime years, the Roaring Twenties, and the dawn of the swing era with period attire, instruments and arrangements. The Singapore Slingers have built their reputation on authenticity, creating as truly unique sound unlike anything else. Their sound is energetic, infectious and joyous – enjoyed by people of all ages, dancers and audiences alike.”
“It’s going to be fun and it’s a real honor and I’m so glad that Michelle came up with the idea of doing this event,” Tolentino said. “I’m really grateful to her and all of the team for putting this together.”
The complete park lineup for the festival is:
- 9:30 a.m. – 10:25 a.m.: Nite Hawks, 1920’s Swing, Glen Ellyn, Ill.
- 10:25 a.m. – 10:35 a.m.: Interview with Kilgubbin Irish Music All-Stars, Chicago.
- 10:35 a.m. – 10:55 a.m.: The Northsiders Barbershop Quartet, Chicago.
- 11 a.m. – noon: Yoga on the East Lawn, Sarah Conner, Instructor.
- 10:55 a.m. – 11:15 a.m.: Sammy Fahrenkrug, Davenport, interview with High Cotton, Chicago.
- 15 a.m. — 12:10 p.m.: Milwaukee Hot Club, 1920’s Swing Jazz / Latin Swing Jazz, Milwaukee, Wis.
- Hotdogs served (FREE) from noon until 7 p.m.
- 12:10 p.m. – 12:30 p.m.: Sammy Fahrenkrug interview with Sweet Tooth Jazz Club, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- 12:30 p.m. — 1:35 p.m.: Kilgubbin Irish Music All-Stars, Traditional Irish, Chicago.
- 1:35 p.m. — 1:55 p.m.: The Northsiders – Barbershop Quartet, interview with The Creswell Club, Sunnyside, Queens, N.Y.
- 1:55 p.m. – 3 p.m.: High Cotton, 1920’s Bluegrass (“O Brother Where Art Thou” style), Monticello, Ill.
- 3 p.m. — 3:20 p.m.: Sammy Fahrenkrug interview with Matt Tolentino, Cincinnati, Ohio.
- 3:20 p.m. — 4:30 p.m.: The Southside Soul Kings, 1910’s Delta Blues.
- 4:30 p.m. – 4:50 p.m.: Take Note – Barbershop Quartet interview with Caroline Ruhl, Ruhl & Ruhl Realtors.
- 4:50 p.m. – 6 p.m.: The Sweet Tooth Jazz Band, 1920’s Dixieland Jazz, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- 6 p.m. — 6:20 p.m.: Davenport Central High Dance Team – Flapper Dance!
- 6:20 p.m. — 7:30 p.m.: The Chicago Cellar Boys, 1920’s Dixieland Jazz, Chicago.
- 7:30 p.m. — 7:50 p.m.: Interview with Jim Huiskamp, President, Blackhawk Bank & Trust.
- 7:37 p.m.: Drone Cam Photo.
- 7:45 p.m.: $1,000 Blackhawk Bank & Trust Giveaway.
- 7:50 p.m. – 9 p.m.: VIP Supper served in VIP Club House.
- 7:50 p.m. – 9 p.m.: The Creswell Club, 1920’s Dixieland Jazz, Sunnyside, Queens, N.Y.
- 9 p.m. — 9:20 p.m.: Interview with Jim & Michelle Russell, Russell Group.
- 9:20 — 10:30 p.m.: Matt Tolentino & The Singapore Slingers, 1920’s Dixieland Jazz, Cincinnati.
The importance of giving back
Blackhawk Bank & Trust doesn’t sponsor many community events, beyond the annual Tug Fest, Huiskamp said.
“I’m gonna go to the board and fight for this, to see if they’d support it, because to us – from the very beginning – it’s a gift to the community,” he said of the exciting planning stages and Michelle Russell’s concept. “That’s the way she described it. That’s what resonated
with me, what resonated with our board. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Though it’s supported many youth baseball teams in the area, the bank has never really put its name on something like this, Huiskamp said, noting the bank traditionally has financed many construction projects Russell has built.
“To have something brand new, something in this neighborhood, with friends – it all made sense to me,” he said. “The board was very supportive. I was very pleased.”
Blackhawk also will do a $1,000 gveaway at 7:45 p.m. in a free ticket drawing (all patrons are eligible). You do have to be present to win.
Russell organized the event under her nonprofit Live Uncommon. “It’s always been the philosophy of Live Uncommon that we put on free events,” she said. “We turned to what we historically call engines – big entities to pay bills.”
The nonprofit launched in 2011 “to inspire individuals to reach higher, dream bigger, and to be the catalyst to change the world.”
The Live Uncommon mission “is to inspire individuals to be great, push beyond conceived limits, reach for the stars, dream big, accomplish, achieve, excel while balancing everyday commitments of Family, Work, Fitness & Health, and Giving Back,” according to liveuncommon.org.
“Live Uncommon is borne out of her admiration for her husband, Jim Russell, and his visionary, determined and generous spirit. Because these qualities are so inherent in him, they have become also inherent in Russell Construction Company,” the group website says of Michelle. “Live Uncommon is an extension of the Russell Construction core values — integrity, community commitment, excellence.”
“We decided to just go after a few that would write a big check,” she said recently of Heights of the Era. “The other half of that was – last year sucked. 2020 was brutal and we were, Russell Construction and a lot of the benefactors of this event, like Tri-City Electric and Ruhl&Ruhl, we were very fortunate to be deemed essential from the beginning. Work didn’t really slow down. So many people, their lives have been uprooted – financially and loss of family members. It was super important to provide a day of carefree-ness, like leave your worries at home, leave your wallet at home and just come have a good time.”
“Giving back is just a big part of our DNA – Blackhawk Bank and Russell, all these companies – it’s taking care of the community,” she said.
2020 was a year of stress and loss for many, so they’re making The Heights of the Era happen to provide a day of carefree nostalgic bliss for our community.
“We got enough food to feed the masses,” Russell said. “It’s free brunch and lunch. It’s going in all the race packets, so if you do run and show your ID, you get a wristband for a beer pass.”
The Heights of the Era serves not only as a gift to the community, but to further the community missions of non-profits WVIK Quad Cities NPR, and River Music Experience, she said.
“The River Music Experience is thrilled to be part of this community music festival,” RME executive director Tyson Danner said. “Bix Beiderbecke is a huge part of the Quad-Cities’ musical heritage, and we’re delighted to be part of bringing more music to the Bix 7 weekend.
“Creating community-oriented musical experiences is core to our mission at RME. This is a perfect example of how music can play a role in building our cultural pride and making our community a better place to live,” he said.
“After a challenging year, we look forward to our music scene’s reawakening, because music is a powerful antidote for sorrow and stress,”
Danner said. “Thanks to remarkably generous support from the event’s benefactors, this will be a blockbuster summer event that will bring music back to our community as we head into the new roaring ‘20s.”
“The number-one thing was, we really missed the music. Number two, seriously the soundtrack of our household is WVIK,” Russell said. “We have real radios that you plug into the wall like in every room of our house and we have for years and years, where it’s just on.”
“We were listening to WVIK as we always do and we just, it was exceptionally good music and we were like, whoa, this is like really good. It was vintage jazz and turns out it was so striking to us,” she said, noting their son Sam joined the RME board, and they love Lindsay Park.
“So we were going to try a summer series of concerts. So we kind of started talking about that with VIK and RME, which within probably two days turned into, let’s do something bigger,” Russell recalled. “We really love our community and love Davenport. We love our neighborhood. We love the wider community.”
Russell as a company strongly supports volunteerism and giving back, she said. “I am personally and professionally committed to giving back to our community. So really look at this, 2020 was really hard here and it was a year of loss for a lot of people and it was a year of stress for everybody,” Russell said. “So with where we are right now, we really look at it as a gift that we can play a big part of gifting to the community at least one full day of carefree, just nostalgic bliss.”
“WVIK is excited to be a part of this event,” station manager Jay Pearce said. “We turned 40 last year and because of the pandemic, we didn’t have a chance to hold our usual annual open house — which would have been a special one in recognition of the anniversary. Interacting with our listeners and supporters in person is important to us. “This provides us an opportunity to do that, and on a much grander scale that we would be able to gear up on our own,” he said of the new event.
“The live broadcast will give us the chance to celebrate our anniversary on the air. It will allow people with ties to the Quad-Cities to tune in and share in the celebration no matter where they are.
“And for those who just happen by it on air or online, it will let them experience what happens here when people, companies and non-profit organizations join together to stage an event that contributes to our quality of life,” Pearce said. “What could be better than coming together, safely, to enjoy a day of great music with friends and neighbors in a beautiful setting?” he said. “Michelle, Jim, their family and company do an incredible amount to help make a difference in our community. This is yet another example. A fun, family-friendly celebration.”
Don’t worry about find a parking place either
Heights of the Era is hosted in a vintage neighborhood in the Village of East Davenport where street parking is very limited. “We want to be very respectful of the East Village residents so that we are able to host The Heights of the Era at Lindsay Park again next year!” the event website says, noting that roads immediately surrounding the park will be closed.
So they are running continual Shuttle Service all day from seven off-site parking locations. Those sites (handicapped-accessible shuttles in Davenport, but not Bettendorf) are:
- 3rd and LeClaire streets (just east of Lopiez), Davenport – at 15 minutes past each hour.
- Oneida Avenue and River Drive (north side of the tracks), Davenport – 25 minutes past each hour.
- East side of Lindsay Park Yacht Club, Mound Street across River Drive from the park – 35 minutes past each hour.
- Former Hobby Lobby parking lot, 2119 E. Kimberly Road, Bettendorf – 15 minutes past each hour.
- Former Schnucks parking lot, 858 Middle Road, Bettendorf – 25 minutes past each hour.
- Alter Co., 2117 State St., Bettendorf, 40 minutes past each hour.
- Ascentra Credit Union, 2019 Grant St., Bettendorf, 45 minutes past each hour.
The free shuttles will leave the event at the top of each hour, with the last shuttle leaving Lindsay Park at 10:45 p.m.
Russell hopes Heights of the Era will become an annual fest with the race. “I hope the community enjoys it and I hope it becomes a staple partnering event with the big summer race, like it like it used to be,” she said. “We’re happy to do that if everybody wants it.”
For complete information, including an FAQ, visit www.theheightsoftheera.com/.