Cornell University Music: Original Cornell Syncopators, Sunday, February 26, 8:00 p.m., Barnes Hall
Long before Miles Davis swirled heads with the swift and dexterous Milestones, and Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius lifted the heavens with the transcendent Bright Size Life, there was a group that recorded the very first jazz record: the Original Dixieland Jass Band (changed to Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) in late 1917). The group’s hazy and wild jazz single “Livery Stable Blues”—recorded in 1917—was the first jazz recording ever released, and the band subsequently went on to create a plethora of jazz standards and influence the world’s musical horizon.
Colin Hancock—a jazz musician and student at Cornell University—is a guy with a big heart for this early style of music. He’s the founder of The Original Cornell Syncopators—a group devoted to playing the music of ODJB’s early recordings—and has pursued this musical form with an honesty and perseverance that is righteous and bold. His group will be celebrating the 100-year anniversary of ODJB’s first jazz record this Sunday at Barnes Hall, by performing the entire 1917 recording session. The concert will be narrated by Ithaca jazz veteran Joe Salzano, and will include stunning visuals and period dance pieces by the Crazeology dance troop. It’s a night to engage in some classic time travel and marvel at the sound that redirected music history. The Ithaca Times caught up with Colin Hancock in anticipation of the evening. Here’s the skinny:
Ithaca Times: The Original Cornell Syncopators is a really cool concept: how and why did you come up with it, and is there a certain element of fantasy to the whole project (even though it’s based in reality)?
Colin Hancock: Before I came to Cornell, I co-led a project on the legendary Jazz Pioneer, Buddy Bolden in Austin, TX. Although I’ve loved this kind of music since I was around seven, I’d never really delved into the earliest stages of it. After listening to so much incredible early music and learning so much about the history, I wanted to know more about the roots of Jazz. While any recordings made of Bolden are lost (if they even were made), the next step seemed to be the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB), which cut the first commercial jazz record in 1917. When I got accepted to Cornell I hoped I could take my work here and contacted Paul Merrill, head of the Jazz Department, who told me of the school’s mission to provide students with the necessary support and space to take on projects like this. After a year of getting used to the place, Paul and I sat down in my dorm and listened to some of my early jazz 78s, including the one the ODJB cut in 1917. I told him of my idea for leading a combo to play this kind of jazz, and to kick things off with a project celebrating the centennial anniversary of the first recording, and he told me it was a great idea and that the Department would have my full support. All that was left to do was find the students—which was actually much easier than I thought it would be—and a coach, who turned out to be local Ithaca jazz veteran Joe Salzano—we couldn’t have asked for someone better. Though the project is itself sort of fantasy (this time period can never be replicated), it changed American music, and the trajectory of music across the world—taking it out of the politeness of Victorian/Edwardian morality into the Jazz Age. It set the stage for all subsequent genres of music so it is really important to remember just how groundbreaking the ODJB was, both then and now, 100 years later.
IT: What’s interesting to you about the music that you guys cover in this project?
CH: This music has to be taken in context. Sure, now the music can seem a little repetitive at times (despite its all being improvised there are no solos, only “solo breaks” or the switching of lead parts), however in 1917 everything about this music was revolutionary, the instrumentation, the tempos, and the sound in general. Before that with a few exceptions it was mainly confined to New Orleans and the ODJB were able to take it out and spread its gospel the world over via the Phonograph Record—another relatively new phenomenon at the time. So when I’m playing it—besides the thrill of playing this kind of jazz which has always captivated me—knowing that I’m playing what caught America by storm 100 years ago is a pretty cool feeling as well.
IT: Do you think jazz has retained elements of its roots in the contemporary form?
CH: Absolutely. In fact, Pop music has also taken a lot from early jazz through form, intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, coda (ABAB type stuff), not to mention chord changes and formations. Also, the messages in most songs remain either about love or dances.
IT: What’s your musical and life background and what got you interested in jazz?
CH: I first heard early jazz when I was seven years old and my dad was cleaning out his CD collection. I noticed there were three CDs: one of Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, one of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives, and one of Sidney Bechet. They all had these different looking black and white cover photos so I wanted to listen and hear what they could sound like because I was intrigued. From the minute I heard “Fidgety Feet” by the Wolverines I knew this was something that would change my life and I never stopped listening. For my eighth birthday my dad got me a pawnshop trumpet and I started taking lessons that summer. Then in High School I was lucky enough to be a part of the St. Stephen’s Jazz Band in Austin that was made up of some very musically adventurous peers of mine and directed by Mark Kazanoff. This group helped me develop a musical “ear” and playing in an ensemble as well as discover “groove” (man I miss those guys). I also started listening to early jazz more, diversifying the number of instruments I could play, and playing around Austin with several groups including the East Side Dandies and the Texas Serenaders, and I got to play with the California Feetwarmers in LA through my friend John Levin which was pretty awesome. By the time I got to Cornell, I knew I had the tools and knowhow to start my own group.
IT: How’d the musicians in The Original Cornell Syncopators come together, and is there a lot of communication and collaboration involved between the group?
CH: Paul actually introduced me to the Rhythm Section players, Amit Mizrahi (piano) and Noah Li (drums), whom I had met up with on the side and discussed the project with. Both were very motivated about it and have been a huge part of the group’s development. I know Rishi Verma from the Cornell Big Band (he’s lead trombone), and Hannah Krall (clarinet) through jazz and one very interesting combo performance last year. She actually stepped in when we needed a clarinetist/saxophonist at the beginning of the semester and has done a wonderful job. We all have GroupMe which is quite active every day talking about music, performance or just keeping each other updated with what’s going on in our crazy Cornell lives. We also consulted three jazz icons who were of incredible help with learning the style and info on the band, and so we’ve designated them “Coaches at Large”; Dan Levinson of New York, David Sager of Washington DC and the Library of Congress, and Hal Smith of Arkansas.
IT: Do you listen to contemporary jazz, and what’s the connection between jazz’ roots and the modern forms?
CH: I do listen to some contemporary Jazz, my favorite groups being BADBADNOTGOOD and Hiatus Kaiyote. I also am a big fan of contemporary musicians who play earlier styles of jazz like the Jon Doyle Swingtet, Andy Schumm, Mauro Purro, Michael Miquaid, and Dom Flemmons. I also listen to contemporary Rap artists like Drake, The Weekend, and 21 Savage.
IT: Do you feel there’s an element of visual art to the early Dixieland style jazz?
CH: In “Dixieland” jazz yes, however the concept of “Dixieland” came up in the ‘40s during a revival period that was unfortunately a little corny at least aesthetically. While musicians in the ‘10s and ‘20s like the ODJB would’ve been dressing smartly, the ‘40s and ‘50s Dixieland revival unfortunately saw the rise of the stripped suit jazz band. So for this project we’re trying to be like the original band with 1917 period dress—suits with no ties and the collar up (Hannah is also going to be in a period dress). But, let me say the ODJB also did have its moments of corniness too; it’s part of showbiz.
IT: Do you guys plan on doing any original material in the vein of The Original Cornell Syncopators?
CH: We have already done a few original arrangements including a great one of Tony Jackson’s “Pretty Baby”. As we’ve progressed the band has definitely had more and more input on the charts I bring too. It’s my hope that in the coming semesters we will be playing as many originals as period pieces.
IT: What’s the best part of being a part of this project?
CH: Playing music with my fellow students in always a treat, but these guys really do a lot more than read dots on a page or play a solo here and there. The guys really genuinely care and love their craft, and that just makes this music come alive. It’s what got me interested almost 14 years ago, and it’s what keeps me loving it now. •