Million-martini march

“We haven’t done anything to promote the [group] except to tell our friends,” insists drummer Bill Smith, founder of Asheville’s Firecracker Jazz Band. “We haven’t called club owners to book gigs — they’ve called us.”

Smith is just as surprised by his band’s sudden popularity as is anyone. He’s also quite grateful, as are Firecracker’s other members: Je Widenhouse (trumpet), Joe Edel (Sousaphone), Jason Krekel (banjo), Reese Gray (piano), Steve Davidowsky (clarinet), Earl Sachais (trombone) — and sometimes local tap dancer Joe Mohar clicking along.

The band’s New Orleans-style pomp doesn’t simply get people dancing — it often inspires them to stride, stomp and strut. That’s no accident: The Firecrackers’ sound is infused with parade rhythms derived from the great tradition of military marching bands.

The instrument that anchors the group’s boisterous syncopation descends directly from the fellow who gave us “The Stars and Stripes Forever” — John Philip Sousa, the Marine Band composer often dubbed “The King of the March.” So thank the Sousaphone for much of the Firecrackers’ beat.

Sousa frequently played in Asheville, and would parade up and down Patton Avenue with his band to publicize his indoor performances at the now-extinct Grand Opera House (which stood across from the Kress Building on Patton Avenue).

So far, though, the Firecrackers haven’t had to take lessons at the Sousa school of publicity. They played their first gig about four months ago, on invitation from Thibodaux Jones Creole Kitchen, to an appreciative audience of nine.

Two months later, they were attracting 90-to-100 fans to their regular Thursday-night Thibodaux Jones gigs — simply by word of mouth — thanks to the spontaneous, Mardi Gras-type atmosphere the group generates through determined showmanship.

“My ultimate goal is to have a band like this and put together a vaudevillian show,” says Smith. “This music was meant to be played at 3 o’clock in the morning, when everyone is drinking and having a good time.”

The Firecrackers play a traditional jazz repertoire of mostly Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong tunes. The music is reminiscent of ragtime, its close cousin, and has a ragged, bouncy stride. And although its heavily syncopated rhythms distinguish it from other forms of jazz, it’s a hard style to define.

And it’s even harder to find a band these days that steeps itself in this traditional mode.

“A lot of jazz-ers are playing bebop, or more modern jazz,” explains Smith. “But not many people are playing this particular kind of music now.”

During Louisiana’s years as a French colony, occupying armies paraded the streets of New Orleans, introducing French military music, with its drums and trumpets. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when Louisiana became part of the United States, the major port city developed a huge slave trade.

“Slaves were allowed to perform their music one day a week in Congo Square,” Smith reports. “And their melodies eventually became interpreted into the harmonies of jazz.

“In the style of jazz we play,” he continues, “the banjo and the piano work hand-in-hand, and are the melodic rhythm, the momentum. The [Sousaphone] plays the bass line. And the horn player and drummer work closely together.”

In military bands, the trumpet and drums cooperate to announce the arrival of the armies — a style dating to the 13th century. The Firecrackers’ music melds aspects of that tradition with African rhythms and the boisterous piano music played in New Orleans’ red-light district Storyville at the turn of the 20th century. All told, it’s an uproarious cocktail of influences with but one thing on its collective mind: Played in Storyville’s brothels and bars, “This kind of music,” stresses Smith, “followed the night life, the alcohol and the parties.”

And here’s something you probably didn’t know: “Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton,” Smith reveals, “were pimps. They played music and worked as business managers for hookers who gave them money. Armstrong did it in the beginning, but not for long. His girlfriend got mad and started beating him up, so he stopped. But Jelly Roll Morton did it all along.

“And piano music,” Smith adds, “was a huge part of the scene.”

Tom Kerr is a freelance writer living in Asheville.

The Firecracker Jazz Band plays Mardi Gras Night at Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues (28 Broadway; 254-7072) on Tuesday, Feb. 24. Contact the club for cover price.

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