Woody Allen's New Orleans Jazz Band
Better than…Francis Ford Coppola playing the tuba.
Before the start of the European tour documented in the 1997 Woody Allen documentary Wild Man Blues, Allen tells his bandmates, “Theoretically this should be fun for us.” Last night, before a sold out house at UCLA's Royce Hall, Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band concluded their six date tour with a night of old-timey jazz that, at the very least, certainly seemed to be somewhat amusing to them.
As pianist Conal Fowkes began a solo introduction to “It Had to Be You,” Allen strode onto the stage to wild applause, clarinet cases in hand. After the remaining members joined in, they proceeded to play almost nonstop for over two hours.
Following the first tune, Allen briefly addressed the crowd, promising them a night of “church music and whorehouse music.” Midway through “When You Wore a Tulip” drummer John Gill got up from his kit and sauntered up to the microphone to sing a chorus, before resuming his percussive duties.
“Girl of My Dreams” drew impassioned growls from Allen, and he briefly uncrossed his legs in order to fully project his sound. A rousing “Down By the Riverside” featured trumpeter Simon Wettenhall taking a vocal turn and bassist Greg Cohen's lone solo for the evening. This drew loud roars from the audience as he slid and slapped across the strings. The band closed with a gentle “Til We Meet Again” before returning for three encores and a total of seven more songs.
To start the first encore Allen took the lead on “Swinging on a Star,” inspiring a sea of cell-phone pictures from the foot of the stage. With little resistance from the ushers, a crowd of about fifty remained there to get a better look at the 76-year-old film legend. Twenty-five minutes after initially leaving the stage they closed with a slow blues that featured a collective improvisation from the horns as Cohen's bowed bass held things down.
Allen's clipped clarinet croak stayed comfortably in the center of his more accomplished bandmates throughout the night. Banjoist Eddy Davis, who Allen referred to as the “heart and soul of the group” counted off most of the songs. Allen didn't shy away from the solo spotlight, but was also one of only two band members who didn't sing a song. The other two horns, which also included trombonist Jerry Zigmont, used every trick in the Dixieland bag from brash honks to wah-wah-ing derby hats.
Allen has repeatedly stressed that he is not playing this music as a preservationist but merely as an appreciator. The fact that people show up to hear him continues to surprise him, but if he chose to play an evening of free jazz he would probably draw just as large a crowd. And there would probably be just as many baffled ticket-holders after the first downbeat. Because of that, there is no greater living ambassador for the genre.
Personal Bias: I regularly wear a Woody Allen t-shirt.
The Crowd: People who solve crossword puzzles. In pen.
Random Notebook Dump: The seven graying white guys on the stage could probably have starred in a pretty good Viagra commercial.