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50th Anniversary...


For two days in October, time stopped and the world returned to the way things were, starting in 1947.  That's when a group of Purdue University students began the New Orleans-style jazz band that has been playing ever since, now called the Original Salty Dogs Jazz Band.  Nowhere in the annals of popular music history have researchers been able to find another band or orchestra with such longevity.

In West Lafayette, Indiana, and Chicago, a total of fifty former and current band members gathered with about a thousand joyous and appreciative fans in a musical love-in celebrating the years and places where the music became their common bond.  No one could have predicted how totally encompassing the feeling of we're-all-in-this-together turned out to be.

In the weeks since, letters have been written to express thanks that for once, people who love traditional jazz could share a seemingly-perfect musical experience, where everyone felt as if they were part of it. Those letters can best describe the events that made musical history and the feelings that they evoked.

Eddy Banjura, founding member, Illiana Club of Traditional Jazz: "October 12th was not just a concert but a jazz happening, the likes of which will probably not be duplicated for some time."

Jack Karl, senior associate director, Purdue Alumni Association: "The memories will linger forever. What an awesome experience!  I was struck by the love and affection the musicians had for each other and these emotions transcended all ages."        

Duncan Schiedt, Indianapolis IN, jazz photographer and author since 1937: "There was a palpable affection among all the ... members of the bands and it extended across the years, not just among the peer group for any one particular year.  The feeling was so convivial that everyone from Indianapolis with whom I talked felt as though they were virtual Salty Dogs themselves."   

Dick Mushlitz, Newburgh IN, band co-founder in 1947:  "My God!  I just experienced the last fifty years of my life!"  And from his wife, Barb:  " Awesome - the weekend was absolutely awesome!  The music Saturday night was outstanding and the presentation - band by band - gave such a sense of perpetuity.  During our goodbye hugs and handshakes, there were few dry eyes."

Jim "Whip" Williams, Springfield IL, 50s tuba alum and chairman, Illinois Dept of Corrections Parole Board:  "...a weekend I had long looked forward to . . . a weekend I shall never forget.  All those folks not seen for 45 years, playing and visiting.  Just seeing them after such a time lapse brought tears to my eyes on several occasions."

Don Gibson, Portland OR, '50s piano alum and leader, the Sons of Bix: "Everyone sounded as good as I remembered and even better.  John Ely especially so (early '50s cornet alum). He blew everyone away.  He sounded like he was ready to re-enroll at Purdue."

Bob Berg, Brevard NC, original 1947 trombone alum:  "What an inspirational weekend!  Having been out of live music for so long, I'd forgotten how exhilarating it is."

Gordon and Jody Logan, Mercer Island WA, Purdue Class of '45, arch-fans of the band: "...such a wonderful time at the Salty Dogs Reunion.  How did you track down band members of all those past years? Thanks so much, it was great".

Bob Lord, St Louis MO, '60s alumni drummer and author, "Those Dogs of Mine - the Story of the Salty Dogs Jazz Band", in the  August 1997 Mississippi Rag: "Everyone I talked to agreed - it was a lifetime event for all of us.  I spent most of Saturday afternoon in the North Ballroom watching "the legends" rehearse - I couldn't believe that all these people were together again after all these years.  Talk about getting a chance to relive your childhood! ".

Lew Green, Darien CT, cornet, Original Salty Dogs Jazz Band (the current band):  " ... begin work on the 100th anniversary.  For that party, all they'll need is an organist."

Doug Finke, Mt Laurel NJ, '60s trombone alum:  "My only regret is that it didn't last for a week."

Over the fifty years, there have been 88 Salty Dogs playing in capacities ranging from permanent to occasional.  Talented musicians from the top rank of working traditional players have been added to recordings and band dates in recent years. Most of the personnel changes took place during the first twenty years at Purdue when college graduations forced annual recruiting and before the band consolidated as a single Chicago-based aggregation as we know it today. It was this rich heritage that was being celebrated.

Any thoughts of separatism existing in the ranks of such diverse alumni disappeared quickly.  The reason became obvious:  these were people who all knew and respected each other's work and contributions, even if they were not yet personal friends.  Why else would fifty of the 62 living, located band members travel long distances to honor their common roots?  The reunion drew musicians, along with 1000 fans, into a tight bond of musical friendship that amazed and delighted all who took part.

The celebration was spread over three days. It began with a long radio interview for eight of the earliest members over the same station where three of them were once disc jockeys in the '40s and '50s.  Friday night saw informal dinners, rehearsals and a party for the early arrivals. A satellite gig was held by the Indianapolis Club of Traditional Jazz to combine Carol Leigh and Kim Cusack from the Salty Dogs with 1960s alumni drummer Yoichi Kimura and two fine fellow musicians from Osaka, Michiko Ogawa on amazing stride and ragtime piano and "Nobby" Ishida who plays the late "Pops" Foster's string bass in the New Orleans Rascals.

The official functions started on Saturday with a luncheon for eighty to allow the storytelling to get a running start. The Purdue staff, who decades ago must have wondered what kind of jazz-oriented students they were producing, did everything possible to provide the best surroundings and services they had to offer.  Families of these students-turned-business professionals marvelled at the ancient nicknames called out, gigs once played, sleep lost and stories told swearing it all was true.

The scene shifted back to rehearsals on the same stages where so many Dixieland careers had begun, to the posting of photos, letters, old albums, posters and advertisements from years long ago, to viewing of Duncan Schiedt's photo exhibit, "The Lighter Side of Jazz" and to the growing realization that all of them really were there and that fifty years really had passed somehow.

Michiko, Yoichi and Nobby welcomed the audience with a pre-show concert to enthusiastic applause as showtime arrived.  Reunion coordinator and '50s banjoist Jim Jones welcomed the fans and explained that the time till midnight would be taken up completely with music from seven revival bands from all the main configurations the band had seen.  With no breaks!  And so it went. 

MC Tom Bartlett took over with the Original Salty Dogs Jazz Band opening the evening.  One by one, each band wove the audience into an understanding of how interrelated they all were, drawing from common roots and building on all that had gone before.  Co-founders Dick Mushlitz and Birch Smith were honored.  And when the evening ended at 12:30, none could doubt how this band had achieved its longevity and reputation, for they had seen lives in music re-enacted before their eyes. 

Jim Jones closed with a promise to the audience: "For fifty years, we have given you our music and you have given us your love. So that's our pact with each other: as long as you're there to give us your love, we'll be here to give you our music."

On Sunday, the scene moved to suburban Chicago where the Illiana Club of Traditional Jazz hosted the reunion's continuation.  In twenty-five years, Illiana has never had such a sellout!  They handled it like pros, assuring that fans and bandmembers all were welcomed at the Glendora Ballroom.  This was a five-hour concert by the Original Salty Dogs Jazz Band that Midwestern fans have known since the 1960s in many area venues.  Graciously, the band brought every alumni musician to the stand, knowing that there was no worry about performances.  As tubaman Steve Ley put it later, "In nine hours, there was never a low point."   Many musicians and fans agreed, "Today, history was not just celebrated, it was made!".

Maybe. It's never history the day that something occurs. Only time will tell if the sheer joy of those days in October 1997 will be remembered as the defining point of how a band can become one with its fans, and together, grow to maturity but stay young in enthusiasm for our music.