Not Your Mummy’s Jazz: Hot Dixieland Quartet at the Oriental Institute

To think of the 1920s is to think of flapper girls, speakeasies, and hot, hot jazz. But for the folks at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, the decade also recalls mummies, for these are the years that James Henry Breasted, famed Egyptologist and founder of the OI, trekked through Egypt and Mesopotamia in search of artifacts to exhibit in the fledgling museum. It seems natural, then, to pair the OI’s current exhibit, “Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East, 1919-1920,” with a bit of the hot stuff, as will happen when Eric Schneider’s Hot Dixieland Quartet performs there this Sunday afternoon.

Schneider is a South-Side-born, North-Side-raised jazz saxophonist. A self-proclaimed Luddite, he is difficult to interview. He only has one YouTube clip posted, but it’s impressive, testifying to his impeccable bebop skills. Bebop and Dixieland, though both are forms of jazz, bear only a distant resemblance to one another. Both rely heavily on improvisation, but where the former is typified by Charlie Parker-style rapidity and technical prowess, the latter is classified by its New Orleans roots, easy tempo, and ragtime and blues influences. “Giant Steps,” the famous John Coltrane recording, is an example of bebop; Dixieland is closer to “When The Saints Come Marching In.”

Dixieland and Chicago have a special history as well. Though the subgenre originated in New Orleans, it migrated to Chicago and New York via musicians, the most influential of whom was Louis Armstrong. Armstrong, widely regarded as a master of Dixieland music and a godfather of jazz, was brought to Chicago in 1922 by his mentor Joe “King” Oliver to play in his Creole Jazz Band. With his arrival in Chicago came the birth of Chicago-style Dixieland. Though over time Chicago jazz has moved away from these Dixieland roots–string bass instead of tuba, guitar instead of banjo– some distinguishing elements remain, especially the brassy melodic statements over which the rest of the ensemble improvises accompaniment. But for a jazz musician working in the present, after bebop, post-bop, and free jazz became the dominant jazz idioms, there remains a problem: how does a musician move between the two idioms while retaining a coherent sound?

Even for a musician as experienced as Schneider, it wasn’t easy. “During my formative years,” he says, “I would just try to play what fits. As soon as I heard Charlie Parker–and I didn’t know it then–but I would be playing Charlie Parker stuff over a Dixieland band. It sounded a bit off.”

His interest in the music grew, and with his new interest came an appreciation not only for the unique character of Dixieland, but for the elements that relate it to other forms of jazz. Though improvising over a Dixieland tune might require “less notes”, the melodic and lyrical standard that applies to all jazz solos also apply to Dixieland. As if to illustrate how jazz borrows from many different forms of music, he adds, “Just look at the bebop era. They based songs on the chord structures of the great American standards.”

Schneider has a lot to teach about the finer points of distinguishing jazz genres. “Benny Goodman was first a Dixieland player,” he says, referring to the big band king of clarinet, “and so was Sidney Bechet.” Bechet is yet another clarinetist (and saxophonist) crucial to the history of jazz, and your correspondent had thought he worked exclusively in swing. After Schneider’s correction, further listening and research suggested that Bechet was indeed a Dixieland musician at heart. “That’s a whole other story,” he said. “What’s Dixieland? What’s jazz?” This Sunday afternoon, listeners will be able to find out for themselves.
Oriental Institute Museum, 1155 E. 58th St. May 16. Sunday, 2pm. Free. 773-702-9507. oi.uchicago.edu