A part of the past floats into the room every time Dixieland jazz bands like Dr. Jass & The Heartbeats perform in the Rim Country. Imagine scenes from the 1920s: flappers — the young and unconventional women —burning up the dance floor with the guys dressed in skimmers, bowlers, silk top hats and bow ties. Imagine the ’20s hairdos: the bobbed and shingled hair of the women and the neat, slicked-back hair of the men. Dixieland jazz conjures up such images with every performance.
“What people generally think of as jazz came later,” said Suzanne Knighton, a member of the band.
Dixieland jazz originated in the South in places like New Orleans, and in the 1920s helped define American music. It grew out of ragtime, which set the stage for the colorful and radical changes ushered in by Dixieland jazz.
“We all like music, it’s something we have in common, and we all like jazz and Dixieland jazz,” explained Dr. Claudio Zamorano, leader, cornetist, pianist and retired cardiovascular surgeon.
The band includes Mike Buskirk, local teacher and trombone player; “Hawkeye” Matthews, clarinet; Dale Knighton, vocals, banjo, guitar, and harmonica; Suzanne Knighton, vocals, bass, guitar, and washboard; and Gerry Reynolds, drummer. These local residents play wherever they can find an audience, from the Payson High School Auditorium to local restaurants and churches.
“Enjoying what we’re doing ... that’s the most important thing ... just having fun,” said Zamorano.
Zamorano, Dale Knighton, and Buskirk all say Dixieland jazz played a large role throughout their childhood and young adulthood. Louie Armstrong remains perhaps the best known popularizer of the Dixieland sound, which usually involves a “front line” of trumpet or cornet, trombone and clarinet, with a rhythm section of instruments like guitar, banjos, string bass, tuba, piano and drums. Most commonly, a trumpet plays the melody while the other musicians improvise around that melody — which gives musicians a great, creative range and songs a rich, layered, often improvisational lilt.
Zamorano grew up in Chile, where, believe it or not, Dixieland jazz was very popular. From an early age, he was influenced by the energetic melodies and swinging beats of the music. Before he came to the U.S., he played for a band in Chile, gaining experience in the genre of Dixieland music, even performing for a long stint at the Hot Jazz Club of Santiago, Chile. For Zamorano, playing Dixieland jazz comes as naturally as a heartbeat.
Dale Knighton learned to play the banjo at an early age, and he liked to listen to Dixieland jazz. He was involved in a jug band, which is like a poor man’s Dixieland jazz band with a washtub bass, jugs and kazoos. For many years, Dale and Suzanne Knighton traveled as musicians, performing Dixieland jazz and other genres. Suzanne explained that they played other genres of music, such as country and rock and roll, in order to maintain a living. Dixieland jazz is not as popular as it once was in Armstrong’s heyday.
As a child, Buskirk grew up hearing his mother play ragtime on the piano, developing his ability to pick up ragtime and eventually Dixieland jazz as well. Like other band members, he says Dixieland jazz runs in his blood.
Dr. Jass & The Heartbeats formed about five years ago and have gained and lost several musicians along the way. Zamorano began to practice with Buskirk, playing at his house. They later met Dale and Suzanne Knighton, who had played Dixieland jazz. The Knightons were previously members of the “Whitewater” band. Reynolds, the drummer, also plays with the Payson Jazz Trio. The newest member of the band is Matthews, known as “Hawkeye.”
Originally, Dixieland jazz didn’t use electronic instruments, so the band tries, for the most part, to keep it that way. Generally, Dixieland jazz was composed of mostly marching band types of instruments, including horns.
The band practices every week and their sets include many originals from around the 1920s like “Dr. Jass,” “Bill Bailey,” “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and “Muskrat Ramble.” Dr. Jass & The Heartbeats have recorded their own album, available at local concerts.
They have three upcoming concerts in Payson including May 20 at the Payson High School Auditorium, May 24 at The Journigan House and June 9 at the Community Presbyterian Church.
“The best thing we can do here is entertain people,” Zamorano concluded.