On July 4, 1985 Ben Schenck experienced the moment that would change his life. The 22-year-old music student went to the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. for the Smithsonian Folkways Festival and heard the Young Tuxedo Brass Band. Schenck, a percussionist and clarinet player, was enthralled by the sound of Michael White’s clarinet drifting across the grass.
“I had been playing conga and I really seized on the idea that I wanted to make music for dancing,” says Schenck. “I was in college and it was the New Wave period so we were dancing to Devo and Blondie and the Cars and Talking Heads. There was kind of this tongue in cheek artifice to that music, with synthesizers and drum machines. At the same time I was starting to learn to play the clarinet and I really wanted to make party music, dance music with no electricity. When I was down on the mall I heard this brass band from across the way and they weren’t playing Devo but they were making a party. There was this clarinet riding over the top of it and it just pulled me over. There are so many things about this that really feel like destiny. There are these moments where you are just offered something and hopefully you have the ability to see it and take it.
“I met Michael that day in July of 1985 and we became buddies right there. I knew about jazz and I knew about the clarinet, I had been listening to a lot of jazz, Preservation Hall, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington was my favorite, with Barney Bigard on clarinet. That experience hearing the Young Tuxedo Brass Band just hit me right in the gut, got inside my body and I knew that I had to have it.”
Schenck followed his instinct and came to New Orleans for the 1986 Jazz Fest.
“I stayed at the youth hostel and busked in the French Quarter to make enough money for the festival and a sandwich. At that time you could get into the Jazz Festival for eight bucks so I could go every day. I’d take my clarinet and start playing in the French Quarter until I had eight bucks and I’d go to Jazz Fest. Then I got to hear Michael and talk to him. The second time I came to Jazz Fest in 1988 I found a house where I could live for a couple of months. So I went home, got my bicycle, my clarinet and a hundred bucks, and moved to New Orleans. Been there ever since.”
Schenck set about to find out what it means to be a New Orleans musician. His friend Michael White was the first to lend a helping hand.
“What struck me was Michael’s kindness, and his openness to me,” Schenck says, “and his willingness to share his gift. He and Gregg Stafford had this lunch gig at Café Mediterranean by the statue of Joan of Arc. After a couple of times going down to play with them Gregg took me aside and said ‘It’s okay for you to sit in, but don’t stay up there too long because two clarinets in the upper register is more than I can deal with.’ I was new. I didn’t know how to sound right. I was trying to get my shit together so I didn’t have a lot to offer yet but people were very tolerant and I got to learn on the job.”
Schenck sat in with Kermit Ruffins, and spent a lot of time hanging out on North Robertson Street in the Treme.
“I played with Kermit,” he recalls. “I met Jonathan Freilich at UNO and invited him out to Kermit’s gig. Arthur Kastler was playing string bass and my brother-in-law Davis Rogan was on piano. That’s how I met my wife—Ama Rogan is Davis’ sister. Kermit had a Monday night thing at Little People’s Place. This was still when there were a lot of night clubs in Treme. You had Joe’s Cozy Corner, you had the Treme Music Hall, you had the Petroleum Lounge, you had Caledonia, all within a four-block stretch, and basically the Treme Brass Band played in a different one of these places every night, and sometimes it was Rebirth. Danny Barker was coming in there. I was just making the scene. I owe all those people a huge debt of gratitude because I wasn’t contributing that much. The vibe I got is that people liked my persistence, and at that time there were very few other white people in there. Me and Davis were the only white people showing up there regularly.”
“The Klezmers were the first band I got paid to play with,” says Schenck. “Jonathan and Arthur and I were out playing with Kermit and one night we were out rolling around in Jonathan’s old beat-up Cadillac. He had a cassette of a klezmer album that I also had and he put that in and we started jamming out to it. I said ‘I really love this music and I’ve always wanted to try to play it.’ I had been transcribing some of the tunes off that same album. I had maybe a dozen klezmer tunes that I had already transcribed and been working on so I began practicing with them and we said ‘Let’s get a gig.’ We started as a trio at Kaldi’s coffee house, what a great scene that was, this was about ’91. By ’92 we were famous and by ’93 I was on my way out so it was something that burned real fast and bright in my life. It started out with clarinet, drums and string bass. I had heard about Glenn Hartman, he was a grad student at Tulane and played piano, but Jonathan had heard that he played accordion. I went to the music department and left a note in Glenn’s box telling him we were putting together a klezmer band. I went over to Glenn’s house and he took the accordion off the top shelf. I told him play the chords with your right hand and we can double the melody with your left hand. He didn’t really play accordion but he got into it. Then we added a drummer and Jonathan’s friend Ben Ellman moved here and played tenor sax.
“The big break came when we were playing out at Benny’s and the Maple Leaf and got to know Willie Green. When our drummer quit we said ‘Hey Willie you wanna play some Jewish music?’ He took the whole thing and put a heavy punch in it. That was also the beginning and the end for me because being a clarinetist and still being pretty fresh on the instrument things were getting very loud onstage and there was this other thing happening that didn’t include me. So I split, and I was devastated, I was really crushed. I owe those guys a great debt of gratitude, first for being able to play with them and second for telling me it wasn’t working. Otherwise I might still be there trying to make it work.”
Schenck was forced to go back to square one and evaluate his music.
“It took me about two years to form Panorama, two years to shed my ideas and try to get to a place emotionally… it’s like a breakup, it’s like sex, playing music with people, and when you’re rejected it hits you in the gut. So I had to get my confidence back and kind of get my zest for life back. Part of the Panorama concept was that I wanted this to be a totally acoustic band. I didn’t want to compete with an electric guitar any more. I also learned, ‘Make sure you keep the name.’ When I started Panorama I copyrighted the name.”
Schenck took an arrangement class with the great Harold Battiste, an experience that helped him create Panorama’s wide ranging stylistic book.
“The main things Harold taught me about arranging were fairly simple: You don’t want close intervals in the low register, you want wide octaves and fifths in the low register; and write for your instruments in the heart of their range. If you just follow those two guidelines, you’ll have a sound. I had already developed my ear and an ability to put notes on paper. Harold would say, ‘Take this tune and make an arrangement of it.’ I learned through my mistakes. Those two guidelines let me write the book of Panorama’s music. There’s probably 50 musicians around the world who know the book and could play with us any time.”
The Panorama Jazz Band’s first gig was a wedding.
“In November 1995 a woman called and asked if we could play some klezmer music for her wedding. We called some people and put together a program of klezmer music and some standards. It evolved organically over time. It wasn’t even called Panorama yet. We were called the Traffic Stoppers for a minute. Monty Montgomery was on tuba and Jason Gillis was on drums. I had to play every note of every melody for two years. We played at Kaldi’s, Café Brazil, the Dream Palace. We tried to have a weekly gig at Juan’s Flying Burrito on Magazine Street when it first opened. We weren’t even getting paid and we got fired. They basically decided they didn’t want to do live music. Patrick [Mackey] came along on banjo, Amasa Miller played accordion and this woman from Quebec, Geneviève Duval, was our first trombone player. The thing kind of evolved organically.”
The group recorded a couple of albums: Another Hot Night in February, which was more of a traditional New Orleans jazz release, and Panoramaland, which tried to explain the band’s growing musical eclecticism with an unusual map as its cover.
“When we started out most of our book was trad jazz tunes,” Schenck explains. “The klezmer and Caribbean pieces were exotic flavors. As we evolved we played more and more of the exotic stuff and now it’s more like we drop in a trad number once in a while to remind listeners where we’re coming from. My accordion player, Matt Schreiber, his wheelhouse is klezmer and Balkan music, so he’s bringing in new Eastern European material, and we’ve been doing some Venezuelan material.
“People would come up to me and ask, ‘What kind of music is this?’ Sort of like consumerism: So what bin do you fit in at the record store? So I had the idea, ‘What if this was one kind of music and Panoramaland was a place?’ On the map, there’s Martinique, right next to Manhattan right off the coast of New Orleans. Mexico is south, the Ukraine is north and Macedonia and Serbia are right next door.
“We had a run of a couple of years at the Spotted Cat in the late ’90s when they first opened, then we got a gig at the Seaport Lounge on Bourbon Street for about three and a half years right up until the Friday night before Katrina. I called and asked if they were going to open that Friday and he said ‘I guess not, see y’all next week.’”
Schenck and a very pregnant Ama left town and stayed around Austin, Texas for three months, during which time their son Rogan was born. The family returned to New Orleans on December 3, 2005 and Schenck got the old gig at the Spotted Cat back. But the most important move he made was to invite a newcomer, Aurora Nealand, into the band.
“When I was still in Texas Ama and our new baby were living in a cabin in the Hill Country south of Austin. We were starting to think about coming back. I wasn’t sure I was going to have a brass band because a lot of my people had been dispersed. I had met Aurora before the storm. She visited and it was French Quarter Fest and Geneviève my trombone player had met Aurora. She brought Aurora to our gig at d.b.a. and she broke out her soprano and played. We chatted and I found out she’d gone to Oberlin. My sister went to Oberlin, so there was a connection there. When I was in that cabin in Texas trying to figure out how I was going to have a brass band in time for Mardi Gras I thought about her. I had no way to get in touch with her, but she’d been part of a puppet troupe at Oberlin so I sent a message to her through them. I asked her if she could play alto in my band at Mardi Gras. She somehow got the message and she came. She was so quick on the uptake that I started calling her for the jazz band gig too. Everything I threw at her she just absorbed and turned into music. It was the first time I had another voice in the band that was close to my range that could really play and shadow me. I’ve had tenor sax, trumpet… but now there was this new sound that right away became really important. Now the jazz band became a seven piece and it became necessary to have alto.”
With Aurora and Ben as co-lead voices Panorama developed into one of the hottest local bands in the wake of Katrina. A lot of groups raised their games after the flood, but Nealand brought Panorama to a new level.
“Playing with Aurora is really special,” says Schenck. “One of the things about the band for me is we all listen and when it’s hooked up there’s this connectedness where you’re listening but you’re also kind of feeling each other’s vibe. Aurora and I like playing this music together, playing in harmony, being part of a reed section.”
Panorama released two albums after Katrina; 17 Days, a celebration of the Panorama Brass Band’s annual Mardi Gras run; and Dance of the Hot Earth, which became the definitive Panorama Jazz Band album upon its release, documenting the group’s engaging and wonderfully eclectic live performances. Dance… would have been a hard act to follow, but Schenck went in a different direction, putting out a new recording each month for the band’s listeners.
In 2015 he collected those releases on Good Music For You, a promotional CD that is the basis for Schenck’s approach to future releases, and the most eclectic of all the Panorama albums.
“We’re not trying to do fusion,” explains Schenck, “like ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to play the Jewish melody with a Caribbean groove?’ I want to be able to turn on a dime and be a klezmer band, then be a beguine band.”
The releases are ongoing—this month’s, for example is “a twisted version of ‘Jingle Bells’ in 7/8 time, a Bulgarian rozhanitsa. January’s release will be a Hanukkah song.”
Schenck hopes to go directly to his audience with each month’s new release at panoramaland.bandcamp.com.
“We’re turning the monthly release into a subscription series on Bandcamp.com under the name ‘Panoramaland’ which encompasses both the jazz and brass bands,” he says. “It’s basically a fan club. We’ll continue putting out a new track on the downbeat of every month, but now our listeners will get it automatically straight to their inbox. And we’ll have the steady financial support so we can continue making them, and even spend more time on each one. Our goal is to sign up 500 subscribers by year’s end.”
With one of the city’s best working bands playing on a regular basis and a taxi squad of alternates all bringing fresh ideas to the mix it’s a solid bet that the Panorama Jazz Band isn’t going to run out of new material any time soon.
The Panorama Active Roster
Not all group members are always available for every gig, so Ben Schenck has assembled a group of musicians who are all familiar with Panorama’s songbook and can step in to fill their role at a moment’s notice.
“At the risk of forgetting somebody critical…” says Schenck, “let it be stated that this is not everybody who ever played with Panorama but cats who I could call to come make a gig tonight if I had to. People who know the book, dig the concept and can bring the party! I’m sure there are people not listed here who will think to themselves, “What about me…”
Clarinet: Ben Schenck, Aurora Nealand, Tomas Majcherski
Saxophone: Aurora Nealand, Tomas Majcherski, Dan Oestreicher
Trumpet: Jack Pritchett, JR Hankins, Reid Poole, Jenavieve Kachmarik, Satoru Ohashi
Trombone: Charlie Halloran, Jon Ramm, Matt Perrine, Susan Sakash, Geneviève Duval
Accordion: Matt Schreiber, Michael Ward-Bergeman, Lou Carrig, Walt McClements, Patrick Harison, Patrick Farrell, Amasa Miller
Banjo: Patrick Mackey, Seva Venet, Chris Edmunds
Midhorns (Alto, Tenor and Baritone Horns): Patrick Farrell, Don Godwin, John Gerken, Mark Rubin, Matt Schreiber
Tuba: Matt Perrine, Steve Glenn, Mark Rubin, Jon Gross, Asher Ross, Ainsley Matich, Monty Montgomery
Drums (Snare, Bass and Set): Doug Garrison, Paul Thibodeaux, Sean Clark, Simon Lott, Boyanna Trayanova, Chris Davis, Andre Bohren,