On the Monday night between Jazz Fest weekends, traditional jazz pours out of Mimi’s in the Marigny. Inside, two jitterbuggers dance the Lindy Hop in between candlelit tables. This Monday happens to be the day Lindy Hop creator Frankie Manning died. The two twentysomethings might know this, but it’s equally possible they’ve never heard of Manning. They don’t pull any over-the-back moves, but there’s enough hip to hip action to show that the music and the moves are alive now as they were 60 years ago.
The couple is dancing to the New Orleans Moonshiners, and the band’s young enough to plow through four hours of standards including “Royal Garden Blues” and the well-known “You Are My Sunshine.” Swing and traditional spirituals including “I’ll Fly Away” make regular appearances, and the second line favorite appears on the band’s self-titled debut album. Original compositions seamlessly blend into the rest of the repertoire. They’re a trad jazz band with new souls. When they perform the 1950s nightclub hit “Kiss of Fire” the Moonshiners are accompanied by whistles, zings and kiss sounds. During Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with some Barbecue,” each solo bursts through the rhythm but is matched in energy by the next. Who knew music could get so rowdy without electricity?
“I like to say I like playing music that people can dance to,” banjo player Chris Edmunds says.
And people dance. They Lindy Hop, they swing and they move in ways without names. At a recent gig at Mimi’s, two girls dance the Charleston, which came and went 50 years before they were born. The fringed flapper dresses have been replaced by black pants and cotton T-shirts, but wardrobe aside, you’d think you were in a speakeasy.
The Moonshiners could only work in New Orleans. Seven young, professionally trained transplants band together to explore and spread a love of traditional New Orleans jazz. Edmunds met trombonist Charlie Halloran while playing in the streets and with various bands. The pair decided that they’d had enough of trying to play in other people’s bands and were going to start their own.
“We knew we wanted to play traditional jazz, and we knew we wanted to be a young band,” Edmunds says.
The pair played the streets in the French Quarter, picking up band members along the way: trumpet, alto saxophone, clarinet, drums and bass. At first sight, you wouldn’t expect them to play traditional jazz. Halloran sports a St. Louis Cardinals cap. Clarinet player Teppei Tada wears a navy track jacket. Drummer Jung Ho Kang keeps his hair long.
But the Moonshiners were adopted by the music they play. Edmunds is the native New Orleanian, and he moved back to the city last year. The rest of the band has roots in California, Nebraska, St. Louis, Tokyo and Seoul, South Korea. They’re young, with an average age of 27, and educated. Aurora Nealand graduated with a degree in music composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Halloran earned a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music. Trumpet player Gordon Au will graduate from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance directed by Terence Blanchard.
“New Orleans makes it possible,” Edmunds says. “In most places you couldn’t play this style of music and make a living.”
In October they had their first gig at Donna’s Bar and Grill on Rampart Street and later became the Monday night regulars there. In the beginning, the band outnumbered the audience, but soon they collected a mixed crowd of regulars and strangers, college kids and middle-aged tourists. Combining youth with time-honored tunes has been key to a steady path of success.
“Older people know the songs, and I think younger people see young people playing and get excited,” Edmunds says.
They released The New Orleans Moonshiners in February, and they’ve played their way around the city: Frenchmen Street, Tipitina’s and the French Quarter and Jazz and Heritage festivals. The acoustic act enjoys playing the larger crowds that might be hearing traditional jazz for the first time, but it prefers the intimacy of playing on the street and in small venues.
On the night Frankie Manning died, Edmunds greets the five people in the audience, “Welcome to Mimi’s. We’re glad you could find a table.” Despite the turnout, the Moonshiners don’t hold back. By 10:30 p.m. the crowd has doubled, and after the second break, the room bustles with people who have made their way upstairs. Solos abound while the others in the band whistle or clap along.
On break, the Moonshiners get drinks and mull around the room, talking with old friends and meeting new ones.
Au sips water, looks around the room and smiles. “It works because we all love the music,” he says.