On any given night, a festive crowd will find its way to the Mississippi River and aboard the Steamboat Natchez, where the DUKES of Dixieland play an early-evening cruise, seven nights a week. Maybe they’ve come to witness a living piece of New Orleans music history, or maybe they just want to tell their grandkids they heard “When the Saints Go Marching In” on a riverboat. In any case, the band will do its gig, sharp-dressed and polished; even on Lundi Gras, professionalism rules the day. As trombonist Richard Scott says while en route to that evening’s gig, “The craziest thing for us today is the parking.”
Odds are good that jazz fans and tourists alike will return to dry land satisfied. Such is the balancing act that the DUKES of Dixieland have been maintaining for the past four decades. They’re a traditional jazz band that aims to evolve and stay fresh but they have a history to maintain—one that embodies a certain romantic concept of New Orleans.
“It’s a hot jazz band, a fun thing. It’s not for tourists and it’s not square,” says John Shoup, the band’s manager since 1974. Still a fast talker, Shoup is likely the only 77-year-old who can quote from the eccentric music-biz tip sheet the Lefsetz Letter. “Like that guy says: ‘Does anybody really know what’s happening today?’ What we do may be unhip, but it’s been unhip for 39 years; it was even deader back then. We’ve probably experienced all along the same things that rock and rollers are experiencing right now.”
Shoup has been at the center of the DUKES’ story for the past four decades. Before taking over the group, he’d run a restaurant in Chicago; done extensive TV production (including a Mardi Gras special for CBS in the early ’60s as well as the culinary Great Chefs series); and managed a bunch of Chess Records acts (the Dells, Denise LaSalle and the experimental rock/soul group Rotary Connection, which then included Minnie Riperton). While Shoup gives the band a free hand musically, he has orchestrated the current DUKES iteration’s direction, development and overall vision. “Not many bands have an owner and an office,” Scott points out. “He doesn’t dictate what we do musically, but he’s certainly a remarkable businessman. To us that’s a real convenience—you don’t have to do the booking and the marketing. You don’t have to write the checks. You can be a musician all the time.”
Legally and officially, the current DUKES history (the capitalization was added in recent years) begins when Shoup revived the group in 1974. Brothers Frank and Fred “Freddie” Assunto formed original version in 1948. [See article on the original Dukes of Dixieland in this issue.] Because of a legal arrangement between Shoup and the Assunto family, there is no formal connection between the two incarnations; hence the group’s current celebration of its 40th anniversary. The true history, however, is a little blurrier and there is indeed some overlap. As Shoup tells it, he followed the band for years and caught up with the Assunto Dukes at the end of their run. History agrees that the band was then in decline, as Frank Assunto gradually lost his spirit after Freddie’s death in 1966.
According to Shoup: “It was November of ’73 and I’m in St. Charles, Illinois, and the Dukes are playing there. I see Frank Assunto, but I don’t recognize anybody else in the band. He tells me, ‘I just fly into the city and pick up a local group.’ It was sad to see—we talked a lot that night and I know that one of his concerns was keeping the name going. Then I hear over the next weekend that he’d checked himself into the hospital, and he died in February of the next year, one day before Mardi Gras.”
Soon afterward, Shoup put together a benefit show for Frank and Freddie’s widows. “Al Hirt was there, Pete Fountain, everybody was at the bloody thing. So afterwards I’m having a drink with Fountain and he asks, ‘What’s going to become of the Dukes?’ And I said, ‘It’s over; it’s been over for awhile’.” Still, Fountain suggested that Shoup talk to Betty Assunto—Freddie’s widow and a sometime singer with the group—about putting a new Dukes together. “I wasn’t sure I even wanted to—I was thinking ‘Rock and roll is rocky, and Dixieland jazz is dead.’” Still, the great trumpeter Connie Jones, a mainstay of Fountain’s band, was willing to lead the band and Betty Assunto was willing to turn over the name (which had never previously been registered, something Shoup immediately did). With her blessing—and initially with her as vocalist—Shoup formed a new Dukes around Jones. “Next thing I know, I’m laying down a hundred grand,” he recalls.
Jones’ tenure as bandleader only lasted a few months. As Shoup tells it: “The problem was that everybody was drinking; everybody was smashed all the time. I had a trombone player with a bottle onstage, and the whole band was sitting down. And I’m saying, ‘You don’t sit down and play—this is not Preservation Hall.’ So I got into it with Connie and then I took Mike [trumpeter Mike Vax] and made him the leader.” Jones, however, says that alcohol really wasn’t a factor; it was more that the band members that he put together in the re-formed Dukes were older, needed to sit down more to play because of their age, and that Shoup was more interested in a younger-looking band.
Betty Assunto also left the group around this time. “We went through a number of people until it finally started stabilizing,” Shoup says. “But the Dukes were a hard sell that first year; for a while I couldn’t give them away. I had to tell the promoters to try the Dukes once. Then they’d bring them back year after year.”
Still, the band’s reputation couldn’t have slipped entirely, because they got booked at Jazz Fest in their first year back and have played every year since then. Shoup was also able to start putting together the orchestral shows that have since become a tradition—the first was in Grant Park, Illinois, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In one of the group’s odder connections, the conductor for that first show was Henry Brandon, whose main claim to fame is his authorship of the Oscar Meyer Wieners jingle. There was also a televised show with the New Orleans Symphony at the end of the ’70s, the new group’s first nationwide TV appearance. They continue to play with orchestras during the weeks when they leave their riverboat gigs to go on the road.
But the center of the DUKES’ comeback—and the destination for most of Shoup’s hundred grand—was the start of their own nightclub, Dukes’ Place, which opened soon after the group’s relaunch in ’74. The club was on the 17th floor of the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street in the French Quarter, a space they took over from Louis Prima. The band played four sets a night, often stretching ’til dawn at a time when three bucks would take care of the two-drink minimum. “It was the hottest place,” Shoup says. “The bus tours would come in and I’d grab them, feed them a drink, and put them back up the elevator again. Disco was happening then and that’s what we were up against.” Dukes’ Place also became the home base for a number of jazz sessions that Shoup produced for public television; especially significant was a 1979 show built around Ellis Marsalis, who brought in two of his sons, Wynton and high-school-aged Branford. There were also traditional jazz showcases for the DUKES, including one that reunited them with Connie Jones. Edging into mainstream TV, the group was taped for the 1979 network miniseries Studs Lonigan.
After a dozen years at the Monteleone, the group moved in 1986 to its next home base, Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall at 309 Bourbon St., marking the occasion by leading a second line from their old space to the new venue. Named for a legendary Storyville bordello, the Hall aimed for a more wholesome atmosphere—“It’s New Orleans, old and new, blended for sheer enjoyment,” their flier promised. The space had brick walls, a stone floor and a vintage mahogany bar that Shoup purchased and brought back to New Orleans after it had been used in London and Philadelphia venues. “We were one of the classiest old jazz clubs left,” Shoup says. “The music would start at 7:30 and the people would poke their heads in, then they’d walk down Bourbon Street and see what else was there. Then they’d come back at the end of the night, when the band was really swinging.” Of course, keeping things classy was a little more challenging on Bourbon Street than it was in the more rarified Monteleone. “That’s when we started having the rule to not play any more music after 1 a.m.,” Shoup says. What would happen if it went later? “Everything.”
So the DUKES’ current Steamboat Natchez home base carries on their tradition of providing a romantic New Orleans experience to go with the music. “I’d say that a very small percentage is there just to see us,” says Scott, who at 38 is a 12-year veteran, originally on piano and now on trombone and banjo. “If you go to Snug Harbor to see Charmaine Neville, you know just what you want to hear. But a lot of the people we get are there for the boat, and the food, and the party. They don’t always know about New Orleans music and culture; they may not even know what instruments we’re holding in our hands. So it’s really a blank canvas. Speaking personally, what would really bother me is to play music that the audience wasn’t receptive to. If we have an older group, and they want to hear songs that were popular in the ’40s, I would want to give them what they want and not have them disappointed. There are certain tools we use onstage, to make a connection with the audience. For instance, we allow for minimal space between songs, and sometimes we do medleys with no time between songs. That’s extremely unusual for a Dixieland band.”
Dozens of DUKES have passed through the ranks over the years; clarinetist Tim Laughlin and pianist Tom McDermott were both in the ’90s lineup before venturing on to notable solo and bandleader careers. The current lineup is largely fresh-faced players mostly in their 30s: Scott, trumpeter and arranger Kevin Clark, pianist “Big Joe” Kennedy, reeds player Ryan Burrage, bassist Alan Broome, and drummer Paul Thibodeaux (the youngster in his late 20s). “I remember hanging out with Woody Herman and he’d tell me, ‘You’ve got to get rid of these old guys and put in some kids,’” Shoup says. “I want them to do new arrangements and to keep it exciting. I don’t want them if they’re under 25, they’re too young. If they’re over 65, they’re too old. And they can only stay with the band for 20 years. I believe that was also that theory in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
If there’s something proudly old-fashioned about the DUKES, it’s partly their desire to be entertainers. “Listeners 40 and 50 years ago were a little more lenient,” Scott figures. “They were less demanding. There were a lot of songs that were hits that were instrumentals; you hardly ever hear that anymore. I grew up with those old Dukes of Dixieland albums I had when I was 14-years-old. And if you look at the backs of those albums, you see how much was popular at the time—African drum groups, accordion duos. It was really wide. I know it had to do with the advantage in technology, where it was cool to have a stereo system that sounded like a Hawaiian luau in your living room. But the people didn’t have direct expectations about what good music was. They just liked to be entertained.”
So there are no qualms about the part of their gig that calls for being New Orleans ambassadors. “I didn’t feel there was a lot of emphasis on that when I joined, but I’m happy to do it anyway,” says Kennedy, a Utah native who became the group’s newest member last September. “I’ve wanted to live in New Orleans since I was 15. When I was living up north and studying jazz piano, I bought all three of Dr. John’s piano books and studied those a bunch. So I’m happy to tell people that we’re part of this city, we do Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest, and we’re here to play.”
Musically, the group maintains a balancing act: They can go outside the box, but not too far outside. But since Kevin Clark took over as bandleader, they’ve gotten more open to material that isn’t strictly Dixieland. “I try to avoid that ‘nice little band’ syndrome,” says Clark, who was also co-founder of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers. “You know, where a band plays, it’s fairly safe, it sounds great and it doesn’t have that edge. We don’t try to give a history lesson; from the first note, we just roar.” Clark’s goal for the DUKES is simple: “We want to be the pre-eminent New Orleans jazz band—or even just the pre-eminent New Orleans band, because we might do half a set that isn’t jazz material. My focus is just to play New Orleans music and that can be anything from James Booker to Huey Smith to Louis Prima.”
With a repertoire of roughly 400 songs, there’s room for all of the above. Currently, the DUKES tour with 12 different themed shows—“Symphonic Jazz,” “Blues from the Bayou,” “New Orleans Jazz Legends,” “Celebrating Satchmo” and so on—with no songs overlapping. They’ve made room for some beloved Louisiana music that isn’t standard Dixieland repertoire, like the Dr. John and Jerry Lee Lewis medleys that Kennedy brought in. Lately they’re even doing Tom Waits’ “I Wish I Was in New Orleans.” As Kennedy says, “That’s not a traditional Dixieland tune but we make it sound that way and our bass player can sing like Tom Waits. If people recognize the song, then they like it even more.”
Warhorses like “Saints” and “Bourbon Street Parade” have been in the repertoire since the DUKES’ inception, so their doing those songs is like any group doing its own greatest hits. “We do ‘Saints’ almost every night, and the people that night aren’t going to know that we played it 12 hours earlier,” Kennedy says. Don’t expect a wholesale reinvention in the vein of the modern-day Preservation Hall Jazz Band. “They’ve gone more of a brass-band route and I was happy that the kids took it in a different direction,” Shoup says. “But we’re not out to replicate that.”
Clark insists that the traditional part of the DUKES will always be present. “To be honest, the traditional jazz audience is becoming fewer as time goes by,” he says, “and I still want to play it to keep the proverbial torch burning. We just don’t want to be a traditional band in the sense that it’s all we do. We still love the Hot Five and sometimes we want to sound like the bands you heard in the ’50s on Bourbon Street—but then we might do 20 minutes of Ellington, 20 minutes of waltzes and 20 minutes of Fats Waller. It all depends on the crowd. And we can throw them a traditional tune like ‘Oriental Man,’ a great Johnny Dodds song. They might not know it but they’ll say, ‘That sounds good; it sounds like New Orleans.’”
A typical DUKES project will mix familiar tunes in with deeper tracks. Consider their 2011 release Where Country Meets Dixie, a crossover effort with the Oak Ridge Boys. On paper that may not sound too promising, as the Boys (best known for their pop-friendly 1981 hit “Elvira”) aren’t anybody’s idea of a cutting-edge country act. But the arrangements make it a surprisingly hip record, including an “Elvira” that borrows from Dr. John’s version of “Iko Iko.” “Jambalaya” and “My Toot Toot” are inevitably there but so are cannier choices like Ernest Tubb’s “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin,” served up with the proper boozy flavor. “On a project like that it can get very psychological,” Scott explains. “You have to listen to an old piece, find out what makes it special or unique, and how much of our own style we should mix in. The good thing about a lot of the old songs is that they really don’t need anything—for instance, we did ‘Have a Little Talk With Jesus’ and gospel songs and New Orleans jazz songs are like brother and sister.”
Ultimately, the spirit of the DUKES is stronger than what songs they’re playing; who’s in the band; or what decade it is. As Frank Assunto said in 1967, “This is a jazz band. It’s not a prison. So have a ball.” Or, as said John Shoup said in 2014, “We don’t do anything that isn’t fun.”