One of the best traditional revival bands of the late 40s was the Castle Jazz Band of Portland, Oregon. Led by banjoist/vocalist Monte Ballou, this group made their mark along with the bands of Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey et al.
The band recorded in 1949-50 for their own Castle label. These original 78s are hard to find but thankfully the Good Time Jazz label reunited the band in the late 50s for these two fine albums.
These two lps were also favorites of your writer during his early listening days along with the Firehouse Five plus Two and Dukes of Dixieland.
The two new albums were The Famous Castle Jazz Band in Stereo(1957) and plays The Five Pennies (1959).
The first lp was a happy reunion for the band as part of the group had stayed in Portland while others had relocated to the Los Angeles area and other trad bands.Here is the lineup:
Don Kinch-trumpet. A terrific hornman who also doubled tuba with the Firehouse Five, Don always had a bit of the Louis style evident in his work.He also worked a lot with Turk Murphy in the 50s.
George Bruns-trombone. A multi-intrumentalist and extrodinary tubaist who also worked with Turk and the Firehouse 5. His bone work was very percussive and in the Kid Ory style.
Bob Gilbert-clarinet. One of the Portland holdovers who worked a lot with leader Ballou. He possesed a reedy,lovely low register clarinet sound.
Freddie Crewes-piano.Another Portland man who had worked with Turk in the 50s and was comfortable in the Wally Rose ragtime school of trad piano.He later relocated to San Franscisco.
Bob Short-tuba. One of the finest bass men (also played string) of the West Coast trad school. Also played with Turk(including a spell on cornet) and Scobey. He was a very busy man in the Los Angeles music scene.
Homer Welch-drums.Another Portland delegate and fine timekeeper with many years of experience in radio bands.His post- Castle work was in the Los Angeles area.
Monte Ballou-leader/banjo and vocals. A character and raconteurof this music. Worked from vaudeville to dance bands on the West Coast. Not only an engaging vocalist but a great collector and student of this music.
Now on with the program..
The Famous Castle Jazz Band in Stereo.
This reunion album features fine playing by all hands. The intervening years only enhanced the band's ensemble sound and solos. As we mentioned in the bios. most of the boys were working in the idiom full time. Recorded in August of 1957 many of the tunes were remakes of the band's out of print Castle 78s.
Old favorites such as Sweet Georgia Brown, Royal Garden Blues, Tiger Rag and Dippermouth Blues get a facelift with the Castle touch.
Monty's engaging vocals are heard on Old Green River(complete with Spike Jones style humor) and The Torch, a pretty old barroom ballad.
Georgia Camp Meeting and Careless Love are played at nice relaxed tempos. The old cakewalk Smokey Mokes will bring back memories for listeners of Ray Smith's Jazz Decades-It was his original opening theme.
Farewell Blues is a fitting close to the reunion-a solid band number with humorous "farewells". George gives Ory's Creole Trombone a hearty rendering.
The usual excellent GTJ engineering is present and a humorous cover by cartoonist/jazzfan Arnie Roth is an additional bonus.
The Famous Castle Jazz Band plays The Five Pennies.(April 1959)
For their follow up reunion, the band played selections from the current film bio. of Red Nichols starring Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong. The movie featured many jazz standards and the original songs by Danny's wife, Sylvia Fine suit the band's style perfectly.
The band recreates their Castle version of The Saints with each member marching in and out for solos, complete with "marching"feet-like the Firehouse 5, the Castles had a lot of fun with their music. Monte gets to sing a mellow version of After You've Gone. Don and George take solo honors on My Blue Heaven and Don's horn on Battle Hymn of the Republic recalls some of the Nichols licks from the original..The other standards, That's a Plenty, JaDa, Indiana and Bill Bailey get that perfect Castle treatment.
The band really excels on Miss Fine's songs. In the film Lullaby in Ragtime, Goodnight-Sleep Tight and The Five Pennies were sung as a round by Kaye, Louis and young Susan Gordon as Red's daughter.
Follow the Leader is a fun 20's style tune performed at a college dance. The Castles give it a brisk reading. Kinch's Louisish horn is a highlight on Goodnight and Crewes has some appropriate piano for Lullaby.
Even if you haven't seen the film you'll enjoy this album on it's own excellent merits.
Both albums were reissued by Fantasy and currently are owned by the Concord Jazz label.
After The Five Pennies the band went their separate ways again. Monte revived the band for a 1968 recording with Jim Goodwin, Jim Beatty and Ray Skjelbred. In 1972 he recorded again with Ernie Carson, Kim Cusak and Bob Thompson. Don Kinch led his popular Conductors Ragtime Band in Oregon thru the 1970s.
Most of the original members have passed on (Monte in 1991) but these two albums are great examples of West Coast Trad Jazz at it's best.