The Bathtub Gin Serenaders began life as a Craigslist ad in 2009. The band's founder, Wayne Phillip, put out the call for musicians interested in playing hot jazz and blues from the '20s and '30s. As the emails and phone calls began trickling in, Phillip procured a self-storage unit to serve as rehearsal space and got down to business. Before long, he'd assembled an eight-piece band steeped in the traditions of dance band music that flourished nearly 100 years ago.
Broadly speaking, the term "hot jazz" refers to music that grew out of the earliest decades of jazz — from the 1890s to the 1930s. Combining elements of Dixieland, ragtime and country blues music, hot jazz was a kind of swing dance music played by bands that were smaller and often wilder than the sophisticated big-band swing that came along in the late '30s and '40s. New Orleans musicians such as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet epitomized the early sound — which was later picked up and set on a parallel evolutionary path by European players such as Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.
Inspired by modern revivalists of the old music, such as the Asylum Street Spankers and Tuba Skinny, the Bathtub Gin Serenaders set out to bring their version of hot jazz to the Rogue Valley. After some early fluctuation in personnel and instrumentation, the band settled into its current format. The rhythm section consists of Chris Matthews on drums, David Orr on bass and Chari Weatherford on washboard percussion. Ila Selene sings; Lawrence Newcomb plays saxophone and clarinet; Stephany Smith-Pearson plays accordion and mandolin; Melissa Orr plays violin; and Eric Von Radics plays guitar.
Phillip was an employee of Musician's Friend and had to leave town to keep his job when that company pulled stakes in 2011. His departure represented a significant hurdle for the group. He not only brought the group of musicians together to begin with, he acted as the booking manager and bandleader. Without him, it was unclear whether the band could continue.
"It was a moment," Smith-Pearson says. "It really felt like we were getting somewhere with this music." Unwilling to give it up, they reorganized band duties for survival.
"We all stepped up to the plate and took on new leadership roles," she says. While admitting that things were often easier with one clear leader, she says the new way of doing business creates a heightened sense of investment in the project. With eight members, simply maintaining a weekly rehearsal schedule is a challenge. Everyone has a day job, and most of the members have other musical commitments as well.
Like most musicians, the Serenaders play for the love of the music. All of the logistical and organizational work is worth it once the music starts. Add a dance floor filled with an enthusiastic audience, and the sky is the limit. Dancing drives this music — it was written to be danced to.
A swing dance revival that began in the '90s is helping fuel interest in bands such as the Serenaders, who lately gained the attention of a dedicated group of Lindy Hop dance fans.
"People like to get dressed up and go dancing," Smith-Pearson says. "Don't get me wrong, I love singer-songwriter music, but if you want to get out and dance "… "
The Bathtub Gin Serenaders will perform at 10 p.m. Friday, April 5, at Taroko Nights, 62 E. Main St., Ashland. There is a $5 cover.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.