EARLYJAS
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Bert's Bits -- CD Review:  Black Diamond Jazz Band
Earlville Association for Ragtime Lovers Yearning
for Jazz Advancement and Socialization
EARLYJAS
CD Review
by Bert Thompson

GEORGE KNOBLAUCH'S BLACK DIAMOND JAZZ BAND—"I'M GOING AWAY
TO WEAR YOU OFF MY MIND" (Merry Makers Record Company MMRC-CD-27).  
Playing time:  51 mins. 22 SECS.
Borneo*; Alligator Hop**; Broken Promises#‡; Tiger Moan; I'm Going Away to
Wear You Off My Mind; Black Wall Tunnel Blues**; Sax-O-Phun; Harlem Rag;
Salty Bubble; Waiting for the Evening Mail#; Sorry; I Don't Want to Go Back to
You; My Baby Knows How*; Razzy Dazzy‡‡; Mad Dog.  Recorded in Berkeley,
Calif., March and April, 1989.

Personnel: George Knoblauch, banjo, leader, vocal#; Franco Finstad, cornet; John
Howard, reeds; Brent Bergman, trombone; Marty Eggers, piano; Tom Downs, tuba;
Bill Gunter, percussion, vocal*.
**add Charlie Sonnanstine, 2nd cornet   ‡Marty Eggers, 2nd cornet; Bill Gunter,
piano;  ‡‡Tom Downs, jug.

After the thriving traditional jazz scene of the late nineteen forties and the fifties,
the sixties saw a decline in such activity in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Turk
Murphy hung on through that decade in his club Earthquake McGoon's, the first
version of which opened in 1960, but not a lot else was available.  With the advent
of the seventies, however, things began to change.  Jazz societies began to form all
over the Bay Area as well as elsewhere, and with them came the formation of quite a
number of bands.  The first of the Sacramento festivals occurred in 1974, and other
festivals followed all up and down the state, particularly during the eighties.  It was
at this time George Knoblauch formed the Black Diamond Jazz Band in Stockton,
California, in 1982.  Like many bands, it followed the path blazed by Lu Watters
and Turk Murphy, lasting until 1992 when it reduced to a quintet named the Black
Diamond Blue Five, which modeled itself stylistically on the Clarence Williams
Blue Five and which is still performing.  During the ten years of the Black Diamond
Jazz Band's existence, the band issued two recordings, one on its own label in 1983
and the other in 1989, a cassette on the Merry Makers label, MMRC 119.  It is that
cassette which is reissued here as a CD.

What struck me most about this recording is how tight the band was.  While they
played from arrangements—many of them by Charlie Sonnanstine, featured here
on a couple of numbers, and Robin Wetterau - room was still left on the solos for
improvisation.  So the band does not sound stilted, and the playing is amazingly
fresh and clean, given the youth of some of the musicians at the time.  The lead
horn, Franco Finstad, was all of twenty-one then, Marty Eggers twenty-two, and
Brent Bergman twenty-three.  All of the men on this recording are still quite active
in various groups today (none with the Black Diamond Blue Five, however, other
than George Knoblauch, of course) except, perhaps, for Franco Finstad, of whom I
have not heard anything recently, although it seems unlikely that he will not be
playing somewhere.

The tune list is quite broad-ranging, allowing the band to demonstrate its versalility
as well as providing the listener with a smorgasboard of not-often-heard tunes.  Joe
Oliver is well represented, not with the more familiar numbers but with the lesser-
known ones such as Alligator Hop and I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind.  
Bix is recognized with Sorry, Turk Murphy with Razzy Dazzy, Lu Watters/Clancy
Hayes with Broken Promises.  There are even several tunes that almost no one will
have heard before—Charlie Sonnanstine's Black Wall Tunnel Blues, Ray Ronnei's
Salty Bubble, and I Don't Want to Go Back to You by Franco Finstad and Marty
Eggers.  Sax-O-Phun, a novelty piece, is not my cup of tea, but it further evidences
the variety of the band's repertoire, as does Harlem Rag, taken a tad too fast, I
think.  Tiger Moan and Mad Dog are another pair that one does not hear often, if at
all.  And as I said above, all are well played.  One might have hoped for a few more
tracks to augment the playing time, but it would seem such were not available.

So here you have a chance to witness—and enjoy—some of what was going on in
the eighties in Northern California.  The CD is available from Ted Shafer at Merry
Makers Record Company, 926 Beechwood Circle, Suisun City, CA 94585, tel. toll-
free 1-866-563-4433) for $16.00, post paid, and probably from World Records or
another mail order source.
Bert Thompson
CD Review
by Bert Thompson

GEORGE KNOBLAUCH'S BLACK DIAMOND JAZZ BAND—"I'M GOING AWAY
TO WEAR YOU OFF MY MIND" vol. 2 (Merry Makers Record Company MMRC-
CD-39).  Playing time:  60 mins. 22 secs.
Willie the Weeper; My Baby Knows How*; Tin Roof Blues#; I'm Going Away to
Washboard Wiggles; Camp Meeting Blues‡; Borneo*; Melancholy#; My Heart;
Gatemouth; Daddy Do; Jazz Me Blues*; Snake Rag.   Recorded in Oakley, Calif.,
Sept. 13, 1987.

GEORGE KNOBLAUCH'S BLACK DIAMOND JAZZ BAND—TAKES OFF (Merry
Makers Record Company MMRC-CD-43).  Playing time:  52 mins. 30 secs.
From Monday On; Canal Street Blues; Ice Cream*; Ballin' the Jack#; Tishomingo
Blues; Gatemouth; Panama; All the Girls Go Crazy about the Way I Ride*; Someday
You'll Be Sorry; I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter*; Once in a
While; Cakewalkin' Babies#*.  Recorded in Concord, Calif., Nov. 9, 1986.
Personnel on both discs: George Knoblauch, banjo, leader, vocal#; Howard
Simpson, cornet, vocal†; Earl Scheelar, clarinet; Bill Bardin trombone; Marty Eggers,
piano; Tom Downs, tuba; Bill Gunter, percussion, vocal*. ‡ Marty Eggers switches to
cornet.

These two CD's by the same musicians but recorded some ten months apart show
how a group can "mature" as time passes. (Despite having the later catalog number,
MMRC-CD-43 is the earlier recording by the earlier version of the band.)

To begin with the earlier CD 43, as so often is the case with gigs in the 80's the locale
is the pizza parlor, and here we have all that that entails regarding ambience,
including the orders being called out.  However, these distractions are slight and do
not really intrude on the musical proceedings.  

The band, relatively new at this point, is still finding its way.  The solos tend to be a
bit pedestrian, but the ensembles are much better, some coming close to swinging.  
Simpson tries, on occasion, for a Bix-like tone and succeeds sometimes with a
bell/chime-like sound emanating from his horn.  Scheelar’s clarinet playing,
reminiscent of Rappolo’s of the ODJB, is rather shrill and tends to be confined to
the upper register.  Bardin, an old hand who has the most experience of the group,
produces solos that are thoughtful and never self-indulgent.  Similarly, his
ensemble work aims at complementing the rest of the group, rather than being an
opportunity for showboating.  

In the rhythm section, Knoblauch is quite solid on banjo, both in chording and
soloing.  Downs is likewise on tuba, providing that necessary floor that supports the
rest of the group.  The late Bill Gunther is happier on washboard than drums,
being, as I recall, fairly new to that latter instrument and still at an early stage of the
learning curve—a kind of “on-the-job-training,” as it were.  Eggers, unfortunately, is
barely audible on piano.

As the last sentence indicates, the sound is not the best, varying in volume both
between and within tracks as well as slighting the piano playing and not favoring
vocals.  Such, I’m afraid, is too often the case when recording is less than
professional, done on a small portable recorder.  But having said that, I hasten to
add that this CD is worth having, especially if one wants to see how the band
“grows.”
Such development is evident if we compare the two versions of the only tunes
repeated on these two CD's: Ballin' the Jack and Gatemouth.

On CD 43 Ballin' the Jack opens with Knoblauch's singing the verse and seeming,
initially, to have difficulty matching the key of his vocal to that of his banjo
accompaniment. In the ensembles and solos that follow, there is a feeling of the
musicians being tentative in their expression, not all notes being hit cleanly
(especially by Simpson).  The whole piece seems to plod, especially by comparison
with the version on CD 39.  

There the arrangement is changed, the rendition opening with a sure attack by the
ensemble, setting a brisk tempo that is held throughout with no vacillation.  
Knoblauch nails the vocal with no fumbling or searching for the key.  Bardin's
trombone solos display gusto, and on trumpet Simpson hits his notes squarely—no
stumbling on this version.  The tune ends with a crisp trombone tag.  Clearly this
version shows how far the band has come in the several months between the two
sessions.

Similarly, the two Gatemouths underscore such progress.  The two arrangements are
the same, but their execution is more defined on the later session.  In the earlier
session, the tempo rushes during the banjo solo, and the piano is almost inaudible
during Eggers' solo.  To cap things, the trumpet's final note is cracked.  None of
these flaws are to be found in the version from the later session.

While the remaining tunes on each disc have no repeats, there is no doubt in my
mind that if we compare the two albums, CD 39 is the better.  The band members
have had almost another year of working together, resulting in a more cohesive,
tighter presentation.  Solos are more substantive, less tentative, and one senses more
assuredness by the musicians.  Simpson’s cornet is incisive and fiery—in fact, I have
never heard him play better.  Although he has now hung up his horn, there is little
doubt that he was a “hot” player back then.  Bardin’s trombone is, as it always is,
quietly expressive, but always right.  He does not put a foot (or should that be
“note”?) wrong.  Scheelar’s clarinet, here as on the other disc, weaves around the
trumpet lead and is sure on solo spots.  The late Bill Gunther gets to show his
command of his scrubber with his breaks on “Washboard Wiggles” and on the
vocals for which he was well-known.  Knoblauch again keeps rock-steady time, and
his vocals remind me a bit of another banjo player/vocalist—Clancy Hayes.  Once
again Downs provides that solid bottom that bands need.

In general the recording quality is better on this second disc, the solos and vocals
not being off-mike, the volume level less erratic, and the background chatter and
noise less intrusive.  That said, Eggers, however, does suffer again a little from
being under-recorded. Having been recorded at an outdoor concert in a park may
account for these shortcomings, slight though they are.  (But the occasion—a wine
tasting—also goes to show that wine can go with trad jazz just as well as beer and
pizza!)

As to tune selection, other than, perhaps, My Baby Knows How and Daddy Do,
almost everything on these two discs will be familiar to most readers.  Of the review
copies I received, neither album has liner notes.

The caveat about paper labels applies to these two discs, so keep that in mind of
you intend to play them in your car CD player.

Like MMRC-CD-27, these CD's exemplify and document more of what was going
on in the 1980's jazz scene in Northern California and are recommended.  They are
available from Ted Shafer at Jelly Roll Jazz Band gigs or from him at Merry Makers
Record Company, 926 Beechwood Circle, Suisun City, CA 94585, tel. toll-free 1-866-
563-4433 in the U.S.