It’s no surprise that Dusty Tovsen, a roving bandleader, singer and guitarist of the Speakeasy Jazz Cats, has the sort of family tree that includes a Chicago mob boss on one side and a Guinness Book of World Records title-holding collector of the most four-leafed clovers (160,000+) on the other.
Dusty and his Speakeasy Jazz Cats have played their jaunty, slinky old-time jazz just about everywhere, everywhere from the street corner of Royal and St. Peter in New Orleans’ French Quarter to the Goorin Hat Shop in Austin, to the streets of Santa Fe and every caravan pit stop along the Pacific coast up to Seattle. The band consists of Dusty, guitarist Yusuf Kilgore, chanteuse and percussionist Amber “Red” Hayes, trombonist Cesar and trumpet player Periklis and an ever-changing array of new musicians they meet along the way.
The Jazz Cats play jazz standards dating from the early 1900s through 1935 while mixing in their own original material. Their influences include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, The Washboard Rhythm Kings, Harlem Hamfats, Stuff Smith, and occasional dabs of Frank Sinatra.
I ran into the Speakeasy Jazz Cats playing at a street corner in the French Quarter one evening. Dusty’s voice evoked the quality of rough sandpaper funneled through an old phonograph horn, shining and well-worn by time. When Amber Hayes’ transporting voice joined in with the rhythm and horns, I felt as if I’d fallen through a time portal that whisked me back into an era of cobblestone streets, bootleggers and washboard-tapping blues.
At the time of this interview, The Speakeasy Jazz Cats were encamped in Santa Fe to perform and, unexpectedly, raise money to repair their broken down car. Faced with a setback, Tovsen seems to imbue the Old World ethic of a travelling musician of putting one’s trust in serendipity and faith in one’s talent—the longer layover led to the band’s performance for the Mayor of Santa Fe as well as a private gig for the director of the Netflix Original series Longmire, who has offered them the use of his studio for recording.
“It’s beautiful here! We got to climb in the snow the other day and then visit hot springs,” Tovsen marvels. “The weather down from the mountains is gorgeous.”
“I’m actually trying to put together a tour in the next year to Alaska, where I was born,” Tovsen says, “I’ve always wanted to show off this music to my old friends. It’s all bluegrass and jam band music up there, which is fine, but I would be so stoked to play everyone New Orleans jazz. I’ve only been home once in the past four years, for a month. I grew up in Girdwood, which is a town of 2,000 people, with good snowboarding and great fishing. I left Alaska in my early twenties to work on the farms in the mountains of California. I did all kinds of random, weird jobs there until I decided to go to Santa Cruz and take a year to figure out my life. That is when I started to play music in earnest, mostly folk, and then got the idea to go to New Orleans. I’ve been traveling ever since, soaking in the lower 48 states.
Tovsen formed the band two years ago in Seattle with lead guitarist Yusef Kilgore and singer Amber Hayes.
“I had the idea we’d go down to New Orleans after I played there by myself. I was playing folk music at the time and two friends of mine in Seattle talked me into driving down there,” he says. “I think we stopped at every gas station between Seattle through Santa Cruz and south. We’d set up so we could bring in enough money to get closer to New Orleans.
“I stayed in New Orleans for about two months for my first trip and then after I left, I thought about it every day until I went back,” Tovsen says. “That’s when I knew I had to convince Amber to come play there. She was on the fence about it but I convinced her. When we arrived, the entire band came together from friends I had made earlier in the musical community, most of whom had come to the city from Europe. They enjoy switching in and out of the band as performers. I went about finding good players who are interested in the Big Band sound who want to come play with us.”
“I’ve been playing since I was 18 years old and I’m 32 years old right now,” Tovsen says. “I loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers but then started to graduate to folk music in my 20s, followed by old-timey music. None of it ever felt quite right. Interestingly, my grandmother, who loves this kind of old music, told me she grew up listening to it at home in Chicago because her father, the mob boss, used to play records of it all the time.
“When I came to New Orleans for the first time, I became reacquainted with these old jazz standards and found it did something to my soul that nothing else ever did. I’ve become obsessed with it and have been playing jazz now for two years. I can play about 70 tunes, some which are traditional jazz standards, like “Love Me Or Leave Me” but many are those old-school speakeasy songs, right from the time when music was starting to evolve from blues into jazz. It’s that dark, heavy stuff that I’ve completely fallen in love with.”
“Amber Hayes has been singing her whole life, from covering pop tunes to completely loving rap. But her voice is absolutely perfect for jazz, “ Tovsen says of his bandmate. The two met through a mutual friend in Seattle through the swing dancing community there. “Our friend Kevin Buster, who is a tap dancer, discovered she had this voice. He taught her a few songs and now she’s taken up that studying this music on her own. She’s got such a natural knack for it.”
“We have three fiddle players who take turns switching out with us in New Orleans. When I arrived, my friend Will Frank, who was playing with us, left to return to North Carolina. We replaced him with a woman from Canada named Mel. She is a friend of Will’s and it turned out she was this absolutely amazing fiddle player as well. She played with us for three weeks before she had to leave. Then our friend Millie, who plays with The Black Resonators, joined in.
Due to the nomadic nature of most street musicians, The Speakeasy Jazz Cats shared a similar rotation with their horn and bass players. This improvisatory community of musicians is what lies at the heart of most New Orleans-style music scene.
“Probably one of my favorite nights playing in New Orleans was when we had John Joyce from the local band Smoking Time playing with us,” Tovsen says. “J.J. is absolutely one of my heroes. He is an extraordinary musician. There are so many other bands in New Orleans that I look up to.
“Nathan and Shine from another local New Orleans band, The Black Resonators, will join us, too. They are high caliber musicians and it knocks me out that they just casually come by and play with us. There’s a vibe in New Orleans where all the musicians are supportive. Of course, everybody who comes here for the first time is put through the grinder—you think, ‘Damn. I have so far to go.’ It really pushes you to aspire. I love it.
“I love New Orleans for this reason. It’s one of the most highly concentrated cities of world-class musicians who love hanging out on a daily basis. You can easily wind up at someone’s warehouse, somebody’s backyard or a pop-up kitchen in a bar where they’re serving moonshine that they all made—and they’re playing Balkan and Gipsy music and jazz and you’re joining in. It’s such an outlaw place that it draws some of the craziest, most creative people you’ll ever know.”
Performing at certain tourist-saturated, highly coveted hotspots in the Quarter can also require some grit. For example, for years, the best bands seem to hold court at the corner of Royal Street and St. Peters and they stand to make the most money. It’s a corner that sometimes has to be defended with fists in one hand and instruments other than the musical ones.
“Four members of a local band [Which Shall Go Unnamed] got in my face with a billy club over playing in that location. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I’ve got a 14-piece band here. Luckily, I managed to grab the end of his billy club and wrench it out of his hand. People fight all the time over spots. You learn quick to hold your ground.”
“When I was staying in the 7th Ward, most of our neighbors were nice and kind and sweet but soon after I left, there was a gang initiation thing where a member broke into my old house and stabbed my friend 17 times. He lived but this is what I mean–New Orleans is the realest place, where shit like this happens. One time, a guy tried pulling a knife on me and I was lucky enough to be quicker on the draw and had my knee on his throat before he could act.
“You’ve got to constantly be on your guard,” Tovsen says. “There’s a contrast between how beautiful the town is and how truly dangerous it is. I think there’s actually a correlation that some of the intensity of the madness that runs through the town is what underscores its intrinsic beauty. My take is, New Orleans is completely nuts in every aspect. My saxophone player got robbed. The guys who assaulted him put a gun to his face. They took his wallet and phone. But they let him keep his sax. Stuff like that happens on a routine basis.”
The Speakeasy Jazz Cats sells their CDs wrapped inside simple brown paper lunch bags.
“We make all our CDs,” Tovsen laughs. “It got kind of maddening. Sometimes we were selling 100 CDs a day and all we have is this 2-CD burner in my computer so we were spending five hours in the morning burning CDs before we could go out and play for three hours and sell out. I feel so blessed to have this happen. We’ve received such a good response from the people who have bought our CDs. Now they’re asking when we’re going to record our next album.
“With busking and playing on the street, I’ve discovered that you can make a whole lot better money than working in clubs. You can play anytime, anywhere and there is a lot of freedom to it. But there are not a lot of busking opportunities in Alaska. So at long last, I am learning the art of booking gigs in clubs and tackling that whole side, which is a pain.
“I suck at computers and I suck at technology,” Tovsen says bluntly. “All I want to do is perform. I perform nearly every day for hours and hours.”
If you would like to hear the Speakeasy Jazz Cats perform and purchase their music, it is best to find out where they are playing through their Facebook page. At this moment of writing, Tovsen and his band are playing in the Plaza in Santa Fe. The Speakeasy Jazz Cats are at work on producing two albums to be released online in the next six months or so. They will be playing in early September at the Sh’bang Festival in Bellingham, Washington and then they plan on returning to New Orleans for performances this upcoming Halloween.
For more details, please visit http://www.speakeasyjazzcats.com
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