Pioneer Press, June 17, 2004

by Bruce Ingram, Assistant Editor

One of the best places to hear the latest hit tunes of 1924 was the Chicago Theater, where the pit orchestra would play any song with a chance of entering the hit parade.

The songs included "Tea for Two," "The Charleston," "Baby Face," "Makin' Whoopee," "Everybody Loves My Baby," "Fascinating Rhythm" and "I'll See You in My Dreams" -- along with all the piffle that didn't make it onto the charts and into musical history.

If you can't go back in time, one of the best ways to hear the same songs today -- minus the piffle -- played note-for-note precisely the way audiences heard them at the Chicago, is to check out Gus Friedlander's Prohibition Orchestra. The Orchestra plays Saturday evening at the Custer's Last Stand and July 2 at Nevin's Live in Evanston.

"I never get tired of playing a song like "Tea For Two," said the soft-spoken yet ardent Evanston guitarist, banjo player and band leader who began his career as a bluegrass musician and still performs regularly with his Whiskey Hollow band. "There's a reason it was a hit 80 years ago and people still love it." It's a little after 6:00 on a Friday evening at Nevin's Live in Evanston, and the place is swinging -- not '30s or '40s style, but very specifically in the spirit of the jazz age.

A woman with gray hair pumps her hands and swivels her hips by the bar. Two young dads bounce little girls in their arms in time to the music. A half-dozen free-ranging boys and girls wind through the crowd and jump with the beat. Older patrons -- some 60, 70, possibly 80 years old -- sit at small tables along the wall and nod their heads and smile.

Singer Elizabeth Conant of Evanston, a classically trained pianist and a specialist in jazz standards of the '50s and '60s, has reached back and tapped into a flapper vibe. Palms out, with a bee-stung pout, she smiles at the kids, shimmies her hips and sings another refrain from "Button Up Your Overcoat": "Stay away from bootleg hooch/when you're on a spree/take good care of yourself/you belong to me."

It's oh-so vo-do-dee-o-do and everyone in the small crowd does indeed seem to love it.

The real thing

The crowd might be larger if half the floor wasn't occupied by Friedlander's 10-piece orchestra. Adhering to the standrad configuration of dance bands of the era, he has assembled two trumpeters, a trombonist, three sax players (one player doubling on clarinet), a pianist, a drummer, a tuba/sousaphone player and himself on banjo.

Friedlander's band is regulation, and their music is authentic. On the stands in front of every player are copies of the original stock arrangements published by sheet-music companies and distributed to dance bands and orchestras around the country.

The charts being played by the Prohibition Orchestra are copies of the originals used by members of the Chicago Theater pit orchestra. Roughly 26,000 of these arrangements were saved at the last moment from being tossed in the trash during the renovation of the movie palace. They're now stored at the Harold Washington Public Library.

"It's a priceless resource," said Friedlander, who grew up listening to swing music and first encountered the Washington Library archive while playing with Alan Gresik's Swing Shift Orchestra at the Green Mill in Chicago. "When the record industry was in its early days, music publishers depended on dance orchestras to introduce their songs to the public -- and the Chicago Theater orchestra was one of the most prominent. The charts they collected are a history of the first half of the 20th century's popular song."

This January, Friedlander and the Prohibition Orchestra began playing selections of the most popular music of the 1920s during the all-ages, no-cover Live at Five happy hour at Nevin's -- specifically seeking a family audience. To make sure he hooks them, Friedlander typically leads a Pied Piper-like New Orleans Dixieland parade through Tommy Nevin's Pub and back into the music room before every show.

Friedlander has assembled a binder with 126 of the most popular songs from 1924 to 1929 in three broad categories: Novelty tunes ("Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue"); show tunes by the Gershwins, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and others; and hot instrumentals by Fletcher Henderson, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.

Jazz age revisited

The Prohibition Orchestra is part of a recreationist movement spearheaded by New York bandleader Vince Giordano (frequently heard in the films of Woody Allen) and practiced most zealously and scrupulously in Europe -- where Friedlander once observed with amusement German academics in period tuxedos, performing "with uncanny fidelity" on period instruments in an attempt to duplicate the songs of black swing bands from Chicago's South Side.

The Prohibition Orchestra is serious about exposing people today to the music of the 1920s as accurately as possible -- and that includes capturing the era's brash sense of fun. Dress is casual and the atmosphere is laid-back.

"We do it because it's fun to do" said Friedlander. "This music is too good to let languish."

They also do their best to do it well. Well enough that Conant is confident they could find work in a downtown Chicago hotel if the band were picked up and dropped down in the '20s.

"I don't see whay not," she said. "We've found our groove and now we're going to tighten it up. All we need is a satin backdrop and a potted palm."

(excerpt from the Mississippi Rag, June 2005, p. 36)

Another Smash Hit For Phil's Bix Tribute

by Paige Van Vors

Phil Pospychala's 16th Tribute To Bix was a lot like its predecessors -- very successful and a lot of fun. There's no better way to cure the winter blahs than to get together for a weekend of hot jazz and conviviality. The setting was once again the Marriott in Racine, Wisconsin; the dates were March 10-13, 2005.

...The real suprise band of the fest was the Prohibition Orchestra of Chicago, a ten-piece hot dance unit led by Gus Friedlander. The name is a play on the name of the old Benson Orchestra of Chicago. If you've read Chuck Sengstock's new book you'll know who they were -- the ubiquitously generic dance outfits that filled most of Chicago's theaters and ballroooms until Jules Stein and MCA started promoting name bands.

The POOC is a fairly new group but displayed a beautiful feel for some complex charts. Their repertoire includes many jazz standards as well as hot dance numbers. Standout performances included "Deep Henderson," "Copenhagen," "Gimmie a Little Kiss" (duet between Peter Bartels and Elizabeth Conant), "Beau Koo Jack," and "Black and Tan Fantasy."

The band has had access to the Balaban and Katz Archive, a massive collection of stock arrangements once owned by the theater chain and provided to their theater pit bands. The archive was donated to the Chicago Public Library and constitutes one of the largest collections of stock arrangements anywhere.

It was truly wonderful to hear them rip through flagwavers like "Casa Loma Stomp" in fine style. The band has an excellent lead trumpeter in Peter Bartels, and their vocalist, Elizabeth Conant, is vivacious and exudes tremendous joy in her presentations. She even used her two-year-old son as a prop (the result of "Makin' Whoopee"). This group has its act together and seems ready to carve out a niche for itself as a regular attraction around Chicago.