Speakeasy tramps

Speakeasy tramps

Hobo Jazz swings into The Barkley in South Pasadena Friday night

By Bliss Bowen 02/20/2014

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Pigeonholing is handy for marketing but lousy for musicians, especially those following their creative muse wherever it leads. Bassist Marquis Howell recognized that conundrum when naming his band; Hobo Jazz is not only the unpredictable ensemble’s name, it’s also their own eclectic, danceable genre. 

“We’re not hoboes and we don’t play jazz, but we’re hobo jazz,” he explains. “We don’t hop trains, but we’re hobos [in that] the music we play is vagabond.” Even when tackling “singer-songwriter stuff,” he says, “we kind of paint it with our own hobo blood. It becomes our own thing.”

“I always thought the term ‘straight-head jazz’ was a non-describer,” he adds. “My theory is ‘jazz’ is completely misused as a noun when it’s an adjective.”

Over the past half decade several acts have emerged who, like Hobo Jazz, are influenced by 1920s-’30s string bands and New Orleans: the California Feetwarmers, Dustbowl Revival and Vaud and the Villains, to name a few. But when Hobo Jazz first ventured onto Southland stages around 2001, they were just strummy dreamers with little direction — until Howell discovered a Dixieland songbook for seven bucks at a yard sale.

“It had songs I knew but I didn’t know how in the world I would ever play them; it was all these 1920s songs. There really wasn’t anybody at that time doing what we were doing, that we knew of.”

Then he caught a performance by Janet Klein & Her Parlor Boys, and was inspired by seeing “music played live that I’d only heard on record by people that had been long dead, and played with such integrity. It wasn’t some tribute show; it was honest.” 

Howell started playing bass with Klein in 2008, and continues to do so. Both bands plumb 1920s-’30s pop songbooks, but Hobo Jazz — Howell, guitarist Matt Coleman, drummer Joe Perez and saxophonist George San Martin — also incorporate more contemporary music and earthy humor into their sets. 

“Under the canopy of Hobo Jazz we pretty much do almost anything. Or we’ll try. I’ve definitely rapped at shows. We make up a lot of fun, free-form songs on the spot, whether or not we’ve been drinking, to varying degrees of success.”

Asked where he’d go if he could time-travel and make music anywhere he liked, Howell chooses late-1920s Chicago, early ’80s Los Angeles and early ’50s New York (“Anywhere Louis Prima was playing was good”). Ultimately, though, the time he would choose is now, because we have so much musical history at our disposal.   

“Every recording that’s made is a time machine,” he says. “Take the ‘Boardwalk Empire’ soundtrack — it’s almost like a line to the past. It’s not even people’s grandparents’ music anymore; it’s so distant it’s new. … We can tap into that as deeply as we want to.” n 

Hobo Jazz plays The Barkley, 1400 Huntington Drive, South Pasadena, from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday. For information, call (626) 799-0758. hobojazz.com, thebarkleyrestaurant.com

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