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The Dirty River Jazz Band Comes Clean After A Year In Quarantine

The whole ensemble of The Dirty River Jazz Band
Oscar Moreno
The entire ensemble of The Dirty River Jazz Band

Upon listening to The Dirty River Jazz Band, you may be amazed and enchanted at the dancing of the piano keys, the belting of the trombone, the timbre of the bass, and the rhythm of the beating drums, as they all work as one, moving through their songs with flavorful sounds and ease.

The Dirty River Jazz Band, previously known as The Dirty River Dixie band, can be found playing in local bars and music lounges. This colorful ensemble consists of Curtis Calderon, Nick Brown, Ian Andersen, Tyler Jackson, Dan Walton, Edwin Brown, and Courtney Woods, and Chris Alvarado—one of the co-founders and also drummer of The Dirty River Jazz Band.

Their latest album, “High Life in San Antone,” is inspired by Jim Cullum, the late San Antonio jazz legend who Alvarado looked up to with great admiration and respect. The album, available as a CD on their website, was released on the Fourth of July of last year. This album, produced by Chris Alvarado, resonates with the style of early jazz and is influenced by New Orleans jazz as well.

While working on the album, plenty was thrown at The Dirty River Jazz Band this past year. The band still mourned the 2019 loss of dear friend, Jim Cullum, but also co-founder Kris Vargas left the group. And of course, there was the 2020 pandemic.

During the pandemic, The Dirty River Jazz Band members made use of the indoor time to regularly livestream “happy and fun” music to their fans. “It was something to take your mind off,” explained Chris Alvarado. Quite a “blessing in disguise,” he also remarked, indicating the ample time applied to refine their album and the support they received from fans who pre-ordered the discs.

Although Chris Alvarado has the band in full swing at night, he is a music educator by day. He aspires to introduce younger kids to jazz music. The band continues to charm their audience and they won’t be going away anytime soon. You can catch The Dirty River Jazz Band playing regularly atJazz, TX, The St. Anthony Hotel, or LUNA.

The Dirty River Jazz Band will be one of three featured bands at a public watch party event hosted by Texas Public Radio at Legacy Park on Thursday, June 24 at 7 p.m. Get details on this free event at this link. Below is an interview with Chris Alvarado, by TPR’s Jiawen Chen [edited for length and clarity].

Jiawen Chen: Can you provide me some background of your current bandmates from The Dirty River Jazz Band?

Chris Alvarado: Currently, our band members consist of some great musicians on trumpet. We have Curtis Calderon, who's played with tons of groups like the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and we also have Nick Brown on the clarinet. He's been with us for a few years now and is a great clarinet player from the area who now lives in San Antonio. On trombone, one of our original band members who went to school with me is named Ian Anderson, he's a band director and music educator in San Antonio. In the rhythm section, Tyler Jackson is on banjo and guitar, and he plays the bass with us sometimes. Dan Walton is on the piano. He's played with a lot of great country groups, also like Asleep at the Wheel and tons of other groups. And then, on sousaphone, we have a New Braunfels native, his name is Edwin Brown. He plays with a lot of polka groups in town and plays with us too. I lead the band and do all the booking behind the scenes work. I play drums and sing a little bit. Courtney Woods was on vocals [at our TPR Summer Night City performance]. She's in the United States Air Force Band. She does a lot of vocal stuff with them, but also sings with us from time to time.

Banjoist Tyler Jackson and drummer Chris Alvarado performing.
Oscar Moreno
Banjoist Tyler Jackson and drummer Chris Alvarado performing.

JC: How has Covid-19 affected the band and its ability to perform?

CA: It's definitely affected us in 2020. But during the pandemic and the shutdown, we were trying to stay as busy as possible with live streams when it first started in March or so of last year. We like to have some equipment at home and a lot of streams and high quality libraries. We did that for a little bit. And when it got really bad and everything really shut down, we actually did some videos from home where the guys recorded their parts and I compiled videos, and turned out pretty great. So we put out our content weekly for people to enjoy. It helped a lot of people get through the pandemic and it was something to take your mind off. But it was fun, happy music. And so, yeah, we stayed pretty busy regardless of the pandemic. And when we could get back to playing in person, we did. So now we're back in full force right now, playing around.

JC: Did Covid-19 put a damper on the release of "High Life in San Antone?"

CA: It didn't really put a damper on it. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise. We got to spend a little bit more time on it, actually producing it. We recorded it in January of 2020. It takes a lot of time to mix everything and master everything and get it ready for the release. So we actually got to spend a lot more time on that aspect of it and actually rushed it out. I like the extra time and the only downfall is we didn't get to do an in-person CD release, but we did an online live stream for the Fourth of July, releasing it that way. We had a bunch of great people order it. We shipped it all over the country, and we can still ship it out today. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise.

JC: How has the name change affected the band and how it was received by the fans?

CA: The Dirty River Dixie Band was a name that we had come up with when we first started the band. We really just did it for fun, and didn't really think it would go much further than just playing with my friends in college, which is what it kind of was originally. We liked the alliteration back then, but it was time for the change. We made the change. We made it like early last year around the pandemic, because I would describe my music as traditional jazz or early jazz, classic jazz, in which people call it a bunch of different things. But the "Dixieland" kind of association isn't a great association to have. I don't think it describes the music that we play so well anyways. So it was kind of a no-brainer change for me. And there were some fans that they maybe didn't like to change, but in reality, I mean, it's just one word. I think it was for the best. It hasn't really affected our bookings or anything like that. We've been trucking along and I like the new name better anyways.

…the goal of the band is to spread the style of music and knowledge.
Chris Alvarado

JC: How would you define success for The Dirty River Jazz band?

CA: A lot of people think that being famous is success or something. But to me, the goal of the band is to spread the style of music and knowledge... we've traveled all the way up to Maine for tours. So I think we are pretty successful in that aspect of things. Whether we're internationally known... that's a whole different story. The money aspect of it isn't all that big anyways. I mean, you're playing jazz! You're usually not really in it for the money, unfortunately, and you're more in it for the music and the actual preservation of the music. So I think we're pretty successful at that. And if you come to the show, you're dancing, but also, walking away knowing a little bit more about the music.

JC: What was your most memorable and favorite performance and venue you played at?

CA: I think our little tour of the East Coast is pretty awesome. We got to play in Manhattan and a cool place called the KGB Bar, a little Russian-themed jazz club. And we got to play some cool places in upstate New York and a wedding in Maine, which was amazing on the water. That's probably some of my favorite venues to play-- up in the north east. But I think the most memorable time playing was at Jim Cullum’s house, who was a friend of ours and a mentor. And there's a cool story of us going to his house at two o'clock in the morning or so after one of these gigs. The whole band went over and I played for him. He talked to us and told us all his stories and gave some pointers. The most fun part about it was sharing the stories and stuff that he had to say, not even really the playing aspect of it. That's what our new album is named after, actually. It's called “High Life in San Antone” thinking of high life, Miller High Life with Jim Cullum, and then just talking shop.

Co-founder and drummer, Chris Alvarado.
Oscar Moreno
Co-founder and drummer, Chris Alvarado.

JC: If you could choose a guest star that you would like to perform with, who’d it be?

CA: It's a pretty hard one. There's a lot of old jazz greats that I would [have] loved to play with, but I think the number one would be Louis Armstrong. He was one of our main motivations for the band. He constantly surprises me and we play a lot of the songs. Vince Giordano would be one of my main ones, to kind of be able to fly down and get to play with them on a show would be really cool in New York and in a band called The Nighthawks. He's done all the music. Like "The Aviator" soundtrack, or "Boardwalk Empire," some other like '20s and '30s HBO series. He's a real big Hollywood guy and there's all those soundtracks. So it’ll be great to get him down here (San Antonio) and every time up in New York, I make it a point to see him.

JC: Kris Vargas, your co-founder, recently left for the military. How has that affected the ensemble dynamic?

CA: Yeah, he did. He joined the Army band and he's currently at the music school right now. He just graduated basic training and stuff. But it's definitely been a big impact because, like you said, he's one of the founding members of the band and we formed it together. And we work a lot together. I would do all the behind the scenes work, you know, both in the band and the social media aspects of things and he would lead the band on stage and talk to the audience. It's definitely a big loss. But, you know, at some point, hopefully [he] will come back. So I'm looking forward to those opportunities. And I think he's going to do great things in the military, too.

JC: Last question. What advice would you give to your younger self?

CA: I guess, a really young self, like a middle schooler or high school, I’d tell myself to get interested in jazz a lot earlier in life. I didn't really take jazz seriously, probably until college. But I think it's pretty great to introduce younger kids to the style of music. And that's my goal. Also, as a teacher, I'm an educator and I have a jazz studies class. And I think it's really cool to get younger people involved in this because usually they take it seriously and run off with it and do their own thing, which is awesome. We formed the band in 2013, [and] when we first formed, the band was just for fun, and we performed at some dive bars in Texas for beer, playing for hours and playing for free. And I think I'd tell myself to take ourselves more seriously and give ourselves some more value of what we were doing back then.

Jia Chen is a freelance journalist and photographer for Texas Public Radio. She began with TPR working as the Bexar County selected Summer Arts Intern in 2021. Her coverage includes arts & culture, technology, politics, and more. She holds a BA in Communication from University of Texas at San Antonio and has lived in San Antonio for over 20 years.