Suburban band plays Dixieland jazz for the stars
They've played for three U.S. presidents, at will.i.am's birthday party, at the opening game of the White Sox World Series and in front of so many celebrities and prestigious business executives, they struggle to remember them all.
The Banjo Buddies Dixieland Jazz Band is not just a nationally recognized band based in the suburbs, it's become the go-to group Chicago agents call when there's a demand for live, upbeat, all-ages music.
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"There's a uniqueness to what we do," explains band leader and jazz banjoist Ann Stewart of Carol Stream.
The other band members are drummer Verne Rind of Carol Stream, trumpet player Al Ramsey of Naperville, bass player Mike Zudis of St. Charles and trombone player Tim Stewart (Ann's husband).
Dixieland music often is associated with American politics, which explains why The Banjo Buddies Dixieland Jazz Band was tapped to play at political rallies for presidents George H.W. Bush (during an appearance in Bolingbrook), Gerald Ford (at a downtown Chicago hotel) and Ronald Reagan (during a campaign stop at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg).
They'd play "Hail to the Chief" or "Grand Ol' Flag" as the presidents walked onto the stage and smiled or waved to them.
"The security was so heavy, even my banjo had to be taken apart," Stewart recalls. "It was very fun, but it was intense."
When Reagan was at Woodfield, the stage was set up in front of Marshall Field's, now Macy's, where Santa holds court during Christmas.
"The place was packed. There were people lined up on the levels above, all looking down," Stewart said. "(For security reasons), it's not something they're going to do anymore."
The band eventually segued into the celebrity world, and in 2010 it was hired to play a private backstage birthday party for will.i.am before the Black Eyed Peas' concert at the United Center in Chicago.
"We played for his entire entourage and stage crew, which consisted of about 250 people. Will walked out of his dressing room, and we played "Happy Birthday" and immediately went into "When The Saints Go Marching In,'" said Stewart, who then led everyone in a parade through the backstage area of the United Center with Fergie, the other "Peas," and dozens of others following. "We all partied for about an hour, and then they had to get ready for their concert. We continued to play up until his concert, for his crew and people who won or bought backstage tour tickets."
Over the years, dozens of celebrities have been in the band's audiences, including Bill Cosby, Al Hirt, Ludacris, Slash, Mike Ditka and New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme. Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley knows them by name, Stewart said.
Rind says their behind-the-scene glimpse into the celebrity world has been fascinating, and the stars they've met have all been down-to-earth and nice. Yet The Banjo Buddies didn't photograph themselves with the celebrities at these gigs because they consider it unprofessional.
"We're not here to be fans. We're here to do a job for them," Rind said.
While the high-profile events are fun, most of The Banjo Buddies Dixieland Jazz Band's work during their 35-plus years together has been playing at countless retail store and museum openings, in the hallways of the United Center during Chicago Bulls or Blackhawks games, at private parties and music festivals, and even at some wakes and gravesides. They play more than 250 gigs per year.
They don't wear red striped vests and straw hats, or try to duplicate the sound of old-time Dixieland bands. Rather, their music is a mix of styles — improvised jazz, Dixieland, swing and big band. People like it because it's lively, family-friendly and never contains inappropriate words or themes.
"It's considered Americana," Stewart said. "The name doesn't describe us well ... we're not a banjo band. We're a band with a banjo."
They're so well-known in the suburbs, band members are often approached by fans in public. Despite their popularity, Dixieland music remains unknown to most young people — a fact that saddens the band members.
Rind said they rarely teach this style of music in schools, and it doesn't even have its own all-music cable channel.
When young people hear it, though, they like it.
"The sound guy can have pins all over his face, and when he sees us, he thinks, 'Oh geez.' Then we'll start to play, and he likes it. He'll ask, 'What's that?'" Rind says.
Band members acknowledge that banjo and Dixieland music has an image problem and is often associated with older people or hillbillies, a stereotype they're constantly fighting against.
"The name of the band, and our style of music, has kept us up, but it's also kept us down, if that makes sense," Stewart said.
Every now and then, banjos regain their hipness because a celebrity like Taylor Swift or Steve Martin will play one. But the band believes the banjo — and Dixieland music — is eternally cool and timeless.
The Banjo Buddies Dixieland Jazz Band plans to keep doing what they're doing as long as they can, because their shared passion for music and entertaining makes this a job they love.
"As hokey as it sounds, we just love people," Stewart said. "If I feel like I can take people away from their problems for an hour and a half, then I did my job."
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people in showbiz. If you know of someone, send a note to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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