by Jane Roser
Wildly inventive, eclectic and the most fun you can ever have at an old-fashioned dance party, DC’s Bumper Jacksons have quickly gained national recognition for their blend of jazz, swing, blues and old-time country tunes, as well as original compositions that harken back to an era of white lightning, Appalachian hollers and New Orleans’ jazz clubs. With influences that range from Hank Williams to Bessie Smith and an impressive repertoire of tunes, both old-timey and brand spankin’ new, you could say the Bumper Jacksons have been there, done that; wrote the country song.
Co-founder Jess Eliot (vocals, clarinet, kazoo, washboard) recalls growing up singing in the church choir, but really becoming passionate about the type of music she plays now while living in New Orleans. “It was the first time I really saw anyone play traditional jazz music live and I was immediately struck by it. I was really inspired by the bands I saw busking in the streets and playing small clubs. I didn’t know the clarinet could sound like that. I had a piece of crap plastic clarinet back at my folks’ house in Florida, so I asked my mom to mail it to me.”
Eliot started sitting in with a few bands at a jazz club called The Spotted Cat located just steps from the French Quarter and was mentored by saxophone player Joe Braun of the New Orleans Jazz Vipers. She moved to DC soon after and teamed up with Chris Ousley (guitar, vocals, mouth horn) who had been playing a lot of old-time jams and bluegrass.
“When we decided we wanted to make music together, we melded those different influences together,” says Eliot. “We had played in a contra dance band and thought, this is really fun, maybe we can make a living playing gigs. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but we started out playing mostly traditional jazz music as a duo.”
For a while, Eliot and Ousley had a rotating cast of musicians sitting in with them for shows, but currently play with the same gents which include Alex Lacquement (bass), Dan Cohen (The Suitcase, snare), Dave Hadley (pedal steel, dobro) and Brian Priebe (trombone). If you read that sentence all the way through, you’re probably wondering what the heck kind of instrument “The Suitcase” is. A really nifty one is the answer. Cohan got tired of lugging his drum kit to shows and trying to find a hatchback it would fit into. The Suitcase is a percussion set up based around a vintage suitcase that Eliot says, “mimics a kick drum and the washboard strapped on top is used as a snare. It’s all made from household items- a can, keys and a bell that he stole off of one of my washboards, we call it junk percussion.”
Bumper Jacksons’ recently released Sweet Mama, Sweet Daddy, Come In, a seamless mix of 13 traditional and original songs. “We recorded a lot more songs than are on the album,” says Eliot. “We mostly chose these particular songs because they were the best recordings of the bunch. We gave priority to our original songs, so we worked to get really good takes of these and then included a spread [of other songs] that could demonstrate the different influences that we have. “Darlin’ Corey” is a tune that’s played in old-time/bluegrass circles and the reason we chose to cover a Tom Waits song is because Chris and I love him (in fact, if they could choose anyone to perform with, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss top that list) and he started off playing early jazz music.”
For the most part, the album was recorded live and produced by Grammy winner Charlie Pilzner at Airshow Mastering. “He’s so much fun to work with, “says Eliot, “Charlie is a master and was really good about keeping us on task. He recorded, mixed and mastered the entire album.”
Playing several sold out album release shows, including at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore and DC’s historic Sixth and I venue, just helped to fuel the fire. “We collaborated with [local award winning hip-hop artist] Christylez Bacon (at the Sixth and I show). He opened for us and we also arranged a beatbox part for him on “Darlin’ Corey” which was really cool and we may try to record it at some point,” says Eliot.
Fiddler and hambone artist Steve Hickman also performed at that show and Eliot recalls that, “he doesn’t use the internet. I literally had to write him a letter and sent it in the mail when I asked him to be a part of this.”
Bumper Jacksons recently won the 2013 Washington Area Music Award for “Best Traditional/Folk Band” and their rendition of “Darlin’ Corey” has been making the rounds on folk radio across the country. In addition to performing at such prestigious venues as The Kennedy Center and large music festivals such as Musikfest, Bumper Jacksons will be performing one final album release show on May 9th in Winchester, Virginia, the birthplace of country legend Patsy Cline. Next up is a music video Chris has been working on for “Bacon Adoration” aka “The Bacon Song.”
“Chris is the master of writing silly songs,” laughs Eliot. ” Usually I’ll poo-poo them, but he always wins me over. This song came about when we were on tour and our car broke down. We were getting towed and I was worried we would miss our gig. I was pretty stressed about it and Chris said, well, here we are and there’s nothing we can do about it, so I’m going to write a song. He had brought the ukelele into the cab of the tow truck and just started singing about bacon; we just couldn’t be grumpy about our situation anymore. He wrote the entire song in that tow truck.”
Bumper Jacksons are, as I mentioned in my review of Sweet Mama, Sweet Daddy, Come In, a teaspoon of blues, a dash of ragtime and a sprinkle of country swing wrapped into a succulent sweet and tarty apple pie. They will make you want to kick your heels up, snap your fingers, drink a shot of whiskey and learn to swing dance, like you’ve always wanted to. Enjoy their tunes, catch a live show and as the BJ’s say “be well, be strong and remember to call your mother.”