"We're going to pay homage to the Gene Krupa trio," announced Brooks Tegler, firing off a fusillade of rim shots, kicking off "Till Tom Special" with a bass drum boom. Pianist John Cocuzzi's hands strode in great leaps up and down the keyboard, and the gritty timbre of Gary Gregg's tenor saxophone socked it to the melody.
The scene was the Basin Street Lounge of Alexandria's 219 Restaurant, where Tegler's seven-piece band, Hot Jazz, plays every Thursday, 8 p.m. to midnight, and each Sunday afternoon, when the group is the nucleus of a four-hour jam session that starts at 1 p.m.
Informal presentation and polished, swinging arrangements were the guidelines on a recent Thursday as Hot Jazz, performing without benefit of sound system, offered "China Boy," "Royal Garden Blues" and other tunes from the small band repertory of the 1930s and '40s. For "I Found a New Baby," Cocuzzi moved to the vibraphone and Sid Keithly to piano. "Air Mail Special" brought guitarist Steve Jordan, bassist Sal De Raffele and trumpeter Clyde Hunt to the stand. The set continued with chapters from the books of Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Jordan and the King Cole Trio, plus an original by Hunt. "This is another one of our tender love songs," informed the leader as they roared into the set-closing "Strike Up the Band."
Life-size Edwardian portraits, a large mirror over the fireplace, heavily draped windows and a skylight lend to the room the aura of one of those 52nd Street New York brownstone clubs that a half-century ago packed them in for marathon sessions of -- there's no other term for it -- hot jazz. The dapper attire of the musicians in this five-year-old band augments the sense of de'ja vu. Conservative gray suits, a bow tie here and buttoned suspenders there, pointed buckle shoes tapping out the beat cause a brief suspension of conviction that this is 1986. One has a fleeting expectation that Eddie Condon will arrive any minute with a contingent of musicians in tow and that the bandstand will soon be clouded with the likes of Jack Teagarden, Hot Lips Page and other jam-session habitue's of times long gone.
As for the authenticity of the sounds, take it from Jordan: "I'd say the best I've played with since I left Benny Goodman, as far as a swing band. What little competition I've heard has ranged from fair to good -- but in comparison to Hot Jazz, nothing else is acceptable.
"It's the most fun I've had in years," says the veteran guitarist, whose asssociations have included, in addition to four years with Goodman, the bands of Shaw and Stan Kenton. "Brooks has got almost every single nuance of Gene Krupa down. Matter of fact, I mentioned that to [drummer] Barrett Deems at the Manassas Jazz Festival last year and he said, 'You're right -- close your eyes and that's Gene up there!' "
"That's my main mission in life," admits the 31-year-old Tegler. "That's my goal. I mean, somebody's got to keep him alive."
Tegler heard Krupa (who died in 1973) in person only once, at age 10. But he has mastered virtually all of Krupa's licks and has immersed himself in the lore of the great drummer's life and career, collecting his records, films and "anything I can find. I own one of his five-piece drum sets that he used with his '41 band. It sits in a lighted case in my basement."
If Tegler is a sonic replica of Krupa, so have several other members of Hot Jazz managed to capture the instrumental voices of past jazz greats. Gregg's Goodman-influenced clarinet soared on "Oh, Lady Be Good" and his saxophone delivered ballads in hushed tones a la Ben Webster. Hunt's clarion trumpet cut across the ensemble with the gusto of Roy Eldridge, and his expertise with mutes produced a variety of idiosyncratic effects. Jordan marvels at his colleagues having, despite their youth, "somehow heard enough Goodman, Basie, Harry James et al. to have mastered both sides of swing -- excitement and relaxation."
For the moment, those Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the 219 will continue, but with an album out and European festival dates on the band's docket, word quickly is leaking out that Hot Jazz is, well, hot. And with a mission to keep spreading the gospel, these dedicated reincarnations of Gene Krupa and other swing era giants may soon find themselves out on the road.
"It's unlike any other music that I've ever played, and I love it," says Gregg. "It's rhythm, it's melody, it's harmony, what can you say? It swings!"