Well, I'm kind of depressed. One of New Orleans' (and the world's) greatest dive-bars-with-music has closed. Sometime in August, the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat posted a note on their website:
Jimbeaux’s on Frenchmen Street formerly known as the Spotted Cat will be closed until further notice.
The Spotted Cat couldn't really be called a music club; it was a seedy bar with a bandstand. Every time I visited the Cat, it was jam-packed with music lovers, tourists, barflies, alcoholics, and folks from the neighborhood. And there was always great music coming from the tiny bandstand: The New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Washboard Chaz and his trio, The Psister Sisters, Loose Marbles. But trouble was in the air this past Spring. The stories are confusing and conflicting, but apparently one of the owners of the place was difficult to get along with, and the landlord was reluctant to renew the lease. For a month or two the bar continued to operate under the name Jimbeaux's, but amid rumors that one of the owners hit the other in the head with a hammer, the place closed its doors this summer.
The Spotted Cat was always a lively place, but every Friday evening between 6:30 and 9:30, it became the center of the universe. That's when the Panorama Jazz Band made their weekly appearance on the bandstand. My friend Robo introduced me to the Panorama, and I'll always be grateful - they are one of my favorite New Orleans bands. The six-or-seven member group, led by clarinetist Ben Schenck, plays traditional jazz, klezmer tunes, Caribbean songs, Bulgarian dances - music from the Creole and Jewish diaspora. The Friday night listeners, partiers, and drinkers at the Spotted Cat didn't seem to care where the music came from from, or whether the tune was a New Orleans rhumba, a meringue from Martinique, or a seven-eight hora from eastern Europe. They danced and cheered to it all.
But while the Spotted Cat is gone, the Panorama Jazz Band lives on. They now have 14 years of experience and three CDs under their belt, and the latest album, Come Out Swingin', shows them sounding better than ever. The "rhythm section," which is perhaps an arbitrary distinction in a New Orleans band, consists of banjo, accordion, tuba, and drums, and they make the jazz tunes and odd klezmer rhythms sound equally natural. Schenck is partnered in the "front line" (again, a somewhat meaningless division), by trombone and, for the last couple of years, by the fiery alto sax of Aurora Nealand.
The Panorama's tunes are carefully worked out and rehearsed; I don't know if they are ever arranged on paper, but the band doesn't use charts on the bandstand. There are no real virtuosos in the band, except for "accordionist emeritus" Patrick Farrell, who played on the first two albums and makes a guest appearance on the new one. And the improvised solos are functional, rather than inspiring, for the most part. But none of that matters - the Panorama Jazz Band is more than the sum of its parts. It all works wonderfully - wherever the song is from, the Panorama somehow makes it sound like swinging New Orleans jazz while retaining the original flavor of the tune.
There is also a street version of the band, the Panorama Brass Band, which plays the Krewe de Vieux Mardi Gras parade every year, among other events. Each of the last two Panorama albums has included a few cuts by the brass band. Yeah, they play the traditional New Orleans brass band tunes like "Down in Honky Tonk Town," but they also play Balkan Gypsy tunes and Ravel's "Bolero." They don't sound quite like any other brass band in New Orleans.
I'm not trying to make a case that the Panorama Jazz Band is the best band in New Orleans, or that they'll go down in jazz history, or anything like that. But they're accomplished, unique, and a lot of fun. Catch them if you can.