The Rivercity Jazz Society
● By Jon Lewis
Photo: Eric Leslie
Howard Bagley, who is in his 80s, got into jazz as a kid growing up in New York City and still digs it. One of his favorites? Paul Senn, a young Redding cat who picked up the trumpet when he was 7 and currently plays in three bands.
Their North State connection? The Rivercity Jazz Society.
Formed in 1985 to support the Shasta Dixieland Festival, the society continued on after the weekend-long, multi-venue Dixieland festivals fell victim to declining attendance and rising costs.
The society toned things down, choosing instead to focus on live performances on the third Sunday of the month at the Redding Elks Lodge, while expanding the program to include more jazz styles.
Traditional or New Orleans-style jazz is still a focus, says charter member Al Sateren, but the monthly concerts are no stranger to big band and swing as well. “It’s the kind of music I was raised with. All the big bands in the old days: Goodman, Lawrence Welk. If they get a chance to be exposed to it, even country swing. We’ve had inclinations to present some of that music, too,” Sateren says.
Music is a big part of the Rivercity Jazz Society, but the majority of the group’s roughly 120 members like to kick up their heels, as well. “There’s a lot of dancing,” says Pete Westler, the society’s president. “Over two-thirds of the people dance. The Elks Lodge is a real nice room for dancing.”
Westler was drawn to the society after he retired in 1985 from a business of manufacturing and selling Ford Model A parts and his wife, Vi, wanted to take in one of the big Dixieland festivals that were held at hotels on Hilltop Drive.
Both became jazz fanatics and began going to festivals in Redding, Sacramento, Eureka and Medford, Ore. Pete and Vi are Rivercity Jazz Society board members now and thoroughly enjoy the monthly shows.
Bagley’s a board member, as well, and has been part of the society for “15 or 20 years.” His love of jazz goes back even further. “I’ve been into jazz all my life,” he says. “I grew up in New York City and would go down to a joint called Central Plaza. I’d get free tickets through the Navy USO. I couldn’t believe the jazz scene going on down there.”
The scene in Redding is not too shabby either, thanks in part to the society’s efforts to promote a love of jazz among young musicians. It does that by supporting middle and high school music programs and providing summer jazz camp scholarships to promising players.
“If kids don’t start playing, pretty soon the music goes away,” says Steve Fisher, a saxophonist and leader of the popular Straight Ahead Big Band.
Senn, 29, is an excellent example. Thanks to the society, the accomplished trumpet player was able to work with professional musicians at a summer camp organized by the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, starting at age 13 and continuing for five sessions until he reached the age limit.
“It was a lot of fun,” Senn says of the opportunity to study with pros and perform alongside some of the top students in the state. “It’s hard to find kids around here with the competitive fire who want to be jazz musicians.”
Of course, as the grandson of Rivercity Jazz Society founding members Gene and Shorty Chord, Senn’s fascination with jazz had a head start. Gene Chord was a trumpet player and his wife, Shorty, joined him in his band, The Dixie Chords.
“They dragged me around to all their gigs, and to the Dixieland Jazz Festival when it began,” says Senn, who fondly recalls a snapshot
of him at age 6, standing
on a stage and singing “What a Wonderful World.”
Senn now fronts his own group, The Original Senn Band, and plays with Fisher’s Straight Ahead Big Band and the Shasta College Jazz Big Band.
Senn will join forces with Fisher and company for the society’s December concert on the 15th and again on Dec. 31 at the Red Lion Hotel for Fisher’s second annual “New York New Year’s Eve” party. The party starts at 6, the big Times Square ball drops at 9 (on TV screens) and the fun ends at 10 pm so folks can go home or on to the next party. •