by Billiann Robertson
When I look back on my high school career in ten years, I’ll have a lot to remember and appreciate. Although, I already know there is something I do that will provide me with my fondest memories. When I mention to others my age and how I spend most of my weekends, they don’t exactly understand. I’m part of the Reedley River Rats and along with my six band mates, play Dixieland Jazz music for audiences throughout California.
The Reedley River Rats have been in existence for, well, quite awhile. Most of you know the founder and original director of the River Rats, Burl Walters. If you don’t, then you probably haven’t lived in Reedley too long. Reedley High’s band program is one of the many things our town is extremely proud of. Three hundred and fifty students strong, it’s one of the largest in California. The amount of smaller groups formed from these students would probably surprise you. The directors and students love to toy with other styles of music when they are off the football field for the season. The River Rats are no different, and we love Dixieland Jazz.
Our band is easy to recognize: our boys sport tuxedos and girl show off the red shimmy dresses, very popular in the time period of Dixie Jazz. After Mr. Walters retired, Buddy Heisse took the River Rats under his wing and renamed the band The Muskrat Ramblers. When Buddy Heisee retired, Samuel Gipson rejuvenated the original name, The River Rats. We are invited to play at jazz festivals throughout California, such as the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (the River Rats being the first youth band to be invited to play there), the Monterey Jazz Jubilee, and the Three Rivers Jazz Affair. These, along with local gigs and weekly practices keep our schedules rather full, but we enjoy every second of it.
My friends often wonder why I love it so much, considering our audiences are on average, 50 years older than us. It’s easy, I can’t turn on the radio and turn to a Dixieland station like they could in the 50’s, nor can I go down to the pub and swing dance like they may have 50 years ago. Dixieland Jazz is, quite frankly, a dying style of music. When we play for the audiences of the Jazz Age, it makes us feel great that we can remind them of that time and carry on that tradition.
As a freshman, I never would have thought that I would be playing tenor saxophone and singing in a Dixieland Jazz band by my sophomore year, and to be honest, I didn’t even know what that was. Now as a junior with a year under my belt, I look forward to every second that I get to stand on stage and banter back and forth with our audiences. It’s provided my band mates and me with skills that can’t be taught in a classroom, or in a three hundred and fifty student band. The performing skills and musical techniques we gain from playing in the band will stay with us forever. The professional Dixie bands we come in contact with throughout our performing are great examples of this. We watch them play together and they inspire us to keep up our jazz skills and use them like they do. They don’t read music, they give a key to play in and they all play the song that is engraved in their head from years of playing jazz. This didn’t come from any teacher, it’s pure talent and experience and we all dream of being in their spots one day, carrying on the jazz tradition.
We perform for groups all over Reedley, city functions such as the Rotary Auction and Street Faire, along with various dinners and group events. If you are interested in booking us for an event, please contact our director, Sam Gipson from Reedley High School. We’d love to share the jazz tradition with you!