Mark Goldman, Buffalo historian, author and entrepreneur, stopped dead in his tracks.
The last thing he expected to hear on a city street corner while wandering through the heavy traffic and heat of the annual Allentown Art Festival was the sound of gypsy jazz -- the lambent, wistful, but spirited tones of Paris in the 1930s.
But there it was. Unmistakable, vibrant, swinging, a non-sequitur in a local music scene that by 2004 Goldman had begun to see as fractured, scattered, and frankly, tired.
"In Buffalo, you have a lot of cover bands playing in the suburbs around the city, and a lot of loud rock bands with varying degrees of talent playing in the city itself," says Goldman. "Here was something completely different. These guys sounded amazing, were clearly fantastic musicians, were playing acoustic instruments, and had an unmistakable flair for conveying the aura of an era."
The era Goldman speaks of is long gone, but its impact still looms large. The band he'd randomly encountered that afternoon in 2004 performed beneath the moniker Babik, its chosen name the first of many clues to its distinct historical lineage. Doubtless, jazz aficionado Goldman got the reference -- to the king of gypsy swing, the virtuoso guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose son was christened Babik -- right off, but he already knew what Babik was about before he watched them perform one tune.
Clearly, this music was a celebration of the World War II-era groundbreaking gypsy folk/jazz hybrid of Django and his compatriot, violinist Stephane Grappelli. That a group of young musicians in Buffalo would be so schooled in Reinhardt's music was surprising, but instantly struck Goldman as something he could employ in his never-ending quest to "market Buffalo as a cool place where artists are doing unexpected things, where the culture is alive."
Babik dropped into Goldman's lap fully formed. "They sounded wonderful, and they had the look down, too. They looked cool; I knew they would appeal to people's desire to have a musical experience that made them feel hip, Bohemian, you know?"
Goldman was right.
He immediately booked the band to play every Wednesday inside his Allen Street Hardware club, which was enjoying a buzz as one of the hipper places to hang in Allentown.
Babik concerts were well-attended and greeted with enthusiasm by listeners, many of whom were not likely to know Django Reinhardt from Dave Matthews. Many of these same listeners would come back over the next 85 consecutive Wednesdays, filling Goldman's intimate club, and eventually elevating Babik's debut disc to the No. 1 spot on local independent retailer New World Record's sales chart for five weeks straight during the holiday season, beating out releases by both Tom Waits and the Beatles.
Babik had forged a connection with its audience.
"For us, the attraction to this music is probably the same attraction it has for most of its fans -- there is an infectious, happy vibe to it," says Joshua Assad, rhythm guitarist/vocalist with Babik. "This music makes people happy. Even the minor-key tunes we play have a sense of joyful celebration. Gypsy jazz has a great groove that you would be hard pressed to avoid tapping your foot to."
Reinhardt was a virtuoso nonpareil, of course, so Babik would have to do more than simply learn some of his tunes and give off a modern-day "gypsy" vibe to be legit.
The harmonic structure of the music is complicated, the composed melodic lines nuanced, the improvisational aspects simply burning. Babik, whose very name suggested the band wished to be, in a sense, "Django's children," would have to be able to nail this stuff with conviction, and then make their own personal mark on it.
Some serious woodshedding would be in order.
"The group started with [lead guitarist] Stuart Fuchs and myself getting together in the fall of 2004, and attempting some tunes with an almost awestruck appreciation of the style," recalls Assad. "After many months of relearning our instruments from scratch -- literally, with new guitars, new strings, new picks, new hand positions, new chord voicings, new right- and left-hand techniques -- we felt ready enough to practice on the street. That's where Mark Goldman heard us, and he gave us a big break by booking us at Hardware."
"The first night of hearing Babik ... still resonates in my head," writes Buffalo State College music professor and author Chuck Mancuso in the liner notes to Babik's self-titled debut disc. "After an hour of the group's buoyant, rhythmic improvisations that had a full house of foot-tapping, finger-snapping enthusiasts wildly cheering, I felt that I had been transported back to the time of Django, when jazz was considered the people's music -- what [Louis] Armstrong and Fats Waller called 'happy jazz.' "
It's been a long time since the general public has considered jazz its own. Jazz, like classical music, is now treated as a museum piece, an elite form about as far from the "everyman" aspect of popular music as one can get.
Babik may not have set out to change all of this, but certainly part of the reason the group has been warmly welcomed around here has to do with the open, welcoming, and -- even though there is clearly virtuosity involved -- fun nature of the music it plays.
"Jazz doesn't reach your average Joe today, and most folks think you need a doctorate in harmony to appreciate it," says Assad. "Yes, I definitely think our successes can be attributed to the fact that this music is accessible and fun. The virtuosity springs forth from having a good time together onstage. We are also not tied down by tradition and aren't afraid to stretch the music and even in the midst of a solo quote Led Zeppelin, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, whatever."
That Babik is able to draw at will from Django Reinhardt's canon -- from the moving elegy which gave the band its name, "Babik," through jaw-dropping workouts like "Heavy Artillery" and "Blue Drag" -- and throw in elements of popular music, quoting bits of Zeppelin, or a snippet from the "Spiderman Theme," has surely eased audiences who might not be otherwise familiar with World War II-era jazz. The musicians in addition to Assad and Fuchs, upright bassist Kevin O'Brien and violinist Geoffrey Fitzhugh Perry -- boast a combined pedigree in everything from punk rock to jazz fusion, Zydeco to old-school rock 'n' roll. Assad feels that their varied musical pasts allow them to bring something fresh to Reinhardt's music.
"When we began performing, we expected the older ages to enjoy the echoes of the World War II era, but we were surprised by the college-age hipsters coming down and dancing their butts off tune after tune after tune. All ages seem to respond to the music -- preschoolers to senior citizens, punk rockers to classic rockers. Many times, people have come up to us after shows and said something like, 'I always hated jazz, but your music rocks!' "
As Babik takes on a second residency, Friday evenings inside the Stillwater on Delaware Avenue, and a collaboration with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra looms in the future, Assad is quick to point out that Babik honed its craft inside Goldman's Hardware club. The band members still consider that Allentwon space their "spiritual home." Goldman continues to book a variety of musicians in his club, the only connecting criteria being that they are dedicated, quality musicians.
"I think [Goldman's] idea of filling the place with the best players in town, and seeing what music they make when they are left alone to make it is a great thing. That space has allowed us to craft our own unique sound and start compiling our own catalog of compositions.
"The enthusiasm of the audience, along with the atmosphere of that space, has given us a new take on an old sound. Most American groups playing this style play very smooth and softly, but the attitude of our surroundings made us into a group that digs deeper and hits harder."
For upcoming show dates, www.babikjazz.com.