By Andrea Culletto  

Pull out your parasol, don your straw boater and get ready for a rip-roaring good time on the ol’ Mississip’. The season is ripe for some classic Dixieland music. The best part? You don’t have to travel all the way to New Orleans for some riotous good tunes. There’s plenty of great Dixieland right here at home. 

But What Exactly Is Dixieland?

Most people are not intimately familiar with Dixieland music. They have a vague notion of something involving parades, a trombone and Creole Country, but Dixieland has a rich history with a unique sound all its own.

Actually a style of jazz, Dixieland was created by jazz pioneers in New Orleans. It incorporates musical instruments like piano, drum, banjo, tuba or upright bass, trumpet, clarinet and trombone. “Its sound is unmistakable,” said David Forest, treasurer of Winona’s Upper Mississippi Jazz Society. “There’s a definite beat to it.”

Traditional Dixieland music can be an uproariously good time. Historically, musicians would parade through the streets, occupying “first line,” followed by a “second line” of enthusiastic fans dancing with tiny parasols and waving handkerchiefs in the air. Dixieland even played a major role in funerary processions. “A traditional funeral with a Dixieland band would have a real slow dirge on the way in and an upbeat song like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ on the way out,” Forest explained.

Dixieland in the Upper Mississippi

Contrary to popular opinion, Dixieland doesn’t just thrive at the southern end of Old Man River. “Ragtime and Dixieland migrated north by riverboat and spread out from there,” said Forest. 

Once it found its way to colder climes, Dixieland settled in to stay. Today you’ll find this cultural tradition in Winona and surrounding areas all year long, largely thanks to the Upper Mississippi Jazz Society. They host the annual Winona Dixieland Festival, a much-anticipated event that has been thrilling audiences for decades. You can also find live Dixieland at Jefferson Pub & Grill in Winona on the last Sunday of every month from Mardi Gras through October at 6 p.m. You’ll enjoy great food, excellent drinks and the classic sounds of the Gate City Jazz Band. 

Winona Dixieland Festival

The Winona Dixieland Festival has been ringing the rafters for a whopping 30 years. Originally founded in 1987, the festival has featured a wide array of talented Dixieland players including Les Fields and the Notables, The Wonderful World Jazz Band, Mississippi Mudcats, Turkey River All Stars, Barbary Coast, Mouldy Figs, Jack Brass Band, Southside Aces and Blue Ox Jazz Babies.

The 31st Annual Winona Dixieland Festival will take place June 30, 2018, at Winona State University on the green by the Performing Arts Center. If it rains, the event will be moved to the Science Laboratory building. The show begins at 12:30 p.m. with the Southside Aces from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They will be followed by the Seven Rivers Jazz Band at 2:45 p.m. with national Hall of Fame banjo player Paul Erickson from La Crosse, Wisconsin, and at 5 p.m. the Gate City Jazz Band from Winona, Minnesota, will take the stage. The Southside Aces will perform songs that are over a century old. “Some you can even dance to, which is pretty impressive,” Forest noted.

Upper Mississippi Jazz Society

Edwin Maus and David Forest

Edwin Maus and David Forest

Local jazz and Dixieland wouldn’t be the same without the Upper Mississippi Jazz Society. This group is composed of individuals who harbor a passion for jazz—individuals like Forest who first encountered Dixieland music in the 1960s in San Diego, California. His love for the sound blossomed from there. While he explored the artistic realm of music, he spent his career in the tech sector repairing computers for IBM. “At that time computers were big,” he recalled. “They took up a whole room. They had to have special air conditioning and a whole room might have only 4k—now they’re in terabytes.”

Forest retired in 1992 and relocated to Winona in 1997 where he joined the Upper Mississippi Jazz Society, working to bring the music he loved to the community. The society gave musical scholarships to students and sponsored free community events, supported by annual donors including Forest’s former employer, IBM. 

It takes a lot of hard work, planning and organization to share these events with the community. “It doesn’t happen by itself,” Forest said. “But at the end of the day, it’s worth the effort.” His favorite part—besides the music, of course—is interacting with the festival’s fans. “We talk to a lot of good people and get a lot of good letters,” he said. 

The Saints Go Marching In

When those old riverboats came chugging up the Mississippi, they brought more than just the idea of Dixieland; they brought the actual music itself. Musicians were common entertainment on old paddleboats, particularly on the lower Mississippi. In addition, an interesting instrument soon found a home onboard. 

This instrument was pronounced “kally-ope” when used in circuses, but on the river it was referred to as a “kal-eye-o-pee.” Local resident Edwin Maus obtained his own calliope in 1959. He had spent his career running farm steam tractor engines. His expertise made him a prime candidate to maintain something that operates in a similar way.

“A calliope runs off steam power just like those tractors,” he said. “The calliope has a boiler that we would fire to 100 pounds pressure to start and 32 keys that would use the pressure. Each whistle has a valve of its own that produces the intonation, like an accordion.”

Maus’ calliope originally came from the Wilke Foundation, which leased it to Winona to promote goodwill. He traveled all over the United States with the instrument, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Connecticut and South Dakota. A variety of exceptionally talented musicians were sourced to play the calliope along the way. “We were fortunate in Winona, with its three colleges, that we had talent,” Maus said. “The people that played it were geniuses.”

Maus and a group of committed assistants took the calliope to New Orleans for Mardi Gras annually for 14 years. This was exciting, both for them and for the people who got to experience a real calliope—often for the first time. “We attended two or three parades each time and the Saturday night parade was six to seven hours long,” Maus recalled. “At first the police would give us an escort. We were a novelty.”

Maus and his crew, including his wife, Judy, often spent all day marching in parades down New Orleans’ famous Canal Street. Some years they used horses to pull the calliope and other times they used Maus’ father’s 1923 Dodge. The latter was quite a sight with its wooden spoked wheels. 

“We had to have walkers to keep people away during the parade,” Maus recalled. “Otherwise they’d jump between the calliope and bandwagon and get hurt. Some were pretty well inebriated and would try anything.” 

Maus noticed an evolution at Mardi Gras. “They started going to contemporary jazz from traditional jazz,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t like it. In Winona they were playing more traditional jazz than they were out at Mardi Gras. The purists were hungry for traditional music like the calliope. We’d go down Canal Street and someone would call out, ‘Play When the Saints Go Marching In!’ The band leader would cue up the intro and the response from the crowd was just a roar.

Maus recently sold his calliope to the Hesper-Mabel Steam Engine Show, which takes place annually in Mabel, Minnesota. He’s looking forward to the Winona Dixieland Festival. “They’re very traditional and they do a good job with their format,” he said. “It’s been a popular attraction in Winona.” 

Let the Music Play!

Be sure to experience this year’s Winona Dixieland Festival and other great Upper Mississippi Jazz Society events throughout the year. Let the good times roll!