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Snake Charmers

Denver's Boa and the Constrictors squeeze new life out of jump blues.

Musicians generally gravitate toward predictable day jobs to finance their passion: waiting tables, pumping gas, selling CDs and so on. But of the six members of Boa and the Constrictors, only harmonicat Jim Pansa, who is employed at a local violin-repair shop, fits the formula. As for the others, guitarist/vocalist Erik Boa and trombonist Joe Agostine work as telephone reps for Janus Funds, drummer Rick Moseley toils as a pension consultant, keyboardist/Hammond B-3 player Greg Platt is a real estate agent--and if bassist Maurice Zamora, who lives in the mountains near Estes Park, has a job at all, no one's saying what it is.

Clearly, the Constrictors aren't your average band--so it's appropriate that they don't play your average music. The group specializes in jump blues, a variation of the traditional style that's as tough to describe as it is enjoyable to hear. "Everybody has probably heard jump blues at one time or another," Moseley says. "But not too many people know what it is when you say it. A lot of people, when they think about the blues, think B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Johnson--cats like that."

In fact, none of the aforementioned artists were involved in jump blues, which thrived during the late Forties and early Fifties. The nucleus for the genre was the pre-World War II boogie woogie and hipster jive of Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard and the music of small jazz combos such as Count Basie's Kansas City Six and Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven. But jump blues didn't really come into its own until after the armistice was signed and the world was ready to party. Vocalist/alto saxophonist Louis Jordan, accompanied by his Tympani Five, is probably the best known, most innovative jump artist to reign during the era, but he was hardly the only one. Female jump singers Wynona Carr, Wynonie Harris, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker had plenty of hits, as did Sam Taylor, Big Joe Turner, Joe Houston, Nappy Brown and other honkers and shouters. In addition, jump bands led by Tiny Bradshaw, Roy Milton, T-Bone Walker and Johnny Otis paved the way for the cross-cultural success of vocalist Louis Prima and the early rock and roll of Bill Haley and the Comets.

The rise of rock all but killed jump blues in the mid-Fifties, and aside from a handful of one-off projects, such as the long-player Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive, issued in 1981, it's lain low ever since. But given the renewed interest in swing music, the time is right for a jump-blues revival, and in Denver, at least, Boa and the Constrictors are leading the way. The various players are self-described jump novices, but they've come along quickly in a short period of time. Boa wraps his voice around jump lyrics as if he'd been born in the wrong era, and the instrumentalists create a sound that's almost magical at times. The players are obviously talented, but one gets the sense that they've never sounded as good as they do when they play together.

The band was formed in part because Boa, a prominent part of the local rock community since the Eighties, was interested in trying something new. "I had gotten to the point where I was just burnt out on what I was playing," he confides. "And blues-based rock is the music that originally inspired me to want to play. So I felt like I really needed to get back to the stuff that first inspired me--kind of dig deep into the well of music and research it from a more historical and musical perspective. Truly, this band is a product of all of us discovering our connection to this jump-blues music."

Moseley, with whom Boa had teamed in a number of different groups, soon came on board. The problem was finding others eager to jump. "When I was looking for players to work with us, I literally put ads on bulletin boards that said, 'Need bass player,'" Boa says. "At the time, I thought that I'd just hire people to do whatever dates I had. I'd be the boss and pay them, and then they could go away if they wanted to. I thought it would be great to find cats who loved this music, but if not, I'd just be an employer."

The ad was answered by Zamora, who brought along Greeley-based Platt. Shortly thereafter, Pansa, who had been recommended by Mark Bell, a busy area blues player, joined up, as did Joe Agostine, who relocated to Denver from Miami, where he'd performed with an area symphony. Since then, the instrumentalists have cultivated a common love of their somewhat obscure music of choice.

"Each generation, at some point, rediscovers the music of the past," Boa points out. "In this band, we've kind of rediscovered jump. I mean, we weren't alive during its heyday, and it hasn't been carried on by too many cats. That's why, when we go out and play, we feel really committed and very responsible to be showing this wonderful music to people. We want people to check it out because, man, this music is deep. We want to share it and let them know who the cats were and what the music is about.

"But what we love most about jump blues is that it's music that's fun," he continues. "It's in the basis of the lyric content. This is music about women, drinking on a Saturday night, having fun. It's not that back-porch, real-deep-down, dog-painful, my-baby-left-me stuff. I mean, maybe there's a little of that. But mostly it's music for, and about, having a good time. Smiley blues. When we come up with a tune--an original--if I don't sing the lyrics and smile, then it's not quite right."

The band was only three months old when it played last September alongside Little Richard and Chuck Berry as part of a Jazz Aspen bill. Boa's connection to Janus, which sponsors Jazz Aspen, likely led to this wonderful opportunity, but it had nothing to do with the rave reviews the combo received there, or at the gigs that followed. Things have gone so well that Boa has been making plans for the future.

"In one regard, we're just happy to play," he says. "But we've got goals and aspirations in this, too. We're working on an album project called Jump Back that is due for release on August 1. Sure, we're paying for it ourselves, and most of the copies will be given away as promotional items and to each person on our mailing list. But we want to take this music out to everyone, and a recording is one way to do that. We want people to hear our music even if they can't see us play. I mean, there are so many important reasons to do records.

"Plus," the moneyman adds, "it's a great way to go into debt."

Boa and the Constrictors. 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 10, Little Bear, 28075 Highway 74, Evergreen, $3, 674-9991.

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