Vancouver’s Sammuel Murry-Hawkins is using today’s technology to keep the music of a century ago alive and swinging.
So far, he’s digitally scanned nearly half of approximately 5,000 song scores he has on permanent loan from the Portland chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, he said. Those scores comprise the huge music library of Herman Kenin, who led the Portland Hotel Orchestra in the 1920s and 1930s and later became an activist president of the national musicians’ union.
Most of these tunes haven’t been heard in decades, but you can give them a fresh listen — along with more familiar hits from the early 20th century — when the 11-piece Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra takes the stage Nov. 10 at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre.
“We’ll be playing the most recognizable tunes from the ’20s and ’30s, and we’ll also highlight pieces from the Herman Kenin library,” bandleader, singer and flautist Murry-Hawkins said. “We really want to spread the joy of this music in Vancouver.”
The Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra plays regularly in Portland, but doesn’t have many opportunities on this side of the river, Murry-Hawkins said while showing off the music room in his downtown Vancouver home.
That 130-square-foot room is crowded with vintage instruments — banjos and ukuleles, vibraphone and baby grand piano, even an exotic 1926 “drum contraption” kit with Chinese percussion attachments — as well as file cabinets and plastic tubs full of sheet music dating as far back as the 1890s.
The room’s newest addition is a digital scanner where Murry-Hawkins spends hours per week, photographing the song sheets so his band, and any others who are interested, can keep performing the earliest version of America’s original music: jazz.
“The bulk of these only exist on paper. They’ve never been recorded,” Murry-Hawkins said. “It’s such a huge body of work, our band could play these scores for the rest of its existence and never play one twice.”
In the days before fiery solos by superstar instrumentalists, jazz music was meant for dancing. It was all about tasteful arrangements and smooth ensemble playing, Murry-Hawkins said.
“The sound is so lush and elegant, the genre is really a combination of classical and jazz,” he said. “It is fully orchestrated, beautiful, romantic music.”
At the indies
It’s also a total hoot as performed by the tuxedoed Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra and Murry-Hawkins, who waves his conductor’s baton with a hop-and-jiggle and croons the occasional ditty like “Don’t Bring Lulu” or “You’re Driving Me Crazy.”
Murry-Hawkins grew up in a musical family and plays the flute and harpsichord, but discovering the ukulele spurred him to look beyond baroque classical music, he said. Attending old-time jazz jams developed his passion for that earliest style of swinging, syncopated, “hot-and-sweet” music that was so new in the early 1900s, it didn’t even have the standardized, double “z” spelling yet.
Murry-Hawkins launched the Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra in 2016 because no band on the Portland scene was dedicated to reviving that sound, he said. (The French phrase ne plus ultra means “no greater than,” that is, the greatest!)
Herman Kenin and Harry Hobbs
A few years ago, Murry-Hawkins asked the Portland musicians’ union about a certain Herman Kenin score that his band likes. He was curious about Kenin, who helped to launch the National Endowment for the Arts, and whose political and organizing activities reportedly landed him on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”
According to his New York Times obituary, Kenin was a dapper man who attended Reed College and was admitted to the Oregon bar. He was also a violinist who led the popular Multnomah Hotel Orchestra, catching the attention of Victor Records and eventually relocating to Los Angeles to lead the Ambassador Hotel Orchestra.
But since Kenin’s death in 1970, Murry-Hawkins learned, a vast trove of his scores had languished in the union attic, untouched. Did Murry-Hawkins want to take permanent custody, in exchange for preserving and getting them back into circulation?
It’s become his new labor of love, Murry-Hawkins said while demonstrating the handiness of his new scanner. The stacked tubs surrounding him are filled with perhaps a quarter-million pages of music, he said.
And that’s probably just the beginning of a project without any real ending, Murry-Hawkins added. After he applied for and received official nonprofit agency status for his Historic Music Preservation Project, a second trove of music was donated by Vancouver resident and pro jazz drummer Gary Hobbs. He’s the descendant of Harry Hobbs, leader of the popular Harry Hobbs Orchestra, which played venues like Jantzen Beach and the Council Crest Amusement Park.
According to Gary Hobbs, his grandfather’s orchestra was in such demand that Harry would sometimes go down to the union hall for a “cattle call” to hire enough musicians to deploy three Harry Hobbs Orchestras to perform at three different venues on the same night.
“During the summer months his band would stay at the coast and play in the dance halls like The Bungalow and The Hippodrome in Seaside,” Gary Hobbs wrote in an email.
Eventually Harry Hobbs’ drums and sheet music passed down to son Larry Hobbs and then to grandson Gary, all professional drummers.
“After my father’s death I inherited these family treasures,” Gary Hobbs wrote. “I decided that I really wanted my grandfather’s music to find a new home where it could be appreciated and performed. My daughter Britta Hobbs suggested that I contact Sammuel Murry-Hawkins. His organization is dedicated to keeping the music of this time period alive. I love the enthusiasm and dedication that Sammuel shows.”
Murry-Hawkins has won one grant to support his efforts, but he’s busy applying for more so he can quit his day job at Fred Meyer and fully devote himself to the Historic Music Preservation Project.
If you’re interested in donating to the cause, visit historicmusic.org.