Panorama is a dance band with an expansive idea of jazz, as registered in the geographical reach of its repertoire and the popularity of the seven-piece mini-orchestra for the weddings, bar mitzvahs and parties that has been its anchor for nearly 20 years. Led by Ben Schenck, a clarinetist of galloping curiosity for dance idioms the world over (well, the repertoire hasn’t penetrated the Far East as of this deadline), Panorama in a given set will move seamlessly from a Martinique swing waltz, “L’Age Atomique” to a Macedonian wedding dance “Svadbarsko Oro” unto a Jewish folk dance, “Oy Tate Si’z Git” (“Oh Daddy, That’s Good”).
Panorama’s adventure began with Schenck’s dawning realization that he should leave the Washington, D.C. area for New Orleans. The first clue came in the summer of 1985 when, as a junior in college, he saw Dr. Michael White perform at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. Although he was studying music composition at Bennington, Schenck says that his view of New Orleans was stereotyped by a notion of jazz history. “The music began in New Orleans, but pretty much ended when Storyville shut down [in ’17], and traveled out to Chicago and New York,“ he explains. “That was the basic idea, the music as something static, whereas in college you could make music for dancing and partying like we did on Friday nights. It was new wave, Blondie and Talking Heads, all this super-synthesized music, super-fun, super-groovy. But I liked the physical experience of the clarinet sound, and instruments that got into your body, like bass and cello, music to move the body. I wondered whether a tuba could be funky. I hadn’t heard of the Dirty Dozen or Rebirth.”
He sought out White after the set, asking the clarinetist questions about New Orleans Style, a music that seemed so vibrant, nothing mossy or antique about it. “White made me realize that the music wasn’t a point on a timeline but a dynamic product of a place that’s very different.”
In his senior year, Schenck was composing four hours a night when he asked his mentor, Gunnar Schonbeck, advice on graduate school. Professor Schonbeck was in his 70s and “into all kinds of music, designing and building instruments. He made 20-foot marimbas out of plywood.” The old man told him to, “Go down to New Orleans, get a place and start sitting in.”
A native of Annapolis, Schenck moved back to the D.C. area after college.
He attended Jazz Fest in 1987 and moved to New Orleans in ’88. “My first place was $100 a month for two rooms in a shotgun house,” he says, warming to his subject. “Upper Magazine Street was flea markets and used appliance places, where it’s now all boutiques, by St. Andrew Street. This was during the oil bust. It wasn’t until 2002 that I paid more than $400 rent.”
Reasonable rents and cultural wealth go hand-in-hand. A big reason behind the boom in music, art and literature since Hurricane Katrina is that despite the loss of housing stock, rents are still within reach of a flourishing bohemian culture. Twenty-four years after he landed here, Shenck and his wife “have raised two kids and have a mortgage based on two part-time incomes.”
Schenck went to graduate school at the University of New Orleans in the jazz studies program with a mentor in Harold Battiste. In the early 1990s he formed the Klezmer All Stars with fellow UNO students Jonathan Freilich on guitar and Arthur Kastler on string bass. “Panorama is an evolution from jazz to klezmer. The music kind of chose me,” he says, and then with a marvelous metaphor mix, calls it “like lusting after a beautiful woman, I have to have this.”
The Sidney Bechet composition, “Come Out Swingin,’” had a Charleston swing that fit the style Schenck was seeking. He heard it on Dan Meyer’s traditional jazz show on WWOZ, called him, pleaded for a copy. And the wheel of music turns.
Panorama has a brass band variation for Mardi Gras marching clubs. The Jazz Band includes: Sean Clark on drums and steam whistle; Jon Gross on sousaphone; Seva Venet as main banjo with Chris Edmunds as alternate; Walter McClements as main accordion, with Patrick Farrell as alternate; Charlie Halloran as main trombone with Genevieve Duval alternating; Aurora Nealand on alto saxophone and Schenk on clarinet, hand percussion and vocals.
After 18 years as a bread-and-butter wedding band, Panorama has an agent for travel concerts this summer and fall. The jazz band has two CDs, Come out Swingin’ and Panoramaland. The brass band CD, entitled 17 Days, features a beautiful version of two funeral dirges, “Nearer My God To Thee” and “Lily of the Valley.” The recording was done in 2010 the night after the Saints won the Super Bowl. And so they push on with a widening span of the repertoire’s wings. The website is PanoramaBrassBand.com.
Young Uptowners were coming to the Quarter both to do the shimmy in its clubs and to go slumming among its Bohemians…Lyle Saxon was delighted to see some of them buying and restoring his beloved historic buildings, but he complained to a friend in 1924, “The whole Quarter is filling up with artists and writers; I didn’t know there were so many funny people in the world. They yell and scream all night long – like cats.”
John Shelton Reed, Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s, forthcoming from LSU Press.