Visual Victoria (VV): Who are the Bumper Jacksons and how did they come to form a band together? How do the instruments each member plays fit into the mix?
Jess Myhre (JM): The Bumper Jacksons are a ragtag crew of Washingtonians and Baltimorians that love early sounds and getting people riled up to boogie! Chris Ousley and I (Jess Eliot Myhre) formed the band in 2012 as a duo, playing jazz standards and old time tunes. We’re very involved in the Baltimore and DC music scenes, and we’re also a part of a larger national community of festival-goers that like to gather in the woods and jam until dawn around campfires. Through these communities we met our bandmates, usually informally at house parties or bar gigs. I met Alex Lacquement (upright bass) at a square dance and got to talking jazz, the first time we jammed together I knew we wanted to keep him as our bassist! Dave Hadley (pedal steel), was playing in another group we shared a show with in 2012, we jammed a little after sound check, and we asked him to sit in with us. The rest is history. Through organic and magical experiences like this, we’ve expanded to become the sextet we are today.
VV: What does the music that the Bumper Jacksons mean to you? How do you think it impacts the audiences you play for?
JM: I think of our music comes from a deep and vast wellspring of American traditions, but most fundamentally – it’s dance music! We’re connected to so much that’s come before us and with our originals and revamped traditional tunes we hope to bring that history into a space that’s relevant and fresh. Our music is uplifting. We bring joy to our audiences – we want to move them, bodily and emotionally.
VV: Where have you traveled as a band and where would be your dream location/venue/festival you’d like to play?
JM: We’ve been lucky enough to get to tour nationally and even a bit through other parts of North America. We’re regulars throughout the East Coast, especially in the South, through the Appalachias. We are getting up as far north as Boston for the first time in our tour this July. The weekend following our performance at the Bright Box. Each of us in the group has different dreams about where we’d love to play, spanning across the globe. Chris’s dream is to play Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. I lived in Ghana in 2008 and would love to go back as a performing musician. Both to soak in the amazing drumming culture there, but also as an American ambassador since so much of the American culture that’s imported there is pop-centric with women heavily sexualized. I’d like to be an example of what else America can be.
VV: What are the different genres the Bumper Jackson play? What makes these genres appeal to a wide audience?
JM: We play swing, blues, country, old time – you name it. We’re steeped in early American musical traditions from the mountains to the cities. It’s all American roots music and most of it is dance music. Our music is community music – it brings people in and makes them feel at home. It’s body music, not head music – it gets people moving. I love looking out at our audiences and seeing so many different generations hanging out together. We have 7 year old fans and we have 95-year old fans, and everyone in between.
VV: What does being a professional musician mean to you? What do you want people to take away from hearing you as a musician?
JM: Technically, I suppose you’re a “professional” when people pay you to do what you do. Dang, are we lucky to be able to get paid to play music! You know Chris and I have had a lot of conversations about why we choose to be musicians, what we really want to get out of it (’cause there’s never going to be much money and we know that), and what it’ll mean for us to “make it.” Success is a subjective thing. In 2012 when we started the band we decided that this journey of becoming “professional musicians” would only be fruitful if we kept it fun, challenging, fulfilling, and stayed true to our values. We promised each other that as soon as we found we were no longer learning valuable skills, no longer growing as musicians or human beings, or not having fun anymore, we’d call it quits. Because it’s not worth being broke if you’re not doing good work, right? But we’ve been really lucky on our journey so far, and there’s no end in sight.
VV: Where did you become interested in music? How did you grow into being a professional musician today?
JM: Each of us in the band has a different story for that and if any of the other guys were here I’d love for them to tell their stories. Alex fell in love with the upright bass when he was a teenager, I know, and Dave used to lock himself in a closet and play his steel along to records all day from age 12. I grew up singing in church; could sing before I could talk. But it wasn’t until after I graduated from college and moved to New Orleans in 2010 that I became deeply enamored with early jazz – that’s when I learned to play clarinet and started listening to Ella Fitzgerald obsessively, trying to mimic her lines and vocal phrasing. The New Orleans Jazz Vipers would let me sit in with them on Monday nights at the Spotted Cat, and the bandleader kept giving me “homework.” “Go home, listen to this CD of Ethel Waters – learn two of those songs and we’ll play them next week,” he’d tell me.
VV: Why do the Bumper Jacksons mix genres of music? How do you think that makes your band different from others doing similar styles?
JM: Most bands blend or bend genre, unless they’re a tribute band or specifically trying to preserve a particular style. I think of genre simply as a helpful tool to help listeners understand what kinds of sounds or grooves a musician or band has, or to help us contextualize the history of certain sounds, forms, instrumentations, or lyrics. Genre shouldn’t be a series of lines to limit one’s choices.
That being said, I do think that our instrumentation is very unique – having a small horn section juxtaposed with the pedal steel is super cool. Historically it’s only ever done with Western swing bands, but we move easily away from swing rhythms into straight country or funk beats, and it becomes a whole different animal.
VV: What are some of the main upcoming shows you have?
JM: We’ll be in Winchester in July! We’re playing on Friday, July 15th at the Bright Box Theater with a local group Plank Stompers. They’re awesome musicians and great guys pushing the boundaries of bluegrass. We’ll also be at the Barns at Wolf Trap on October 22nd, which is a phenomenal historic venue. That’ll be a big blowout show with a full horn section and special guests.