In 1988, Maryland native and clarinetist Ben Schenck was new to town, having moved to New Orleans after hearing a Preservation Hall Jazz Band album featuring Willie Humphrey, and making two Jazz Fest pilgrimages. Schenck's apartment was two blocks from Borsodi's CoffeeHouse on Freret Street, and one night Schenck convinced owner Bob Borsodi to let him play his clarinet in the back of the shop.
"I went and sat in the back of the room, and Bob had a pet dove that was in a cage," remembers Schenck. "The cage door was always open, but the dove would never come out of its cage. And when I sat down, the dove flew out of the cage and landed at my feet while I was playing. At the end of the night, Bob came up to me and said it was real beautiful for him when his dove came out. ... Then he said, 'I'll give you $10 every Thursday night to play.'"
It was Schenck's first paying gig and the beginning of his immersion into the local scene. Schenck found a mentor and friend in renowned clarinetist Dr. Michael White, and started sitting in with a number of local luminaries. "The Treme Brass Band was very kind and let me sit in a bunch, and I sat in with Kermit [Ruffins] and Michael White. I cut my teeth at the expense of those guys," he says with a laugh. Between his brass baptism, Schenck also became a founding member of the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars.
Those diverse musical experiences helped inspire Schenck to form the Panorama Jazz Band in 1995. Its original format was a mini-brass band, featuring clarinet, tuba and drums. But Schenck's always been a blue-collar folklorist of sorts, and his passion for world and ethnic music has been a staple of Panorama's sound from its beginning.
"I've been transcribing music for years now -- any time I hear something that turns me on, I transcribe it," he says. "I learned about klezmer and biguine from a DJ in [Washington] D.C. named Dick Spotswood, who produces a lot of really cool reissues of folk and ethnic dance music. He did reissues of biguines from Martinique, and I heard a review of the CDs on NPR, with this exciting music featuring clarinet ... and I just had to have it. I was on the lookout for music that was exciting. I decided when I was in college the thing that I wanted to do was make music for partying and dancing with no electricity necessary."
In the past few years, Schenck's mantra has come to fruition with the latest and most intriguing incarnation of Panorama Jazz Band. Accordion, banjo and trombone have been added to the mix, further expanding the band's stylistic and textural possibilities. And weekly gigs at the Seaport on Bourbon Street and The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street have transformed the band into a vibrant live experience.
The proof is in Panorama's new debut CD, One Hot Night in February. The album is a showcase for the band's stirring eclecticism, featuring compelling and fresh versions of New Orleans standards ("Milneburg Joys"), klezmer ("Di Mame Iz Gegangen"), swing ("Whispering"), the self-explanatory "Really the Blues," and spry Martinique biguines ("Renee," "Asi Pare").
In a beautiful instance of synchronicity, Schenck's love affair with Martinique music was further validated when Jazz Fest made Martinique its spotlighted country at this year's festival. "The Martinique music is a lot like music from New Orleans," says Schenck. "It was phenomenal, and I learned so much from Chouval Bwa. I was riding on their carousel, with the band in the center. They were singing and doing a call-and-response thing, and while I didn't recognize any specific songs, I caught that they were saying 'bah moin,' which means 'give me' in Creole. ... It was pretty neat to make that connection."
With Schenck at the helm, Panorama Jazz Band is making those kind of musical connections with style. (He's the only original member of the band left, and its driving force.) It's heartening to see a local band traveling such diverse roads and carving out a name for itself in local clubs -- and now on local CD racks. Fifteen years later, Schenck's come a long way since his music career in New Orleans took flight at an Uptown coffee shop. And his fans remind him of that fact regularly.
"I still have people come up to me and say, 'I used to hear you at Borsodi's -- and you were terrible, but I admired your determination.'"