by JB Hyppolite
Mt. Airy’s own, The Gin Canaries play hot jazz from the 1920s-1940s era. Together for almost four years, they have developed a local following from their performances every fourth Sunday at Earth Bread + Brewery in Mt. Airy. Each member plays several instruments, and they dress up in the vintage threads of the era.
“We’ve all loved the music from that era for a very long time; every one of us,” said David Graves, the band’s pianist and accordion player, in an interview last week. “I think it was the love of the music that came first; than we found each other, and it was a common interest.”
The band members’ backgrounds are quite varied: classically trained, self-taught, etc. Vocalist Christa Hackenberg has a genre-jumping voice that is just as at home in a packed club in Tokyo as it is in a smoky dive bar in Philadelphia. But her true love is the sexy, romantic, gritty sounds of the jazz age. Her swing dance teacher, Paul Salter, was also a musician, so she jumped at the chance to try her wings when he suggested that they play around with a few of his music buddies and see what happens. Several weeks later, each “Canary” fell beak over wing in love with this songbird, and the Gin Canaries were formed. When she’s not in chanteuse mode, Christa can be spotted nesting in her Mt. Airy residence, shopping for bargains and sipping red wine at a local watering hole.
Speaking of Paul Salter, he fell out of a nest of deafening electric savages onto a dance floor where he learned how to hold a girl and find the beat with his feet in a crowd dancing to hot jazz. While being marinated in this swirl of swinging bodies, he learned enough songs and met enough talented souls to play music for the natives he was dancing with. He started out hammering away on the archtop guitar struggling to be heard among blasting trumpets and tubas, and then he moved on to the singing reeds of saxophones and clarinet. He’s been running around dance floors hollering and swinging guitars and horns ever since.
David Graves, another “Canary,” was born blind near present-day Wortham, Texas. He was one of eight children born to sharecroppers Alex and Clarissa. Overcoming opposition from his clergyman father, he became a professional pianist at 15, working in cabarets and theaters.
The last “Canary,” Louis Marchesani began playing the guitar when he was 12 years old by taking lessons at Krill’s Music Store on 69th Street in Upper Darby. Eventually he joined Greater Overbrook String Band (playing the upright bass), where he befriended some serious jazz musicians and began to study at the Al Standoli Studio at 20th and Porter in South Philly. Taking a break from music after college to concentrate on his career and raising a family, Louis jumped back into music at 50 years old. Placing an ad on Craig’s List — “old guitar player looking to play old music” — Louis was contacted by four bands. Now he’s a member of the Gin Canaries playing hot jazz (playing guitar, banjo and drums), plus he plays banjo for the Original Trilby String Band. (Once a Mummer, always a Mummer!)
(In addition to their music, the “Canaries” also have day jobs. Christa runs her own graphic design firm. Paul is a local attorney. Louis works in sales for ComputerAid in Wilmington, and David works for Business Technology LLC, a provider of outsourced computer services.)
A Gin Canaries’ performance is an eclectic one that also features occasional vocals from Paul and a mid-set crowd-pleasing moment that has Louis, Paul and David walking through the crowd playing the banjo, clarinet and accordion, respectively. Christa, with her exceptional vocal range, is considered the headliner of the band. She insists that she does not try to sound like the female singers of the ‘20s and ‘30s but that she just tries to “have fun with the crowd.”
“She’s the one that people love to listen too,” insisted David.
The Gin Canaries primarily play notable covers including “Ain’t Misbehavin” by Fats Waller, “I’m Confessin’,” made famous by Louis Armstrong, and “Me, Myself, and I” which was recorded by Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, among others. In addition to Earth Bread + Brewery, the band has played at the Blue Comet in Glenside, Philadelphia History Museum, the Seaport Museum, Battleship New Jersey, Saloon Restaurant, even the Barnes Foundation. They have played often at weddings and even at funerals.
“When people enjoy what you’re doing it’s extremely rewarding, even if there’s only one or two people who appreciate the music,” said David.
Christa came up with the band’s unique name “out of the blue,” according to David. “The reason we liked it was because it was reminiscent of Prohibition and the early 20th century.” David, Paul and Louis are all from the Philadelphia or the surrounding suburbs. Christa grew up outside of Baltimore and later moved to New York to perform in a band. She moved to Philadelphia to study graphic design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. David attended the University of Pennsylvania. The Gin Canaries’ next performance will be at the Saloon Restaurant, 750 S 7th St., on Saturday, April 12, 7 p.m. to midnight.
More information about the Gin Canaries, including a link on how to actually make a Gin Canary cocktail, can be found at www.gincanaries.com.