MUSIC BOX: B-side of Swing

By on January 3, 2017

The Minor Keys deliver rare, old-timey gems at the Silver Dollar.

The Minor Keys

The Minor Keys

JACKSON HOLE, WY – There is a bottomless well of pre-rock ‘n’ roll American music that has fallen between the cracks of mainstream consciousness. Even with the accessibility of streaming services and digitalized albums from the early 20th century, certain recordings only exist on vinyl or the even more rare phonograph/gramophone records, also known as 78s. Those willing to literally dig into the haystack will discover many gems, and local old-time blues and swing jazz trio The Minor Keys has pieced together a timeless repertoire that is both obscure and unequivocally charming.

Talking music with the band members is always a history lesson. “It’s hard to believe Slim & Slam had a No. 1 hit in the 30s and have since fallen into obscurity, whereas Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman are household names,” said Jeromey Bell, guitarist/vocalist and founder of the band. There were others too, Bell said. “Stuff Smith and The Harlem Hep Cats, though not as technically flashy as Django Reinhart, were more soulful and knew how to utilize witty innuendos in their lyrics that you couldn’t necessarily say in public. That has just as much resonance to me as the hot playing [before swing].”

The Minor Keys started out as a duo with classically trained violist Leslie Steen, a New York City transplant who spent her formative years attending prestigious music schools and music festivals in mountain towns like Aspen and Killington. Steen and Bell connected through a mutual friend in Haines, Alaska, where Bell lived before moving to Jackson. The two gigged for a while before inviting bassist Marty Camino to complete the trio.

The three musicians bonded over similar tastes in music and a passion to play. “I knew that Leslie liked Django and Stephane Grappelli, and Andrew Bird’s first album, which is primarily swing,” Bell explained. “She was into the music and some of the other musicians I had played with just wanted to make money. Marty came over and played a few songs with us and we knew it had to go in that direction.”

And so a trio was born. “There’s a profound Django quote that has always stuck with me,” Bell said of the band’s namesake. “When someone asked him if he had a song that he could relate to his life, he said, ‘certainly life is lived in the minor key.’”

Camino studied upright bass and jazz at the University of Wyoming and earned a master’s degree in music from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. From jazz in Alaska to symphonies in Bolivia and bluegrass in Croatia, he has performed a variety of styles in many corners of the world. He is also ambidextrous in his playing, slapping the upright as a righty and playing electric bass as a lefty.

As for Bell, he grew up to the sounds of his mother teaching and performing piano, which turned him onto Ella Fitzgerald and Armstrong. It wasn’t until he attended college in Ashland, Oregon, that he began to play guitar and search out the music of Fats Waller and Reinhardt. In Alaska, he played with the six-piece band Swing Set that further expanded his journey into the b-side of swing, namely Stuff Smith and more contemporary groups like Tuba Skinny, Red Stick Ramblers, and Hot Club of Cowtown.

His neverending quest to uncover old masterpieces has turned Bell into a veritable vinyl detective. “Word of mouth is the best way to discover the hidden gems, but once I got back into vinyl it opened the door to different versions of songs,” Bell said. “Maybe there was a hot trumpet player on one version of a tune, and then I read the liner notes to get his name and then searched out other records he played on.”

The trio is working on a recording at Three Hearted Studio in Hoback due out at the beginning of this year. Drummer Jason Baggett and trumpeter Lawrence Bennett will join The Minor Keys for the show Sunday, January 8.

The Minor Keys, 7:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday at the Silver Dollar Showroom. Free.

Phil Round and the late Chuck Pyle

Phil Round and the late Chuck Pyle

Zen Cowboy rides on

While John Denver, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Suzy Bogguss recorded Chuck Pyle’s songs, country fans knew him best for writing “Cadillac Cowboy,” recorded by the late Chris LeDoux, and for “Jaded Lover,” recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker. Pyle passed away in November 2015 at the age of 70.

For longtime friend Phil Round, who will pay tribute to Pyle at Dornan’s this weekend, the first thing that intrigued him about Pyle was his inimitable finger picking style. “[Pyle’s method was] very complex, complete, harmonically sophisticated, and percussively attractive, creating a guitar groove like no soloist I’d ever heard before,” he said. “I initially tried to do this way back, but then gave up the attempt.”

Pyle’s vivid lyrics are also what helped to cement his place in the country music sphere. “He did many ‘place-based’ tunes about the West, more specifically the Southwest, that really capture the spirit of that country,” Round said.

The late musician’s spirtual sensibilities that could be discerned in his lyrics resulted in his moniker, Zen Cowboy. He was a product of Austin’s “Cosmic Cowboy” scene of the 70s that weaved together the aesthetic of the American West with new age philosophy, the Denver Post explained.

Round first met Pyle at KMTN’s studio when it was located above Gaslight Alley. Pyle was asleep on the floor under the record stacks looking to get his record spun by Round’s wife and DJ at the time, Beth McIntosh.

Round got Pyle a gig in the mid 80s at the old Spirits of the West bar and they would occasionally cross paths while Round was touring nationally with Loose Ties. Round first sat in with Pyle more than a decade ago at Dornan’s.

“I’d say that I cover his tunes similar to the way that he presents them mostly (the progressions are accurate), but catering to my own strengths as a player, rather than doing a compromised facsimile of his style,” Round said of his approach. “We will also do a few of my original songs that I pretty much never do when I perform, so I have to learn them!” Listeners will also enjoy a banjo instrumental recorded years ago that Ted Wells of Loose Ties wrote.

Round will be joined by Wells on pedal steel and banjo along with Rob Honey on bass, who worked as a studio musician in Salt Lake City and was a staff songwriter in Nashville for many years.

Phil Round Trio’s Tribute to Chuck Pyle, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 7 and 8 at Dornan’s in Moose. $20 tickets at Valley Bookstore, The Liquor Store and Dornan’s. 307-733-2415. PJH



Bo & Joe Sexy Show (Town Square Tavern), Vinyl Night (The Rose)


Canyon Kids (Town Square Tavern), Major Zephyr (Silver Dollar)


Boondocks (Moose Hockey), Fire & Guns (Town Square Tavern), Sneaky Pete & the Secret Weapons (Trap Bar)


Phil Round’s Tribute to Chuck Pyle (Dornan’s), Bootleg Flyer (Silver Dollar), WYOBASS (Town Square Tavern), Tram Jam (JHMR)


The Minor Keys (Silver Dollar), Open Mic (Pinky G’s), Hof Band (Alpenhof)


Tucker Smith Band (Mangy Moose)


PTO (Hole Bowl), Open Mic (Virginian)

About Aaron Davis

Aaron Davis is a decade-long writer of Music Box, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, member of Screen Door Porch and Boondocks, founder/host of Songwriter’s Alley, and co-founder of The WYOmericana Caravan.

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