Ward Kimball, San Gabriel, California
As I flip back to the days when I was the Firechief and designated trombonist in the jazz band called the Firehouse Five Plus Two, it's difficult to deny that those 22 years were some of the most bizarre times of my life. Here we were, a bunch of artists, writers, and technicians who worked together for Walt Disney by day, turning out those wonderful animation films of the Golden Age and, on weekends, playing our raucous style of New Orleans jazz, all dressed up in red shirts, white suspenders, and genuine leather firehats.
The roots of the band germinated in the early 1940's when some of us at the Disney Studio used to gather in my office at lunchtime to listen to my records of such jazz legends as King Oliver, Baby Dodds, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. Since most of our little nucleus of old-time jazz lovers had played various musical instruments back in school, we decided to really get into the spirit of the music by playing along with the records. Then one day the phonograph broke down right in the middle of "Royal Garden Blues." Undaunted, we kept right on playing and found to our amazement that we sounded pretty good all by ourselves!
Soon, we were being asked to play for parties and dances. At first, we called ourselves the Huggajeedy Eight; then, the more "authentic"-sounding San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers. Finally, when the band was asked by the local Horseless Carriage Club to play for its auto tour to San Diego, I quickly found and restored a 1914 fire truck and with the group now uniformed as firemen, we logically changed our name to the Firehouse Five Plus Two. (The "Plus Two" was added so that people who hired us would know that they were getting seven musicians!)
About this time Les Koenig, a Paramount Studio film writer and jazz fan, happened to hear the band playing for a local high school dance and asked us if we would like to make some records. Les had recently recorded the Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band of San Francisco and seemed to be impressed with what we called our "good time" sound. We recorded our first four record sides in 1949. Our highly original versions of jazz of the Twenties caught on instantly and we sort of became an overnight sensation, spearheading the Great Dixieland Revival, bringing back the "Charleston," and setting free the thousands of tubas and banjos incarcerated in America's hock shops. Our Firehouse band seemed to appeal not only to jazz fans but to a large group of people who just plain liked the music and loved to dance to it. During the 1950's we played concerts, dances, weddings, parades, civic affairs, and benefits throughout the West. We made movies at MGM and Universal Studios, played for Bing Crosby's golf tournaments and radio shows, appeared on national television with such diversified luminaries as the Disney Mouseketeers, Milton Berle, Ed Wynn, and Lawrence Welk, culminating with over 15 years of summer appearances at the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland. By the time we decided to retire the band in 1971, we had managed to record 12 albums which have sold worldwide. All this in our spare time. As our record producer Les Koenig once noted on one of our early albums:
Many explanations have been offered for the FH5's spectacular rise ranging from "sociological" analyses to notions of jealous bretheren in other less successful bands attributing their success to the fact they wear firehats and ride in a firetruck. One analyst appeared in print with the theory their popularity signifies a longing on the part of The Public to return to the happier days of The Twenties, before the A & H Bombs, and the Cold War. Thay have also been labeled "a reaction to bop." Perhaps the simplest explanation comes closest to the truth. They are in the unique and extremely fourtunate position of playing only because they enjoy it. Their enthusiasm for jazz and enjoyment in playing are contagious and have been responsible for making a great many people for the first time aware of the vitality and gaiety inherent in the traditional jazz style. Perhaps a good part of their success in this connection comes from the fact they are not literal copyists of the past. They brought their own personalities, and a fresh, original approach to the jazz classics, taking them out of the museum and making them live again for new generations.
I guess that is as good an explanation as any for all the fun we had those 22 years!
- Reprinted from the 1986 Good Time Jazz CD release "Dixieland Favorites."