When walking into Thomas Helton’s instrument repair shop in Midtown Art Center you’re instantly surrounded by nostalgia. Old wood that floors creak underneath each step lead up to the musician and handyman’s low-lit workstation. The room doubles, opening up from a small corner filled with old basses and cellos to a humble square of tools and instruments and wood shavings. A light dust filters through the air and Helton, looking like a hip Gepetto with his hair in a slicked grey man-bun, takes a seat on a stool. I felt like he was about to tell me a fairytale. Close enough, though, as Helton, the leader of local Dixieland jazz group Boomtown Brass Band, describes jazz like an archaic art form.
“What most people hear is listenable, but you can tune it out. It doesn’t grab your attention because it’s so quiet and instrumental… Music is now more of a commodity. People are thinking more about money than art…We’ve lost our way as far as American art,” he notes.
Helton’s six-piece jazz group, which plays Halloween night at Cezanne in Montrose, began as an ode to tradition and the way things were. He agrees that when most people think of jazz they think of “diet jazz”—Kenny G-bent soft tunes that jingle through dentist’s offices and waiting rooms. His form of jazz nods to Dixieland and focuses on musicians like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke with tinny sounding tunes that can float softly out of the horn instruments or jump and hop off the strings of a banjo.
Jazz like this—which bounced from club to club as popular music 80-90 years ago—is now pure nostalgia, considered background noise for themed parties or power luncheons.
“People don’t understand that this sort of stuff was on the radio, like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith… Jazz lost its way because you were supposed to make people dance,” Helton says.
After watching a YouTube video of New Orleans jazz group Tuba Skinny playing traditional jazz through the streets, something clicked. A light bulb switched on and Helton, who donated a kidney in July, patched together some jazz-loving friends and et voilà—the band was born this summer.
To Helton, Houston has a long way to go when it comes to appreciating the music genre as well as establishing itself as a music city. But using the Bayou City as home base for traveling and regrouping has its economical advances. “I don’t know any other music community in this country that allows you to tour, take time off, and still pay your bills.”
Boomtown gives hope to old styles of music—music, a term loosely used now in a world filled with six-second clips and digital playgrounds disguised as compositions. And, dear God, enough with "DJ's" already. Mike Viteri’s effortful guitar playing and Doug Wright’s starry-eyed clarinet combine as a force in motion on top of Helton’s bouncy tuba. Helton and Co.’s playing is more than throwback—it’s a peaceful territory: modest Southern composure that hovers in the air dreamily.
Boomtown Brass Band featuring Danielle Reich. Saturday, Oct 31. 9. $10. Cezanne, 4100 Montrose Blvd. 832-592-7464. facebook.com/boomtownbrassband